NESTs vs NNESTs – What is the big difference?

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.

They won’t get all they need from their nest, will they? Photo by Alan Vernon

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?

* Great response post by Richard (@nutrich on Twitter) here!

* Cecília Coelho’s post about NESTs and NNESTs here.

* Sabrina’s post about NESTs and NNESTs here.

18 thoughts on “NESTs vs NNESTs – What is the big difference?

  1. A great post Henrick. I especially liked this observation: “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.”

    To be honest, over the years I’ve become sick of the ‘NESTs are important for pronunciation and developing communication skills’ and ‘NNESTs know grammar better’ arguements. It’s all about continuing teacher development and training. A NEST can learn about grammar (and, more importantly, how to teach it) with time and effort and, as you showed in your recent posts on pronunciation, a NNEST can improve with time and effort. As for communication skills, I’ve seen both NESTs and NNESTs who are great at developing their students’ ability to speak, listen and converse (as well as examples from both groups who are not so good at it!).

    As you s rightly said, it’s all about whether or not you are really a teacher. If you are, then you will never rest on your laurels. You will constantly be reviewing your practice and looking for ways to develop and improve. If that’s the case, it doesn’t really matter who you are or where you’re from… (Damn, should have kept that to myself as a conclusion for my upcoming post :p)

    1. Hi Dave,

      Thanks for adding to the post with this comment! I guess it’s all about willingness. Some people believe that the only reason one would choose to be a teacher is because one truly believes that’s the best way one can build something important in the future. If we do our jobs properly, we’re helping our learners discover who they are, and the only way we can do that is by always striving to develop and improve, regardless of who you are or where you from (also borrowing from your upcoming post)! 🙂

  2. Hi Henrick

    Yes, of course, you’re absolutely right. Some excellent points.

    But here is the dilemma. What do we say to the client who still insists on having a “native speaker” English teacher? We can try and explain that NESTs and NNESTs are as good as each other, but the chances are they will be at the other school’s door before you can say “NNEST”. Surely the learner’s own beliefs about what is right or wrong should be taken into consideration too, even if they are misguided?

    I never really worried about this much myself until I started learning Chinese – and then I found I did actually prefer to have a Chinese native speaker to work with. Somehow it just felt right.


    1. Hi Evan,

      That’s indeed the big problem we face. How do we show people that being a native speaker doesn’t necessarily grant you the label of being a good teacher. I guess the only way we can do that is by trying to prevent them from leaving before you reach NNEST. The funny thing, though, is that most NESTs I’ve seen in conferences these days seem to praise the value of NNESTs. On the other hand, NNESTs still seems to only value NESTs.

      I guess if I were to have Chinese or any other language classes, I might even end up with a NEST, but based on my experience doing so, I would definitely be observing the teacher as a teacher myself, and not as a student. Thus, I don’t think it’d matter that much if the person were a NEST or a NNEST as long as I felt the person’s teaching ideas were based on sound principles and beliefs. 🙂

  3. Great piece! I really enjoy your posts Rick.

    I think it’s an embarrassment to the profession that there are so many non-NESTs discriminated against in comparison with NESTs when it’s these people who have gone through a tertiary level English teaching qualification, often lasting for years, when the good ol’ NEST rocks up with a CELTA and gets the same (or even more) money for the same job. Of course, it’s not all about money, but money is a reflection of value and institutions of place more value on the NEST.

    1. Hi Richard,

      That’s yet another thorny problem we need to face. As long as students keep praising NESTs, institutions will end up paying NESTs more. Up until very recently, very few people in Brazil knew about CELTA and DELTA, and that’s still not exactly well known. Truth be told, vey few institutions praise knowledge and studies, and seem to favour native-speakerhood instead. There are so many different ways to assess teachers, but that would require a lot of work on the part of the admin…

  4. Good stuff.

    In my experience, native teachers also focus on grammar although they are much more terrified of it. They just tend to stick with the grammar they know. The focus on grammar is ingrained in how many teachers feel about language learning and not a NEST/NNEST issue.

    I’d agree a good teacher is someone that is good at teaching, not merely subject knowledge like grammar or pronunciation. Again, it doesn’t matter if they are NESTs or NNESTs. All the Turkish teachers I ever had were terrible and they were all NESTs.

    Good language learners learn because they are motivated and have effective strategies. I think a good teacher needs to show a student how to learn best and to provide motivation to do so. They should also be able to recognize gaps and levels so as to effectively support the student’s learning.

    1. Hi Nick,

      After a horrible week at work, I think I’m finally able to reply to the comments! 🙂

      I guess NESTs focus on grammar when grammar is on the coursebook, and tend to avoid it once it’s not there. It’s al got to do with our comfort zone, I guess. But then, if teachers, in training sessions, are taught that grammar is to be the core, then we have a problem.

      Sometimes, depending on the “teacher”, the best he or she can do is get out of the way so that learners actually learn. But good teachers should be able to identify needs and, as you said, “recognise gaps and support the student’s learning.”

      Thanks for your contribution! 🙂

  5. Completely agree with your last paragraph, Nick. That’s a core belief of mine too, I don’t actually think it’s possible to teach anyone a language, it makes no sense to me. We can only help them learn, hence the title of my blog!

    1. Hmm… I think we could look at teaching from a different perspective. I love the title of your blog, but I do believe that we sometimes actually teach people a thing or two, and mainly help them learn the language. But there are very few people who I know that are self-taught, especially in the initial stages of learning. 🙂

      If, on the other hand, people look at teachers as almighty creatures bearers of all knowledge who are in charge of transmitting what they know to the poor students, then… well, these teachers aren’t exactly teaching anything, are they?! 🙂

  6. Hi,
    nice article…as an indian, i feel that just as yoga is being taught in all its forms by people of all denominations, english too can be taught by everyone!

    english is about as global a commodity as yoga these days.

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