Teacher Kim Ooi writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 16, 2018
By Kim Ooi

Discrimination against non-native English speakers

Discrimination against non-native English speakers in the TEFL world is currently an emotive and hotly debated topic in online forums.

Does this discrimination really exist though?

Look at any TEFL job advertisement and you are likely to see phrases like these: ‘10 native speakers wanted for full-time teaching jobs in Beijing, Shenyang, Kunming and Nanjing’ and ‘Nationality of UK, IRE, USA, CAN, AUS, NZ or SA’.

These are by no means isolated cases. If you do not meet these criteria, you will find it almost impossible to be hired as an English teacher in a foreign country.

So what exactly is a ‘native English speaker’? The dictionary definition of a native speaker is simply ‘someone who speaks a language as his or her first language or mother tongue’.

Neither one’s nationality nor race should determine one’s status as a native English speaker. However, these are often the precise criteria that overseas schools use when recruiting teachers.

Many qualified, experienced and capable teachers may therefore find themselves discriminated against as a result.

Is this sort of discrimination justified?

If we were to examine the essays written by non-native speakers, or when speaking with a non-native speaker, it would not take us long to find errors in their grammar or pronunciation.

This problem is made worse by the influence of regional creoles. For example, ‘Bislish’ and ‘Taglish’ in the Philippines, ‘Manglish’ in Malaysia and ‘Singlish’ in Singapore.

Not offering someone a job as an English teacher because their grammar is appalling is fair enough.

However, when one starts assuming that only people from certain races qualify to teach English, that is when it becomes racism especially when you consider that even in Asian countries there are many affluent families where the parents have been educated abroad.

They speak English at home with their children so English becomes their native language. These children do well in English at school and many are later sent to schools overseas, including the UK, USA and Australia.

It is really unfair not to give such people a chance simply due to the color of their skin.

How can non-native English speakers get a teaching position abroad?

The short answer is that non-native English speakers should not be teaching EFL at all. They are likely to have picked up bad linguistic habits which should not be passed on to learners.

Discrimination against non-native English speakers in the TEFL industry is a hotly debated topic in online forums.

Non-native English speakers should not be teaching EFL at all, according to Kim Ooi (pictured second from bottom-right).

However, if you are able, through determination, hard work and years of study to achieve a native- or near-native level of fluency in English and believe that you can do a good job of teaching, you should take the following course of action:

  • Become a citizen of an English-speaking country, live there and learn the local culture, accent, slang, idioms, etc.
  • Get a reputable TEFL qualification and gain some experience.
  • Grow a thick skin and never give up.
  • Develop a network of contacts on LinkedIn.
  • Put your resume on sites like Serious Teachers or Dave’s ESL Café.
  • Approach schools and recruiters in person. By speaking with them directly, you can immediately demonstrate your competence and mastery of the English language.

Some non-native English speakers have even had to go as far as lie about where they were born in order to get work as an EFL teacher. This is obviously a dangerous path to take.

However, if only certain nationalities will be considered, some job seekers may feel like they have no choice.

A word of warning: it is one thing to lie about where you were born but if your command of English is not good, please do not even think about teaching abroad. Foreign students (or their parents) pay a lot of money to learn English and they deserve to be taught by people who know the subject well.

What can schools do to help end discrimination against non-native English speakers?

The key issue here is competence.

Race, skin color or nationality are all irrelevant. What is important is that teachers have a sound grasp of English grammar, spelling, punctuation and accurate pronunciation with a neutral accent.

If more non-native English speakers are able to prove their competence in these areas then in time the industry should become more accepting of such candidates.

However, for teachers to be able to prove their competence, they need to be given a chance. Schools can help to end this practice of discrimination by being more open-minded and mindful that stereotypes are not always accurate.

Foreign schools should interview job applicants. But what if the local staff at foreign schools cannot speak English that well themselves?

That should not be an excuse for racial discrimination because they can ask one of their own foreign teachers to interview prospective candidates.

In summary, if you wish to teach English abroad, you must have native-level fluency in English. Students (or their parents) pay good money to learn correct English and deserve to have competent teachers.

If you are fluent in English but are not Caucasian, it will take a lot of hard work to get your foot in the door. Don’t be disheartened though – you will get there eventually. Good luck!

Do you think there is discrimination against non-native English speakers in the TEFL industry? Please comment below.

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