Learning English: Do You Need a Teacher or a Native?

<<You cannot possibly teach English if you are no native; maybe you can explain grammar rules, theoretical phrasing and irregular tenses, but only a native can really teach the spoken, common, salt-of-the-earth, real language; English belongs to the native-speakers>>

My guess is some of the above is all too known to many teachers and learners of English alike, and unfortunately, it all comes down to a question of belief. That is, not based on any provable evidence from reality. And that is truly sad because most often than not, human beings are prone to embrace fiction, creativity, art, originality and then some more – but this suspension of disbelief is many times not even tolerated when it comes to teaching languages.

So basically, we are all too willing to accept the reality in a science-fiction movie, the love story of a power couple in showbiz, or even the given interpretation of the most beautiful impressionist painting – but when it comes to teaching languages, we know for sure that only native speakers can do it. It’s like a treasure that only natives have access to, a longed for good that only natives should be allowed to share, an earthly possession that only natives know how to use.

As a teacher, there have been no few cases when I was turned down on a teaching project because I did not have a passport from an English speaking country. My expertise, experience, love of teaching, education – none of it mattered, at all. Talk about utter embarrassment: a couple of times I even got turned down after having already started such a project with good preliminary feedback from students, just because I had made the mistake of telling them the truth of my not being native.

I couldn’t help but wonder what it really was with this native-ness obsession. At the beginning, I started to think it had some linguistic touch: start any statement with a negative, and the result or the reaction follow in the same lines. Say “I am not a native, but…”, and the real message gets lost in the process of understanding it.

Then I met an Englishman who was specifically looking for non-native English teachers in Spain to fill some positions in his academy. He honestly told me that after having tried to learn Spanish with natives in Spain and failed, he understood that it’s that much more important to be a teacher who speaks perfect English than be a native English speaker who doesn’t know the first thing about teaching. “The most Spanish I’ve ever learned was with a Polish girl who was a teacher of Spanish. So I don’t need English native speakers, I need English teachers”, he concluded.

Well then, it was high time for the offensive. The next time someone asked me about it was at a job interview and the question was pretty inoffensive. “What do you tell your students who want a native English teacher?” “I tell them what they need is an English teacher, not a native English”, I said boldly. And then I explained how I am possibly a better teacher than many native speakers, because I learned English as a second language of sorts and I thus know all the mental and learning strategies that have brought me here, not only speaking English, but also teaching it. And I happen to have them at arm’s length. “I know what it’s like to learn English, I know what it takes and what you need, as a learner, not as a native speaker who – no offense – many times has no idea why we use past tenses to express wishes and regrets, where irregular verbs come from or how to use modals as auxiliaries that basically very few other languages also share”.

And that is the beauty of it: the English language, just like any other language, is of the native speakers – but it does not exclusively belong to them. And what is also beautiful is the fact that, unlike many other earthly possessions, the English language is for all its speakers to have, enjoy, and cherish. It’s true, English is a language that harbors a culture and whose speakers are the happy users of a universal means of communication, but… the more reason to share it and make it available to all.

This is not a plea against the native English teacher. It’s more of a defense of the teacher of English: that teacher who should be defined by how and what they teach, and not by their passport. English is no exchange good, no earthly possession someone has worked for to acquire. English is an amazing and original creation of all its speakers, whether natives or not. It evolves, it grows and it warps around every time a speaker thinks it, every time a teacher uses it, and every time a learner needs it. English is never-ending richness, a precious resource available to as many people as they want it: it belongs to all its speakers, learners – and ultimately its teachers, too.

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