I still remember the very first time I heard someone talking about the differences between native English speaking teachers (NESTs) and non-native English speaking teachers (NNESTs). It was in a conference, and I unfortunately don’t remember the name of the speaker. What he focused on was the differences between NESTs and NNESTs, their strengths and weaknesses. I remember that one of his arguments was that NNESTs tended to be a lot more knowledgeable grammar-wise whereas NESTs had the upper hand when it came to vocabulary and pronunciation. He moved on to say that one of the challenges of NESTs was to study more grammar while NNESTs had to work a bit harder at improving their vocabulary and pronunciation.
Grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation are, as I see it, the tripod of language learning. Each one of these has their own sub-set, and they are to be learned accordingly through certain skills – reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Larsen-Freeman adds a fifth skill – Grammaring – in her (IMO excellent) From Grammar to Grammaring. What we should do, then, is try to come up with the differences that come up in the decisions that are made by NESTs and NNESTs when they are teaching. Do NESTs tend to focus harder on pronunciation and vocabulary and support the view that these are the most important points for communication? Do NNESTs tend to over-teach grammar points (grammar McNuggest??) as they feel a lot more comfortable doing this? Do NESTs avoid teaching grammar for the same reason NNESTs avoid teaching pronunciation and vocabulary – lack of confidence?
Another thing that comes to mind is the idea of communication and accent. These days, there’s a large number of people who do not accept that native-like pronunciation is the one model to have. I’m still unsure about this; I just don’t think that teachers should feel good about what they’ve been doing if their learners tell them that they can understand anyone speaking English but native speakers. Sure, intelligibility and communication are the ultimate goal for most language learners – they want to be able to travel abroad and do whatever they want to do without feeling that lack of command of the language is holding them back or that it might put them in trouble while they’re happily enjoying their time abroad. However, if we consider that native-like pronunciation is not the model, why is it that many of our learners feel much more secure when they’re having classes with a native speaker of the language?
Is the view that native speakers are better teachers because they know how the language really works, and NESTs are much more likely to give learners better examples of natural language, with a lot more use of phrasal verbs, idioms, slang – the real deal – whereas NNESTs will only be able to teach them grammar rules still mainstream among learners? I was thinking about this just this Saturday as I went to a building where I was asked to identify myself. The man who asked me for my information spoke Portuguese very naturally, but (I’m one of these poor teachers who can’t simply enjoy life without thinking about teaching), what got me thinking was whether or not a non-native Brazilian Portuguese teacher would be able to teach that in his classes. And that, obviously, led me to another question, would I be able to equip a learner of Portuguese to be able to understand the guy saying something close to /pó zbi/ as Pode subir? Needless to say, I immediately went to English, and started wondering whether or not teachers – NESTs or NNESTs – can, on their own, teach and prepare learners for what they’ll face in the real world while engaging in communication with others?
As Karenne Sylvester wrote in her Dogme Challenge #6, there are far more NNESTs than NESTs in the world. And there are lots of successful learners who have never had classes with NESTs. Is it the learner, then, who makes the big difference? What is the role that the teacher has in the process of language development? And does it make any difference if the teacher is a NEST or a NNEST? To be perfectly honest, I don’t think that being a NEST or a NNEST makes that much of a difference, especially in this day and time. Even though there’s still a part of the world where people haven’t got access to computers and the Internet, I don’t think this is the case for most cities where English is taught. I might be mistaken there, but I guess people are only interested in learning a foreign language when they see a need to learn it. If you’ve never been in touch with a particular language, your desire to learn it is likely to remain dormant till you encounter the language. It is based on this assumption – that most people learning English live in an area where they’ve got access to computers, Internet, TV, movies, and songs – that I state that the division between NESTs and NNESTs is diminishing.
What makes the difference, then? The difference lies in the teacher’s ability to instill in learners a desire to become better speakers of the language. The difference lies in the teacher’s capacity to respond to learners’ needs and help them feel more confident about their knowledge. The difference lies in the teacher always striving to become a better professional and, on account of that, being able to prepare their learners for the world they’re going to face. Within the boundaries of one country alone, there are many differences that prevent people from two different regions to understand one another. A good teacher, NEST or NNEST, will probably realise that it’s a lot more sensible to rely on corpus research in terms of usage than on his or her personal experience, which might be limited.
NNESTs have a lot of opportunities to become more proficient in the language through the effective use of the technology that is available these days. Reading international newspapers, listening to podcasts, speaking to native speakers is a lot easier to do these days. Conversely, NESTs have myriad courses that prepare them to enter a classroom and teach English and learn how to teach (oh, if only it were easy…). These days, fortunately, many – not most just yet – people in charge of recruitment understand that being a native speaker is not the same as being a good language teacher. Both NESTs and NNESTs have got to always look for ways to improve.
The big difference isn’t whether or not one is a NEST or a NNEST, but whether or not one is or isn’t a teacher. As Péter Medgyes states in his article When the teacher is a Non-native speaker:
Who is a native speaker? A native speaker of English is traditionally defined as someone who speaks English as his or her native language … The next question that springs to mind is: What qualifies someone as a native speaker? Among the criteria for “native speakerhood,” the most oft-cited and, at first glance, most straightforward one is birth (Davies, 1991) … The trouble with this is that birth does not always determine language identity.
Being more knowledgeable in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation is a matter of being more in touch with the language. If a NNEST is constantly reading and listening to native speakers, chances are this teacher will be able to make the same choices a native speaker would when it comes to vocabulary, for instance. Can a NNEST be qualified as a NEST if such is the case? If so, what’s the difference, then?
- Péter Medgyes text is found in Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, edited by Marianne Celce-Murcia.
* Cecília Coelho’s post about NESTs and NNESTs here.
* Sabrina’s post about NESTs and NNESTs here.