As I’m writing this, we are wrapping up registrations for another term of classes, and I’m finding myself talking about our courses and teachers to many prospective students. I often get asked if the teacher in a selected class is a native speaker of the language they teach. It’s a simple yes/no question but I have so many problems with it!
The question usually comes from the underlying assumptions that native speakers…
A) are better teachers
B) know the language more extensively
C) students will learn to speak the language with their teachers’ native accents.
Because English is the most widely taught foreign/second language in the world, the issue of native-speaker preference is already being tackled in that universe and there is a lot we can learn from it, but let us take a moment here to discuss what we know from working with teachers of different languages and tackle the three assumptions mentioned above.
There is no research that supports the assumption that native speakers make better teachers; there are no studies or statistics showing that students learn more, better or faster from native vs. non-native speakers. Where learning is concerned, other characteristics of a teacher are a much better measure. You will find that a teacher’s personality traits like patience and creativity, as well as, positive attitude and personal investment in teaching are the main predictors of students’ overall success.
Good teachers are those who are trained to teach foreign languages, have a passion for it, are kind and respectful towards their students, and continue to grow professionally. Both native and non-native teachers have the opportunity to become exquisite teachers, and the mere fact that someone is a native speaker doesn’t bring them any closer to being a good language teacher.
On average, indeed, native speakers know more of the given language than non-native speakers, but only if we control for education levels. If we, however, compare a well-educated non-native speaker with a native speaker with less education, we will find that the non-native speaker will speak more intelligibly and will be able to use the language correctly in a wider range of situations, including professional and formal circumstances.
Something else worth noting is teaching a language requires what we could call “meta-knowledge” of the language, or some rudimentary linguistic awareness of the language. Let’s observe some examples of different language features that must be taught to students: the passive voice in English or German, the subjunctive in French and Spanish, the gender-number agreement in Russian and Polish. Native speakers of these languages use these features in their language every day but of course they never think about them. If asked, “why do you say it this way” they may have no idea. Alternatively, not every non-native teacher would do a good job teaching a class about it (see point A), but every one of them would know the concept of “passive voice, subjunctive, etc.”, why it has to have a place in the curriculum, why it needs to be used, and what is the difference between the passive and active voice – just to use this one example.
So what a teacher needs regarding language knowledge is both the functional ability, which is similar type of skill to riding a bike – you don’t know the mechanics of the bike or anatomy behind your muscle movements but you can ride a bike; and the analytical ability, i.e. having the awareness of each grammar point, sentence structure, fine differences between similar words and so on. On average, non-native teachers will have higher level of awareness of grammar and structures of the language than native teachers, but native teachers will have, on average, higher functional ability.
The trouble with accent is that although some (very few) people will actually pick up an accent from another speaker or their teacher, and to a minimal degree all of us can and do even in our native language (i.e. we try to accommodate the speaker by speaking similarly to them), most of us are not able to mimic perfectly the pronunciation or intonation of someone else, especially in a foreign language. If we were able to pick up accents just like that, I would now (after living almost 4 years in the United States!) have a perfect local accent. I don’t and I won’t, although I listen to and speak with Americans all the time. Typically, your accent in a new language is determined by your first language: most of us, saying things in a new language, sound like we are speaking our native tongue with new words and sentence order! Your accent will also be determined by other languages you learned or use. Finally, we might hear a little bit of your teacher in you, but probably no more than a tiny percentage.
This is all to say that having a native speaker as a teacher does not in itself give students any particular advantages.
Some teachers actually say being non-native is an advantage in a classroom!
But ultimately, rigorous training, actual and certified language proficiency, as well as personality and attitude should be the only selection criteria when hiring instructors in all language teaching institutions, for both native and non-native teachers.