Can non-native speakers of English become good TEFL teachers?

This is a source of constant debate in the TEFL world. Here in Spain, many Spaniards (employers and students) request native speaker teachers. They hold beliefs, or prejudices, such as:

British speak proper English not like Americans

My German / Dutch /Spanish teacher of English knows grammar but speaks with a terrible accent

I want to speak proper English like my British / American/ Australian / teacher

This is a complex and controversial topic and I don’t presume to know the answer. In fact, I’m not exactly sure how we can define native speakers anymore. What I’d like to do is present both sides of the argument and let you make up your own minds:

Native Speaker Teachers are better because….

  • They provide accurate pronunciation models for learners
  • They can explain lots of idioms and colloquial phrases
  • Students will use their English to communicate with native speakers
  • They can show me how to use the grammar in the way it is actually spoken / written

Non-native Speaker Teachers are better because…..

  • They use an international form of English that can be understood by everybody.
  • They don’t use these idiomatic English. They can communicate clearly and unambiguously.
  • Students will use their English to communicate with people from all around the world. English is now an international language.
  • They had to learn it as a second language so they know how to explain it in a clear and accessible way.

What do you all think? 

What other reasons can you think of why native speakers or non-native speakers make better teachers.

We love to know what you think so please add your comments.

64 thoughts on “Can non-native speakers of English become good TEFL teachers?

  1. English teacher in Asia February 27, 2014 — 6:31 am

    If their students were going to be in a country where English is the main language,I think a non-native English speaker could teach English only if he or she lived in an English speaking country for longer than 5 years as well as have gotten a degree, preferably English or education, from an English speaking country. There are socially correct ways to writing and speaking that they would have to know prior to teaching the language.

    If a non-native English speaker wanted to teach English to other non-native English speakers simply to communicate to other people who do not speak their language but know English, ie as a foreign language, I feel they would have to have an English or education degree from an English speaking country in order to do so.

    Non-native English speakers should have an English or education degree from an English speaking country because they would learn exactly how to teach the language without any grammatical error or odd phrasing. As a person who currently works as a native English teacher in Asia, I see and hear constant grammatical errors and odd phrasing from my non-native counterparts. Even books are riddled with those types of errors.

    As a native English speaker, I know that the majority of us make mistakes in grammar. I bet this comment has a couple of errors. Our errors, however, are not those that would cause confusion. If a non-native English speaker taught another non-native speaker English without having a degree from an English speaking country, their way of writing and speaking the language could be riddled with the problems mentioned above. This would perpetuate and cause some of the population who does business in English, for tourism or for business, to have communication problems with those he or she does business with.

    These people who do business with them are people that live anywhere in the world. Some could be Chinese, European, or even American or Canadian. It’s not only local people conducting business in English together, it’s also people from other countries conducting business with everyone else. The language that’s being spoken amongst all of them should be clear and concise, not riddled with errors that could confuse and odd phrasing that could offend.

    Unfortunately the non-native English speaker should fix whatever written or spoken errors they have in English before teaching other people English. They cannot fix their errors in their native country; they must go to a native English speaking country in order to fix those errors that still persist within them. Ultimately immersion is needed before any non-native English speaker can teach the English language.


  2. Hi everyone!

    As a native Spanish speaker, I will need my entire life in order to master my own language trying to cover a couple of domains such as music, computing, agriculture, economics, and so on, with my regional accent and additional local vocabulary, involving many cultural aspects which change everyday.

    In Spain all the students are supposed to learn at least English (and sometimes a second or third language). In my opinion it’s an unrealistic point of view.

    Can everyone play guitar like Paco de Lucia or play tennis like Nadal? Why speaking perfectly foreign languages should be in the public domain? It’s an unrealistic.

    Regarding the student:

    What does a student want? Learning or passing an exam and having a degree? The ‘Selectivity’ Exam covers only the written skills! For professional purposes it could be really necessary to communicate, but nowadays there’re excellent pieces of software (even in our phones) who make that for us.

    Regarding the teacher:

    If the words ‘native’ and ‘teacher’ are synonyms, we don’t need teachers, only immigration. And the non-native ‘English teacher’ should change his degree into ‘high qualified unemployed’.

    Other aspect we often forget: English people rarely speak well any language (except English?) but media make us feel a complex of inferiority comparing the English language skills of e.g. German or Dutch with ours. If we should to learn Italian or other romanic language, would we have the same results in the comparison?

    Who is interested in making people unhappy? Book sellers? English academies? Vaughan radio? Oxford University? British travel agencies?

