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Why do you need to be a native speaker to teach language?

Popularity 15Viewed 31507 times 2014-5-20 18:45 |System category:Economy| English, teaching, native, speaker, non-native

It was just after I arrived to China I was introduced to the notion that ONLY a native speaker is qualified to teach foreign language to a non-native speaker. There have been some discussion on English teaching on this forum about the phenomenon of non-native speakers teaching English in China. Latest, Ariunbold was writing about "fake" English teachers in his blog. With this post I would like to give my support for the non-native speakers teaching English in China.

It is very common, that who ever comes to China, no matter for what reasons, will have an English teaching job at some point. Is this because they all suddenly have interest and passion for teaching? Of course not. It is the demand from the market, that drives them for teaching jobs. When a desperate recruiter or a friend asks you to teach English for the future hopes of China, you feel that it is almost your responsibilty to share your knowledge for the common good. Maybe you also felt it was a compliment for your English level to be approved as a teacher, or you just needed some extra money. What comes to the legal issues, as many people with student visas working illegally as teachers for pocket money, I think Chinese government should allow students to work a little, instead of totally prohibiting them from any work. I think China would benefit from this. But that is already out of the topic.

Personally, I think Chinese teachers would be as good English teachers as any other nationalities as long as they really know the language. However, Chinese don't trust this. They are fixed with the idea, that only a native speaker can have the skills required for the language teaching. Also, Chinese seem to prefer racially white teachers even before native American black teachers, that is just horrible. The result is, that people with good command of English have to lie for the customers about their nationality, which I think is very disturbing idea. I am quite sure the foreigner English teachers would happily tell their origins if it would not affect their salary and chances of getting and keeping jobs. Most of the cases the teachers are asked to lie about their nationality by the employer. There is a vicious circle: Customers demand native speakers, employers lie about their teacher's background, the foreigner teacher is forced to lie about the nationality. I feel very sorry for this kind of situation, as I think there is just too much emphasis on the native speaking ability.

I have studied English, Swedish, French, Spanish, German, Russian and Mandarin back in my country with excellent teachers who besides the Chinese one, were all my fellow countrymen. Does it mean I have had bad education? No, Finnish education is famous for its quality world wide. Quite the opposite, all the teachers were well educated with a university degree majoring for that language and learning, while as my Chinese teacher was not an educated Chinese teacher, but a native speaker with a southern accent. When studying languages in Finland, we use quite much original recordings made by native speakers that come with the books and repeat words and reading chapters after them. The teachers usually speak the language they are teaching very well, and to my opinion are totally capable of teaching the foreign language. My point is, as taken for granted here in China, not every native speaker is a good teacher. To be a good teacher requires also some skills and methodology about learning. 

Learning languages is a long process that needs excercise. In the beginner level and until the intermediate level, I think it is not at all necessary to have a native speaker as a teacher. In my opinion it is enough, that the teacher can pronounce the separate words correctly and recognice and correct wrong pronounciation. Of course, a heavy accent will be harmful. My point is, regardless of having or not having a native speaker as a foreign language teacher, most of the people will have their own accent when speaking foreign languages. First after staying longer time in the country, where the language is spoken, will help to get ride of one's own accent. Some people might never get ride of their own accent, no matter how long time they practise or stay in some country.

I hope, that when choosing English teacher for their children, the Chinese parents would not blindly demand for native speakers only. Instead, they should ask if the teacher has education or some previous experience from teaching, and accept non-native speakers with teaching skills and good command of English as a good choice for the English teachers as well.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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Reply Report voice_cd 2014-5-21 09:59
Thanks for sharing your story here, we have highlighted your blog.
Reply Report seanboyce88 2014-5-21 09:59
Here here, My girlfriend is Russian yet her grasp of English grammar is far stronger than my own even though I am a native speaker. her pronunciation is perfectly clear. however because she is Russian, many people would never  hire her thinking that because she is not native she couldn't teach. Her degree is in English education, she went to high school in the states and I honestly think she would be better than a lot of the English teachers out there (probably myself included).

