The ‘native’ vs ‘non-native’ speaker debate is seen as outdated in Hawaii, which is embracing English teachers from all backgrounds, Claudia Civinini reports
Not many topics inflame Tefl debates like ‘native speakerism’. This is the belief that native-speakers are inherently better at teaching their first language.
For the ELT world, this translates to situations where 21-year-old untrained backpackers can have a better chance of finding a job than bilinguals with a PhD in linguistics.
So do you sometimes dream of finding a place where multilingualism is truly valued? A promised land where language school owners casually drop statements like ‘the idea of “native vs non-native” is a bit passé’? We found it. And it’s sunny all year round.
In the US state of Hawaii, where white English native-speakers are in the minority, the native-speaker debate hardly registers.
Our questions about how employers and students perceive non-native-speaker teachers were met with mild amusement, not only by academics in the field of sociocultural linguistics but also by language school owners and academic directors, who employ teachers from all over the world.
‘The idea of “native vs non-native” is a bit passé. Employment is based on qualifications and capabilities,’ Adam Liss, director of EL school Global Village tells the Gazette.
This could be down to Hawaii’s cultural diversity. ‘In Hawaii, asking someone “where are you from?” can be a complex question,’ a member of staff at Global Village adds. ‘For students coming to Hawaii, the expectation is that both in and out of the classroom you will interact with people from all over the globe.’
Maria Levy, academic director at language school ELS, herself a non-native speaker, says there are nine different nationalities on the current staff, ‘which mirrors the diverse population of Hawaii’.
She says the school hires teachers from all over the world, mentioning twelve different nationalities including Polish, Venezuelan and Chinese. But it’s not just a couple of enlightened language schools that employ non-native speakers.
‘Bilingual employees are highly valued in Hawaii,’ explains Jean Kirschenmann, MA Tesol director at Hawaii Pacific University.
She says many MA Tesol graduates elect to stay after they graduate for a year of work experience, included in their student visa. ‘As far as I am aware, none has failed to find a position,’ she says.
And that’s because the focus is on training and qualifications. As Joel Weaver, director of the Hawaii English Language Programme at UH Manoa and president of Study Hawaii, puts it, ‘As long as they are the best qualified person and can connect with my students, I don’t care where they are from.’
He says that about a third of his teachers are non-native speakers, although there are no quotas.
‘We have a very strong belief that non-native speakers have a distinct advantage in terms of their experience of learning,’ he adds. And he is not alone.
Non-native-speaker teachers bring important strengths to the classroom, mainly related to their experience of language learning.
‘Multilingual non-native-speaker English teachers often have a clear explicit understanding of grammar rules. They can often relate to the students’ experience very directly since they can still remember their own experience of learning English – as can native-speaker English teachers who have learned another language,’ Levy says.
Douglas Groesser from the Intercultural Communications College adds: ‘Non-native-speakers bring insights into language learning that native-speakers might not have, especially if they have never learned a second language.’
For Kirshenmann, non-native-speaker teachers not only have a better knowledge of how the language and the language-learning process works, but can also potentially be better role models for their students.
‘They often have insights into the lives of their students and host culture that native-speaker teachers may not be aware of,’ she explains. She mentions the work of Tim Murphey, who argued that teachers who come from the same cultural background as their students can become near-peer role models and increase student motivation and learning pleasure.
But do students have a preference for native-speakers? Students can still have a bias, and non-native-speaker teachers ‘could need extra help’ in dealing with these students, Groesser says.
But in general, negative reactions are rare. Levy says that in her ten-year career at the school she can only remember three or four instances where a student stated they would rather have a native-speaker.
‘But I have seen scores of instances of students asking for the non-native instructor as their teacher,’ she adds.