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Are bilinguals now the new model teacher?

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A language school advert calls for teachers with at least a C2 level of English and fluency in the local tongue – but it might struggle to find many, argues Melanie Butler

 The visionary architect Buckminster Fuller once said, ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’

The traditional model of EFL sees the ideal teacher as a native speaker, and the only language of instruction as English. Indeed, the only possible language of instruction is English because the vast majority of native-speaker Teflers are monolingual.

This existing reality is increasingly under attack, particularly from non-native-speaker teachers. The anti-nativist website Tefl Equity publishes endless studies showing that students judge teachers on their teaching ability, not their mother tongue.

But the native-speaker model remains an article of faith for the parents, companies and governments who foot the bill. In some countries is not just the mother tongue which is important, but the skin colour. As we report below, in Hong Kong some schools specify Caucasians.

But he who pays the piper calls the tune. In most countries, private language schools have danced to the parents’ tune, hiring monolingual native English speakers, often unqualified and normally unable to speak any foreign language.

In Spain, however, a revolution is under way – a revolution clearly signalled in a job advert for a language school in Murcia. Roughly translated from the original Spanish, it reads:

‘Wanted: full-time English teacher. Minimum requirements: must be a native speaker or have C2 English and be qualified to teach English. Must have five years’ experience with Spanish learners especially children … Must speak Spanish fluently.’

The new model teacher is a qualified functional bilingual: someone who was not raised bilingual but speaks both the L1 and the target language fluently. This is the model adopted by the members of Aceia, the influential association of language schools in Andalucia. As it explained in an article in the May Gazette, Aceia has banned adverts excluding all but native speakers, and is looking for teachers who speak both English and Spanish.

The bilingual teacher idea is an easy sell to parents: given the choice, who wouldn’t want teachers who speak both? And research supports the importance of L1 in L2 acquisition.

In her summary of fifty years of research, Patsy Lightbown emphasises that first language affects not only learners’ language production but what they perceive as grammatical in the target language. Knowing the students’ language gives the teacher insight into the students’ learning process.

For example, I recently came across a splendid lesson plan for Spanish students but I noticed that among the phrases to pre-teach it had ‘an extravagant symbol of wealth’. Why choose that? Symbol and extravagant are Latin cognates: símbolo and extravagante in Spanish. The pattern noun+of+noun, which the lesson planner was focusing on, is bog standard in all Latin languages.

A monolingual English teacher will associate words and patterns derived from Latin as formal and difficult. Teflers fluent in Latin languages know that they are easy; it is Anglo-Saxon words like ‘wealth’ which cause a problem.

Spain’s schools are going to struggle to find enough Spanish-speaking native English speakers to meet their requirements; at least among EU citizens who don’t need a work permit.

Spanish is barely taught in Ireland and while it has grown as a school subject in the UK most British students have dropped foreign languages entirely by age sixteen. Brexit may make it easier to bring in Spanish-speaking US citizens, but until then it’s down to the locals.

How easy it is to find functionally bilingual Spaniards depends on the level of English you demand and the test you use. The school in Murcia asked for C2, yet only 2 per cent of Spanish nationals reach that level on either Academic or General Ielts. Toefl stops at C1.

Most native speakers don’t reach that level either. Only 9 per cent of native English speakers reach the C2 equivalent score of 8.5+ on Academic Ielts, exactly the same percentage as German speakers.

A total of 14 per cent of native speakers get there on general Ielts, but that’s still fewer than the 16 per cent of Afrikaans speakers from bilingual South Africa.

Native speakers are held back by low language awareness and lack of practice in formal language tests.

I am told that most native-speaker graduates will average Ielts 8 if they follow a test-preparation course first, but that is still only borderline C2.

Native speakers do better on the Cambridge Proficiency test, but the bilingual countries dominate.

In 2015 100 per cent of candidates from Singapore passed at C2. That drops to 72 per cent for Americans and 70 per cent for Brits, just above the 68 per cent of Spanish nationals. Greece, where bilingual teachers are the norm, has long demanded proficiency certificates from local teachers. In Spain, though, such people are in short supply.

In any case, do private language schools really need C2?

To function effectively as a bilingual teacher you need to be C1, according to research on the Madrid bilingual schools we published in December. C1 is also the minimum language level needed to teach in primary, the ELLiE longitudinal study of primary language teaching in Europe found.

The functionally bilingual teacher renders the monolingual native-speaker teacher obsolete. But depending on the language levels asked for, functional bilinguals may prove hard to find.

Colour bar in Hong Kong?

A native-speaker EFL teacher of Asian heritage has been advised not to apply for a job in Hong Kong because the tutorial centre ‘prefers Caucasian applicants’, according to the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP).

It is unlawful for Hong Kong employers to hire people based on race, but regulations do not prevent advertising for a native speaker.
WhatsApp screenshots published in the HKFP show the exchange between the teacher and an educational agency that had placed an online ad for a native-speaker teacher. Warned that the employer might prefer Caucasians, the teacher commented, ‘That seems racist. Asians can be native English speakers.’ The agency agreed that there were many good Asian teachers but insisted, ‘The centre likes to keep their image.’

Contacted by the HKFP, the agency declined to disclose the details of its client or speak about the importance of ethnicity in selecting teachers. According to the paper, a spokesperson asked them, ‘Why [are] you interested? It is not a big news.’

In 2015 the paper reported that a local nursery school had placed an ad for a teacher with a ‘loving and kind-hearted personality, teaching experience and Caucasian’, though a spokesperson told the paper the term had been ‘misused’ and should have read ‘native speaker’.

A British teacher who taught for many years confirmed to the Gazette that such discrimination is commonplace. When she was sent as a supply teacher to a kindergarten, she was told she wasn’t needed to teach but to ‘reassure the parents’.