The myth of native speakers

Are native speakers the best language teachers?Let’s see. What does a teacher have to master?

A. His / her subject: Maths, Grammar, Biology, English etc.
A set of teacher ‘magic tricks’: how to explain things clearly, how to
involve your learners in what you teach and stimulate their learning,
how to make the Maths, Grammar, Biology, English etc come alive before
the learners’ eyes, how to make learners do things (homework, silence,
cooperation etc.). In an earlier post I compared teachers to managers
and pointed out what skills these two professions share.

A is
first on my list just because it would be the first to cross people’s
minds, most probably, if this question was asked. For me, however, it’s B
that comes first, and I’ll explain why.

There are young
teenagers who tutor colleagues in school subjects. They are far from
being experts in the subject, but they rely on their relationship with
the colleagues they are coaching, and on that basis they can find the
path to their ‘learners’. They may be good at explaining things and
certainly know how to manage their ‘learners’ during the lesson, simply
because they speak the same ‘language’ of their age. And they probably
do have a talent for ‘being there for people’.

Many of my
university teachers, on the other hand, were experts in English, some of
them were even native speakers. But if you ask me, they were anything
but teachers: they were linguists, scientists, researchers, scholars
etc. They would dictate phrases and sentences as they wanted to hear
them back from us in the exams, and while dictating they were staring at
the ceiling or out of the window, lost in their thoughts and without
the slightest concern about us, who maybe sometimes hadn’t got this or
that word, or couldn’t keep up with the dictating speed.

Who is
more successful, do you think: the teenage tutors, or my expert
university professors? Who comes closer to helping somebody understand
and operate within a subject?

Being a teacher is a profession in
itself. Not anyone can do it just because they know a subject. If it
was so, the NASA specialists would make the best Maths teachers. On the
other hand, if you know how to teach Physics, for example, there is no
essential obstacle for you starting to teach French – you just need to
know (or learn) enough French to be comfortably above the level of your
students. That is why I said before that teaching abilities (B above)
comes before expert knowledge of the field (A above).

Now back to
the native-speaker dilemma. What does the native speaker have, that a
non-native-speaker teacher doesn’t? The mastery of the subject: the
language. But give me a class full of elementary students and I can
teach them Spanish, with my wobbling pre-intermediate knowledge. My
German was for many years a bare intermediate, and I could still teach a
Bank Director elementary German that he could use confidently in simple

On the other hand, do all native speakers have what
it takes to be teachers? No! Being a native speaker is not a
qualification. Being a teacher is.

I can perfectly understand why
some people appreciate their teacher being a native speaker, or insist
that they should get one. There are variables in the objectives that
those people have set themselves, like improved fluency, pronunciation,
understanding of ‘native speaker’ accents etc. But I certainly cannot
understand why some non-native teachers should be excluded from language
schools who are proud to offer ‘native speakers only’, or considered
second-rate by their employers or their students. There is such a hunger
for native speakers that in some parts of the world they are simply
employed on the basis of a 4-week teacher training course alone – nobody
cares to check if they have any interpersonal skills, any psychological
inclination towards the profession, or any deep understanding of
language that might help them explain things clearly (let alone

And one more thing: who would want to learn the
native-speaker English anyway? In this global world of partial
competences, where elementary / pre-intermediate or intermediate no
longer mean ‘you’re not good enough’, but ‘you can understand this and
you can say that’, who cares to speak like the author of a course book?