Is it better to learn English with a non-native speaker?

Back in 2010, in the beginning of my career as an English teacher, I remember an interesting situation that happened in the language school I worked in Brazil. The school had about 6 trained, experienced, and certified English teachers, until one day an American native speaker was hired. He didn’t have any certification, he was just hired because he was a native speaker.

Is it enough to be a native speaker to teach English?

Teaching and speaking another language are two different animals. I know how to play the guitar, but I am not able to teach another person how to do that. If one of my international friends asked me: "Fernanda, I want to learn Portuguese, do you have a teacher to recommend?" Well, I have many friends who speak Portuguese but I couldn’t possibly recommend one of them because although they are native speakers, they were never trained to teach Portuguese. Speaking the language is the beginning for the journey but not the whole journey.

Does training make any difference?

Absolutely! I have studied TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages) my whole adult life. First, I got my graduate and post-graduate degree in Brazil, later on my Master’s in the United States, and more recently my neurolanguage® coaching certification. During this time, which took about 10 years, I didn’t just learn about grammar, but most importantly about how to help people learn more efficiently, plan creative and structured lessons, develop tests and measure results, understand language empowerment, and cultural differences, among other things. I believe teaching English or any other language requires a lot of tools, being language itself just one of them. To illustrate my point, think about the process of building a house. Bricks are certainly important in this case, but can you build a house just with bricks?

Being a non-native speaker is an advantage

As an English learner, I never had a native-speaker teacher in my life. I started learning English when I was 13, and moved to the US when I was 26 to teach Portuguese to Americans and English to international students. To be honest, when I started my career as an English teacher, I really thought that being a non-native speaker was a disadvantage. I guess my mindset changed when I started my Master’s in TESOL in the US. I was surprised to see that most of my professors were non-native speakers and, in my opinion, they were even better than the native ones. When you study another language for years and invest your time and money to get ready to teach it, you develop a very deep knowledge of the language system and skills to teach. I am sure I know English better than many native speakers and I am also sure that somebody who learned Portuguese for years and received teacher training knows it better than me.

Besides, a non-native English teacher has already walked the path that the student is now walking. So, this student will be learning from an expert not only in the language but in all the strategies necessary to learn it efficiently. Besides, having one language in common can be helpful in class as one more tool to understand differences and similarities between both languages. I remember there were times I would feel frustrated when teaching my Chinese students in the US because we were not able to connect in a personal level since their English level was very low and I didn’t know anything in Chinese. Therefore, I couldn’t hear about their goals and previous experiences with the language.

When is it a good idea to have classes with a native speaker?

I would say that it's always a good idea to have classes with a native speaker as long as he/she is trained and well prepared to assist you in your needs. In other words, just being a native speaker doesn't necessarily make someone a good teacher. I believe choosing between a native or non-native teacher really depends on your goals with the language. For example, if you want to speak like a native speaker, it may be a good idea to hire a native tutor. Of course, there are many non-native speakers that may be able to help you reduce your accent as well, it will depend on their experience and qualifications. If your native teacher knows a little bit about your language, that would be even better because he/she will be able to understand why some specific sounds are more difficult for you and identify the best strategies to help you.

However, you should be able to identify if pronunciation is really your problem. I suggest that you read my article where I talk about mindfulness to understand my point. In brief, in this article I suggest that you observe your communication in your first language to find common characteristics between your native language and your second language. The reason for that is that sometimes we think our problem when communicating in English is that we don’t know the language when, in reality, we may have the exact same problem in our first language. For example, many people have speech issues instead of pronunciation problems. In this case, it may be a better idea to see a professional speech therapist. Other pronunciation issues may be caused by hearing problems, but not many people are aware of that. If you are not able to hear some sounds clearly, how could you reproduce them? For more information about accent reduction, read my article Is your Accent a Problem?

For some people, there is a psychological factor added to the desire to have a native teacher: “I will feel more confident to have classes with him/her because I will see if a native speaker can understand me or not.” I would agree with you on that, even though I see it more as a psychological factor. If you have a well prepared non-native teacher, he/she will certainly point out the moments in which you are not speaking clearly and will help you improve that. However, depending on the learning moment you are, maybe you really need this psychological factor to boost your confidence.

Don’t expect non-native speakers to charge less

It’s disappointing to hear some people saying that non-native speakers should charge less because they are in disadvantage in relation to native speakers. Actually, a non-native speaker has an extra power: he/she knows your native language. Therefore, you two have a bridge which you can cross to reach each other faster. It doesn’t mean that you will use this bridge all the time, after all your goal is to communicate in English and not in your native language.

Besides, non-native teachers spend a lot of time and money on certifications in their countries and abroad so that they can improve their teaching practice and be recognized as experts in their field. Of course, many native speakers also do that. But I would say that as non-native speakers we feel even more pressured to improve our skills and gain more qualifications because there are still language centers that think we are not as capable as native speakers. If I were to calculate how much money I have spent on my education to become a better teacher, and now a neurolanguage coach, I would be surprised to see the huge amount I have invested.

A native speaker will help me understand the American culture

That is probably right as long as he/she has a critical and attentive view to his/her own culture. When I moved to the US I realized that I was not an expert in my own culture. Although I lived in Brazil my whole life, I didn't use to pay attention to how Brazilians communicate and behave in different situations. When Americans asked me, "how do Brazilians usually react in this situation? How do they usually respond to this question?", I realized that my view on the Brazilian culture was limited to myself, my family and friends. After realizing this gap in my cultural perspective, I became more attentive and more curious about my own culture.

"Just living in a country doesn’t make you an expert in its culture, in the same way that just going to school doesn’t necessarily mean that you will learn something."

Later on, I came to another conclusion: It’s not enough to understand the new culture. You need to be able to understand it in relation to yours. My discussions with my students about American culture are always followed by reflections on the Brazilian culture as well. Learning about another culture without reflecting on your own and not making connections between both of them is like walking with just one leg when you could use both.

American and British English. Still the standard?

Did you know that there are more English speakers in countries that don’t have English as their native language than in countries that do? When we start learning English we assume that we will be speaking with native speakers, like American and British people. Back in my time, English textbooks only had audios recorded by speakers from the US and England. However, the global scenario has changed. Depending on your location, profession, and interests, you are more likely to be talking to people from India, China, or Germany, for example, than the US or England. With globalization, English became a Lingua Franca, being used in different settings by different people. This variety is bringing “new Englishes” to the global scenario shaking the only-American-and-British-English duality.

Should I choose a non-native or a native speaker then?

I don’t believe in a “yes or no” answer for this question. So, here goes some points you should think about before making this choice:
  • What are your goals with the language?

  • What is your proficiency level?

  • Which teacher is better prepared in terms of qualifications and experience, regardless of being native or non-native?

  • Do the teacher's qualifications and expertise suit your needs?

The conclusion from this article is: choose the professional, not simply the person, who will best suit your needs and interests. You know that saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover”, right? Well, I want to finish this article with my own adapted version of this saying:

Don’t judge a teacher by the language he/she speaks.

Fernanda Carvalho is a Fulbrighter, certified Neurolanguage® Coach with a Master's in TESOL. She believes in a holistic approach to language teaching, which involves people's development as a whole and not only language itself. Schedule your first neurolanguage® coaching session for free and check how she can help you improve your communication in English.
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