    What about me?
    I work as a music teacher in a secondary school.
    The parental illusions have increased the social pressure and extended the idea of creating bilingual schools for everyone. In a couple of years I’m supposed having to teach music in English! (That’s the reason I must study it now). For me it’s funny, I love languages, it will be good for my school, and the parents will be very proud of their children who will play the flute, dance, sing, listen to music, in English! They will study Mozart, Debussy, Verdi or flamenco music in English! (Rock history could be an exception) :D.

    For a reduced number of students it will be an extra motivation, I admit, but what about all
    those who aren’t good in English? They don’t write properly in their own language and now they may have extra problems.

    Thanks for reading!

    Please, excuse my poor grammar and spelling mistakes: English is only my 5th language after French, German, Italian (and Spanish, of course). All my teachers were Spanish, maybe not perfect but excellent motivators!


    1. April 23, 2014 — 9:25 pm

      Thanks Manuel for your fascinating comments.

      I’d like to highlight a few of the points you raised as I think they lead to some important questions about teaching and learning.

      1. No matter how ‘educated’ somebody might consider themselves to be, it is impossible to be a proficient communicator in every discourse community (a group of people involved in a specific professional areas such as teachers, doctors, plumbers or football players) in their own language. As you mentioned, we might expect too much of our learners so maybe we should focus more on helping them acquire language for specific discourse communities than asking them to follow standardised syllabi.

      2. Here in Spain, I am shocked by how many learners only want to learn English in order to pass an exam. Although this is a specific goal, the other benefits of learning a language are often ignored.

      3. I think your point about linguistic distance (the degree of similarity between different languages) is really important. The Spanish (like the British) have an inferiority complex regarding their ability to learn other languages. As somebody who has spent most of his teaching career with multi-lingual classes, it is clear that some nationalities have certain advantages when it comes to acquiring English, especially vocabulary. This can have a negative effect on learners who compare themselves with other learners from different countries.

      4. I’m not sure that the primary objective of the educational services you mentioned is to make people unhappy. However, it is clear that English language learning is a huge and profitable business and teaching learners to become self-sufficient learners rather than consumers would definitely lower profit margins!

      5.The research on early second language learning seems to suggest that formal language tuition for very young learners may lead to first language acquisition issues. I’m also concerned that this sudden push towards providing bilingual education for all learners will lead to a new set of problems.

      Please don’t feel the need to apologise for your English. Any errors you made were non-impeding ones and you were able to articulate your concerns in a powerful and elegant way.


  3. Any non-native, CELTA-qualified teacher with dual nationality here? Has that helped find a job?


  4. Hi Alex, I am a non-native teacher and I am an EU citizen, not dual nationality, and it helps in terms of people understanding that I am not illegal. But of course, the bigger issue, for me, is being non-native.

    I agree with a lot of things I read above. Just would like put in my own two pence – I love English idioms and expressions, I possibly know more than my native English boyfriend! I have a vocabulary large enough to compete with any native speaker and I often help out my boyfriend when he is writing his uni essays. However, he undoubtedly wins when it comes to slang and informal words. But I don’t really know or use them in my native language either, so does not knowing them in English count? It’s not my style.

    So that’s the good part. Here’s the bad: I feel quite self-conscious when it comes to my accent! Although my students can never tell that I am non-native, and Americans are usually left guessing whether I am or not, (educated) British people can instantly tell that I am non-native, but can never guess where my accent comes from (not Spanish 🙂 ). Nonetheless, it’s enough to make me feel inferior sometimes.

    And the other annoying thing: my large vocab means nothing really because after having lived outside the UK for over 5 years now, I realize that a large portion of my vocab is sinking into the passive, very fast. I did a SAT vocab test the other day, just for fun, and I was so annoyed to see how many words on the list I used to know/use but now I either struggle to remember the meaning or I never use them.

    And one more thing: Dylan mentioned accommodation theory above. Well, it does happen to me, I tend to copy people’s accents and intonation. It’s kind automatic and not something I deliberately want to do.

    Sorry for the rant, this is a very fascinating topic and very close to my heart.


  5. My career is to become an ESL teacher but I’m not a native speaker. I was wondering if I could teach ESL in a foreign country if I get a degree of ESL.


  6. Have you stopped considering that a ‘native speaker’ is also a Nigerian, a Jamaican, a…
    what about their accents, should we teach those? Or not? Why?
    Being a good teacher is so much more than being a good speaker. A non-native might know his/her limits and strive to correct them. I know many a native speaker that have no idea why they use a structure or other. They know this and study grammar to get better.
    A non-native will (should) strive to get a clear, neutral pronunciation, while making his/her students aware of the differences that exist in varieties of English.


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