This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
Taking Private Lessons? Who Should Your Teacher Be?…
After noticing a survey that declared that Swedes are the best learners of English as a Foreign Language (EFL), Catherine asked me for my perspective on why Swedes are so successful. Though there are many points to consider, one aspect of EFL in Sweden and other countries known for good English is that teachers there are generally non-native speakers of English and that all speak the local language. In the English teaching industry here in Thailand and in other developing countries, non-native speakers are considered unsuitable teachers of English. However, if the proficiency of English is high, it can be argued that a non-native speaker would generally make a better teacher since he/she shares the learning experiences and culture of the students and is the best possible model of a successful learner.
That Swedes are such successful learners of EFL may of course also depend on several factors unrelated to the use of non-native speaker teachers:
- Swedish is closely related to English.
- Much of the Swedish TV programming is in English with near perfect subtitles.
- Swedes listen to a lot of English language music.
- Swedes are frequent travellers, and few non-Swedes speak Swedish.
In these respects, people in Sweden learning English are quite different from Thais learning English or native speakers of English learning foreign languages in their home countries. Successful learners in other Scandinavian countries and The Netherlands have the same advantages.
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Though linguistic closeness high exposure to English, and strong motivation to learn may seem sufficient explanation of why Swedes are so good at English, the use of non-native speakers to teach EFL puts Sweden and other successful EFL countries (including India) in direct conflict with the idea that native speakers are by default the best teachers of a language.
Unsurprisingly, in an industry dominated by native speakers the reliance on native speakers to teach English is strongly advocated and many international schools request teachers with experience of the UK or US educational systems. However, teaching of foreign languages in the UK is notorious for producing very poor results indeed. The same might be said about the US. If, teaching in the countries which are best at English as a Foreign Language is done by non-native speaker teachers of English, shouldn’t that suggest that they are better at teaching foreign languages than Americans and Brits? Indeed, it seems inescapable to conclude that being a language teacher from the UK or other native speaker countries is not a suitable criterion for selecting a good language teacher.
In the global English teaching industry, native speakers are held in high regard, with teaching positions often reserved exclusively for them. However, the faith in native speaker teaching abilities is based on theories on language learning that have been largely debunked; people do not learn a foreign language as they learn a native language and native speakers of a language are not necessarily the best teachers of it. Indeed, many native speakers have poor grammar and accents which are ineffective for international communication, which makes them unsuitable models to emulate. Non-native speakers with high levels of English proficiency (especially if they have same native language as their students) generally have deeper insight into the learning process and are more relevant models to emulate than even skilled native speaker counterparts.
So, if non-native speakers make better learning models, why aren’t they universally sought after as the best teachers? Well, the sad truth is that even though non-native speakers CAN be wonderful models of successful language learners with insight of what it takes to learn a foreign language, many non-native speaker teachers of English are poor models to emulate since their grasp of the English language is sadly limited. Even though specifying that teachers ought to be from certain countries does guarantee a certain minimum level of language proficiency (fluency of speech in particular), some non-native speakers may have outstanding proficiency and accents very suitable for successful international communication. Therefore, the exclusion of them from teaching jobs constitutes indefensible discrimination. Sadly, this discrimination is based not only on nationality, but also on race. The native speaker stereotype is Caucasian, and native speakers ‘of color’ are discriminated against because of factors unrelated to their competency as teachers just as surely as non-native speakers are.
For the readers of Women Learn Thai, this has bearing on whether hiring a native speaker of Thai is a must. Simply put, it isn’t. However, high proficiency in the target language is fairly rare amongst non-native speakers, which means that going to a Thai national for help is understandable, especially if one is only out to reach conversational fluency. For me personally, the implications for the highly discriminatory policies of English teaching institutions in Thailand are paramount.
In short, this is some of what we must consider when hiring someone to teach a language: Language proficiency and teaching skill are better predictors of suitability than any passport. When selecting a teacher, assess his/her ability to lead you to the level of proficiency you desire and do not dismiss anyone based on nationality or ethnicity.
If anyone wishes for further documentation supporting what I have written above (that the theories of Krashen were never supported by empirical evidence and have in fact been contradicted by such, that there is institutionalized national and racial discrimination in the English teaching industry, and that non-native speaker teachers may in fact be generally better suited to teach EFL), I will gladly forward my dissertation and other academic papers from my studies in Edinburgh.
Be well and keep on learning,