Native versus Non-Native Teachers of English
by Zainab Albulushy


The spread of English is very fast and noticeable in the world. Pennycook (1994: 7) in his book presents Otto Jespessen's (1938/68) estimation of speakers of English. He states that it numbered four million in 1500, six million in 1600, and eight and a half million in 1900. The number is in a continuous growth throughout the centuries and within different parts of the world, thus by the year 2000 the number was expected to increase up to 700 million or one billion. Nowadays it is much more than what was expected. Those speakers include the native speakers of English, speakers of English as a second language and speakers of English as a foreign language. There are several reasons for such spread of English. One of these is socio-cultural, which relates to people's dependence on English for their well being including politics, businesses, safety, entertainment, media and education. Thus, English has become the language of communication in the world and then appeared the need to learn English to make this communication easier.

Who is a native speaker?
The issue of native or non-native speaking teachers of a language is a controversial one. There are some factors and perspectives that contribute to the issue in one way or another. Crystal (1995: 455) defines a native speaker simply as "A person who speaks a language as a mother tongue". He / she, therefore, is somebody born into a particular language, using this language as an instrument of communication and as a symbol of social identification at the same time. A non-native speaker however is a person who does not have that language as a mother tongue. This leads to put the non-native speaker in the position of having that language besides his/her own mother tongue and acquiring it for some reason at some point in their lives.

The use of the native speaker has a long history in all sub disciplines of linguistics. The study of the native speaker position an influence took a great role in shaping the theories and methods of the English language teaching and learning strategies and methods for teachers and learners. The chief belief behind the native speaker is that s/he can at any time give convincing and firm judgments on his or her language. S/he is talented of identifying ill-formed grammatical expressions in his or her language even though s/he may not be able to explain exactly why they are ill-formed (Chomsky 1965). That is because they acquire the language naturally without being taught the exact rules and regulations of that language. Thus, such rules may not be as valid or accurate with them as they could be with those who study the language to speak it.

The transformational-generative grammar theory well considers the native speakers of the language as mentioned in Chomsky's book of (1965) "ideal-speaker hearer"; in context grammar, Van Dijk's (1977) "P-system" is built on it; in politeness theory, Brown and Levinson's (1987) "model person" is the native speaker; and the bilingualism theories of Bloomfield (1933) and other American linguists focus on native-like competence in two languages. These theories depend on native-speaker desire or naturalness to well-known or extraordinary structures, as well as the different types of mistakes in their own language. This is accepted as authentic because native speakers acquire their languages at childhood with no other language interfering or influencing the acquisition process.

English as a second/foreign language
There are some important contextual differences between English being a second language or a foreign language in a specific country. Crystal (1997) distinguishes between the two affirming that a second language is a language to be made the official language of a country, to be used as a medium of communication in such domains as government, the law courts, the media and the educational system. Getting on in such societies requires the master of the official language as early in life as possible. The second language in this case is seen as a compliment to the person's mother tongue, or 'first language' as Cook (1991: 66) defines it "A language acquired by a person in addition to his mother tongue". In the case of English, it has the official status (second language) in more than 70 countries as mentioned above.

English as a foreign language, in contrast, applies when the language is made a hot recess in a country's foreign-language teaching even though it has no official status. Crystal (1997) comments that it becomes the language which children are most likely to be taught when they arrive in school, and the one most available to adults, who for whatever reasons, never learnt it. Choosing a particular language to be a foreign language in a country depends on reasons such as historical tradition, political expediency and the desire for commercial, cultural or technological contact. "English is now the language most widely taught as a foreign language -in over 100 countries such as China, Russia, Germany, Spain, Egypt and Brazil- and in most of these countries it is emerging as the chief foreign language to be encountered in schools" (Crystal 1997: 4).

When we come to the conditions for teaching / learning English either as a second or a foreign language, some differences appear accordingly. Ringbom (1987) distinguishes between second language and foreign language learning. He argues that in a second language acquisition context, the language is spoken in the immediate environment of the learner who has good opportunities to use the language for participation in natural communication situations.

In a foreign language situation, however, the language is not spoken in the immediate environment of the learner, although mass media may provide opportunities for practising the receptive skills. Unlike the second language condition, there is little or no chance for the learner to use the language in natural communication situations in a foreign language setting.

What are the differences?
In the English language-teaching field, Medgyes (1992) argues that native and non-native teachers reveal considerable differences in their teaching behaviours and that most of the discrepancies are language related. He also proposes that natives and non-natives have an equal chance to become successful teachers, but the routs used by the two groups are not the same in this case.

