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Where are all the native speakers?

Melanie Butler asks why international schools have swallowed the native speaker myth

International schools are the latest employers to face a shortage of native English speakers, according to a story on British website Latest estimates suggest the sector will need 1 million teachers by 2029, up from the current level of 450,000, the article reports.

“I have calculated that there are just over 4.5 million teachers in the UK, US, Australia and Ireland, the traditional recruiting countries for native-English-speaking international school staff,” Liz Free, director of the International Leadership Academy, told Tes reporter Claudia Civinini.

“Singapore and Estonia not only dominate the educational rankings produced
by the OECD but they ace international English language tests.”

“Will one in four teachers from the UK, US, Australia and Ireland really work on the international circuit annually?” asked Free, who is based in the Netherlands. “Probably not.”

All this will sound familiar to EFL school owners, especially those in China. At the beginning of 2019, the world’s largest EFL market introduced a legal requirement for all foreign teachers in the country’s 50,000 language schools to hold a passport from an English-speaking country, as well as a first degree and a Tefl certificate.

The Chinese government now estimates that more than 250,000 of the 400,000 foreign teachers do not meet these requirements and are therefore working illegally.

This is hardly a surprise. If every single citizen who left Australia, Britain, Ireland and New Zealand to live abroad in 2018 had been graduates with Tefl certificates going to China to teach English, they couldn’t have replaced the ‘illegal’ teachers.

Native speakerism has dogged the EFL world for decades. It’s a myth based on the premise that if most children acquire their L1 from parents who are native speakers, it logically follows that anyone can acquire an L2, but only from a native speaker. Not only is the logic dodgy, there is no empirical evidence we can find to support it – at least for children over the age of three. But you can see why parents, and governments, might believe it.

Why the same myth exists in international schools is harder to explain. Who on earth could object to a Singaporean teaching maths in English or an Estonian teaching biology in English? Why shouldn’t a Dutch primary specialist work in a British school in, say, Dubai?

After all, Singapore and Estonia not only dominate the educational rankings produced by the OECD, but they also ace international English language tests. And as for the Dutch, only one nationality outperforms them on TOEFL – the Irish.

The only country in which it seems these teachers would be welcome to teach at a British school is, in fact, Britain.

So why has this native speaker myth so infected international schools? Because the majority of parents enrolling their children in such schools are not native speakers of English themselves.

Local children now outnumber expatriates, and one reason their parents enrol them in an English medium school is so they can master the language.

So, the super-rich of the world send their children to an English-speaking country for their education. The merely rich enrol them in a local international school. While everyone else who can scrape together the money sends them to the local language centre.

Why not just retrain more native speaker EFL teachers to work in international schools? It’s already happening. In China, they can already teach the subject of their first degree in local bilingual schools. And a growing number of EFL teachers are taking qualifications like the International PGCEs, which enable them to work in international schools, though not, thus far, in schools back home.

The money is better. The job is more prestigious. You even get things like pensions and paid flights home for the holidays. But in the unlikely event that every Tefler wanted to do it, there still would not be enough to solve the international school problem.

How many are there? Tefl workforce statistics are practically non-existent, but when it comes to the British at least we can make an educated guess.

There are 5.5 million British citizens living abroad, with an average age of 53, according to the InterNational survey of expatriates. Some 13 per cent of them are teachers, academics or otherwise involved in education, giving us a total of 700,000. Roughly a third, some 230,000, live and work in schools and universities in other English-speaking countries. A further 150,000 are working in international schools. If we say another 50,000 are in the University or Further Education sectors, that leaves a maximum of 270,000 in EFL. If you throw in all the other English-speaking countries, you can easily double that. Though, given the backpack nature of much of the EFL market, not all these native speakers will be graduates or hold a Tefl certificate.

Still, there may still be just about the right number of qualified native-speaker Teflers in the world needed to staff China’s current language school requirements or to keep the international schools in business for five years or so.

There’s certainly not enough to do both.

Image courtesy of WIKIMEDIA
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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