When people ask a question like "what is the subjunctive mood" or "what is the adverbial clause of cause" I often turn to her first.
Reply Report winnie伊伊 2014-5-21 11:57
i think you are right ,i have a english teacher,he is from Pakistan.he tells us he is a business man first,then a teacher.
Reply Report tedbrent 2014-5-21 12:37
你的中文写的不错.
Reply Report Hannah.E 2014-5-21 12:42
seanboyce88: Here here, My girlfriend is Russian yet her grasp of English grammar is far stronger than my own even though I am a native speaker. her pronunciation  ...
Maybe jsut some bias in choosing native teacher. A long time later, this condition maybe will fade away. However, the fact is many non-native speakers really have a little bitter accent, we chinese want to pursue somehow perfect, native, pure. The interesting thing is about your grammar, sometimes a native speaker do not pay much attention to that, which seems a rule already. To us, the grammar is VERY important.
Reply Report Maierwei 2014-5-21 14:47
Hannah.E: Maybe jsut some bias in choosing native teacher. A long time later, this condition maybe will fade away. However, the fact is many non-native speakers ...
If you start looking for a "pure" accent then you need to eliminate so many native speakers as well!

And having a good pronunciation depends on the student mostly. So some Chinese have an incomprehensible accent even though they had native teachers, and some can speak fluently even though their English teachers were all Chinese.
Reply Report Maierwei 2014-5-21 14:51
I totally agree with everything you wrote, but your hopes are maybe to idealistic for Chinese society ^^

And, teaching is a different ability, besides from education. Some people have this skill in explaning and understanding. Not every Chinese speaker would be able to teach the languague. We see such teachers usually try to make the students feel bad about themselves when they don't understand something (because well, it's not possible to master Chinese language since it's divine)

There is a voluntary program for teaching democracy-awareness in Finnish highschools, I want to apply but I'm afraid those kids are more democratically aware than I am    (I majored in political science but come from a country with weak political culture)
Reply Report youxiudeyou 2014-5-21 15:07
Maierwei: If you start looking for a "pure" accent then you need to eliminate so many native speakers as well!

And having a good pronunciation depend ...
I totally agree with you. The teacher gives the keys, it is up to the student to open the door and walk through.
Reply Report youxiudeyou 2014-5-21 15:12
seanboyce88: Here here, My girlfriend is Russian yet her grasp of English grammar is far stronger than my own even though I am a native speaker. her pronunciation  ...
I think you are making an important point. Chinese should have more awareness on this matter. Especially in the grammar, an educated foreigner majoring English can explain the grammar rules better than the native. This is because the native speakers and foreigners study the language differently.
Reply Report youxiudeyou 2014-5-21 15:14
tedbrent: 你的中文写的不错.
我没有写中文, 你从那里知道我写中文写得怎么样?
Reply Report Maierwei 2014-5-21 17:16
youxiudeyou: 我没有写中文, 你从那里知道我写中文写得怎么样?
他一看你的博克就感觉到了  
Reply Report seanboyce88 2014-5-21 20:37
Hannah.E: Maybe jsut some bias in choosing native teacher. A long time later, this condition maybe will fade away. However, the fact is many non-native speakers ...
There is no PURE accent, look at Britain, every region has it's own distinct accent, America too. It annoys me when Chinese people complain at my british accent as it's not American and I always reply "You mean it's not like an anchorman" Americans have all sorts of accents
Reply Report Hannah.E 2014-5-21 21:54
seanboyce88: There is no PURE accent, look at Britain, every region has it's own distinct accent, America too. It annoys me when Chinese people complain at my brit ...
We would like to hear some accent just like anchorman. maybe chinese pay too much to accent. so how about standard English? as English learner, we often imitate British accent.
Reply Report seanboyce88 2014-5-22 10:49
Hannah.E: We would like to hear some accent just like anchorman. maybe chinese pay too much to accent. so how about standard English? as English learner, we oft ...
No, I find most Chinese imitate the American Accent. You can't even say that there is a british accent, everyone says british accent they mean bbc English. But in reality most people don't have such a clear accent. Go listen to most of the ciity accents, we have scouse, Geordie, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, London...and thats just to name a few. That's why learning accents is useless.