Regarding the language competence differences, Medgyes (1994) emphasises that progress in English is determined by various factors of the learning situation among which are the country of birth and educational experience. Thus if born and brought up in an English speaking environment, a person would likely be a more accomplished user of English than if born and brought up in a non-English speaking country. Hence, native speakers are potentially more accomplished users of English than non-native speakers and here appears the difference between the two.

In the teaching situation, however, there exist other variables of teaching skills that distinguish between the two and play a role in the teaching / learning process such as experience, age, sex, aptitude, motivation, training and so on. There are some clear differences explained in the following points (Medgyes 1992: 346):

a) Only non-native English speaking teachers can provide imitable models of the successful learner of English to their students. This will definitely depend on how proficient they are in English. However, one important consideration is that their proficiency in English does not prove their adequacy for being the best learner models.

b) The English language can better be taught by non-native teachers since they went through the experience of learning it themselves. They have definitely used some special learning techniques to help them acquire the language. This makes a difference between them and the native speakers of the language who did not go through that experience and not cautious enough of such strategies.

c) Non-NESTs have more knowledge of the English language than the native speakers. This is due to the processes they went through learning almost everything about the English language and trying different ways to work things out in it. So, they are more informative in this regard than the native speakers.

d) Language learning difficulties are better exposed to and tackled by non-native speaking teachers. Such difficulties become more complicated through experience which allows those teachers to be in a position of knowing how to assist their students face such and try the best ways to overcome them.

e) The continuous needs and problems of learners are better met and anticipated by the non-native speaking teachers. They are constant learners of the language themselves which makes them always in search for strategies and methods. This will play a significant role in making them more sensitive and understanding to their students' problems.

f) Sharing the students' mother tongue is another advantage for the non-native English teachers. The mother tongue in this regard is a helpful tool in facilitating the learning process and it makes things clearer for both teachers and students.

Furthermore, Ellis (1985: 5) presents a similar view stating "The teacher who has made a comparison of the foreign language with the native language of the students will know better what the real problems are and can provide for teaching them". This however does not indicate that native speakers cannot make good teachers provided that they have the techniques and the strategies of teaching. In so many cases also native speakers become sensitive to learners' problems while learning a foreign language because teachers themselves could be learners of another language.

There are some tips that a native speaking teacher could consider while teaching students learning English as a foreign language:
• Get a general idea about the students' native language and how similar or different it is from English in aspects such as pronunciation, grammar rules, spelling and terminology.

• Do check with the students on the difficulties they encounter while learning the foreign language and try to investigate those and find minimal solutions or suggestions for the students.

• Think of yourself as a learner of a foreign language and the areas of difficulty that you might come across and discuss them with the students.

• Show the learners that you do sympathise with them and that you are willing to help getting over the obstacles they face.

Adhering to the previous tips could assist the native speakers and the non-native speakers alike. The strategies and methods that teachers use in their teaching create a huge impact on the students' learning and acceptance to learn the foreign language. Students themselves of course play a significant role in the success of their learning and the attitudes they have about either the native or the non-native speaking teachers do make a difference.

Finally, we reach the conclusion that teacher's effectiveness does not hinge upon whether they are native or non-native speakers of English. But, as Medgyes (1992) suggests the reasons explained above should be taken in account bearing in mind, apart from all the previous variables that the proficient native English speaker is the one who has achieved a proficiency in the learners' mother tongue. And a proficient non-native teacher of English is the one who has achieved near native proficiency in English. At the end, both kinds of teachers serve equally useful purposes in their own terms and complement each other in their strengths and weaknesses each in their ways.

Brown, Penelope/Levinson, Stephen (1978): "Universals in language usage: politeness phenomena". In: Goody, Esther (ed.): Questions and politeness. London: 56-289.
Chomsky, Noam (1965): Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge. MA.
Cook, V. 1991. Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Edward Arnold.

Crystal, D. (1995). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ellis, R. (1985). Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Medgyes, P. 1992. 'Native or non – native: who's worth more?' English Language Teaching Journal 46 (4): 340 – 349.

Medgyes, P.1994. The Non – Native Teacher. Hong Kong: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Ringbom, H. 1987. The Role of the First Language in Foreign Language Learning. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.


Zainab Al Bulushy is a Senior Language Instructor at the Language Centre, Sultan Qaboos University, Oman. She has been teaching English since 1998. She holds a Master degree in English for Specific Purposes from University of Warwick, UK. She is interested in the areas of linguistics, students' needs and motivation

To the original article

To the articles index

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us — Online Development Courses — Lesson Plan Index 
Phonology —  English-To-Go Lesson  Articles Books
 Links —  Contact — Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2014© Developing