Even for me, learning Chinese, I prefer to just use whatever accent I find. I actually think the taiwanese accent is clearer and more distinct sometimes than the harbin accent which is supposedly the clearest in China.

Just try not to worry about the accent too much, most English speakers can understand you without one anyway.
Anyway, as long as you learn English in the end I don't think it's too important    Your English seems fine enough as it is.
Reply Report artj 2014-5-22 12:59
One of the reasons to have a qualified native English speaker as your teacher is to avoid learning incorrect grammar, pronunciation and intonation from the start. Once you have solidly learned how to incorrectly pronounce words, incorrectly form sentences, use wrong verb tenses, speak with unnatural stress and rhythm--and all the rest (such as the errors throughout the article), it becomes very difficult to correct them later. It is true that Chinese students learn lots of grammar rules, but can they actually speak clearly in English? Can they write clearly? Can their teachers? Although in the past ten years there has been lots of improvement, still most students really struggle. Native speakers who have good grammar may not be able to explain it; non-native teachers may be better at teaching grammar, but even they often struggle to apply those rules to natural speech. Learning language is flat-out difficult! I would say that knowing your English teacher's strong points and taking advantage of those, and supplementing lessons with native English materials where possible is a good strategy. And hopefully non-native English teachers will be willing to keep improving their own English too!
Reply Report PatrickInBeijin 2014-5-23 10:15
I have met a number of Chinese people who's English was so fluent that I thought they were natives, but who had never studied with a foreigner.  There is no reason a Chinese cannot teach English as well or better than a native English speaker.  But, they have to not only study, but master the language.  And I agree that skin color or nationality are nor relevant.  OTOH, someone may speak well and know the rules of grammar, but lack teaching ability.  So, it all becomes more complicated.
It is said that the first English grammar book was written by the Dutch, who were trying to make sense of the whole thing.
I think the newer generations of Chinese teachers and students show great progress in their English ability.
Reply Report youxiudeyou 2014-5-23 12:38
artj: One of the reasons to have a qualified native English speaker as your teacher is to avoid learning incorrect grammar, pronunciation and intonation fro ...
I apologize for all the language mistakes in my text and headache it might have given to you. I started studying English from the 7th grade, and never payed attention to the grammar. I can't blame the teachers for that, they did their best, I just didn't feel for studying all the rules. Anyway, languages are means of communicating, and I guess I could make my point clear.
Also, I don't think learning languages is difficult at all. For the most it is really fun. Mastering any language is another thing, it might need some sweat and tears to accomplish, but who says you need to place your goals so high?
Reply Report ColinSpeakman 2014-5-23 13:45
seanboyce88: Here here, My girlfriend is Russian yet her grasp of English grammar is far stronger than my own even though I am a native speaker. her pronunciation  ...
In China, there is a word for your girlfriend!  A spy!   only kidding, but watch for any calls from the Kremlin!
Reply Report seanboyce88 2014-5-23 18:36
ColinSpeakman: In China, there is a word for your girlfriend!  A spy!    only kidding, but watch for any calls from the Kremlin!
Hahaha, when I came back from a short trip in Tianjin I had picked up a packet of putin playing cards, jokingly saying "I know how much you russians love him"

She was not amused.
Reply Report claudeckenni 2014-5-23 23:08
Yes, sometimes natives can't really teach English. Being able to speak and being able to teach is TWO different things.

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  • My year 2015, a year of changes 2016-1-3 13:01

    youxiudeyou: Yes, we were playing the 八路军, communists fighting against Japanese.
    Very impressive. Yan'an was the headquarter of 8RA. In those days, there were quite a number of American expatriates working there. They were from US Army (military consultants and observers) as well as resident correspondents from US press including Edgar Snow, Anna Louise Strong, Agnes Smedley, etc. During the period between 1937 and 1945, Mao told the whole nation and the world via Reuters that the United States of America was the light tower and the world model from whom we should learn democracy and liberty. When he took the power in 1949, he changed his face and turned to learn things from Stalin. No consistency.

  • My year 2015, a year of changes 2016-1-2 21:30

    voice_cd: Thanks for sharing your story here, we have highlighted it in our blog homepage.
    Thanks for highlighting, would be nice to write more often.

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