Why a Non-Native Teacher Can Be Better Than a Native Teacher

Why a Non-Native Teacher Can Be Better Than a Native Teacher

In some countries, TEFL can be a breeze, if you’re qualified, you get the job! In other countries, TEFL can be a bit more tricky… if you’re a non-native speaker. There are some groups, like TEFL Equity who are pushing for non-native teachers to get equal opportunities, and others arguing that ‘non-native speakers can’t compete!’
You have to be very good at English to be an English teacher. I’ve met lots of people who want to teach English but are not as good as they think, or have only half-learned the language. I’m not advocating that. You need to be an expert. The problem is that there are many expert non-native speaker teachers out there. This applies to them.
The truth is that there are pluses and minuses to both. If a teacher has the necessary language ability (which isn’t easy to get in the first place) then of course, they deserve every chance a native speaker gets, even if they have a less-than-neutral accent, or aren’t as deeply versed in idioms and informal language as a native speaker is. They bring other benefits to the table.
In a perfect world, we’d have a mix of both native and non-native speakers. But just to throw it out there and bring about some healthy discussion, here are some reasons why a non-native English speaking teacher can be better than a native teacher.

They can have a better understanding of grammar rules

Ask a native teacher how many tenses there are in the English language, or even what an intransitive verb is, and a lot of them won’t be able to tell you. Quite often, native speakers simply don’t have the same language awareness as non-native speakers who’ve learned English as a second language. They’ve never had to analyze why something does or doesn’t work.

I can hear native speakers with no qualifications crying out ‘it doesn’t matter – I speak English perfectly, I don’t need to know the exact reasons or rules!’ This might be the case, but your learners do.

Here’s a few grammar rules we often forget.

They know the struggle

When learning Chinese, I had five different local teachers. Only when I started taking lessons with a non-native speaker who’d learned the language himself did I start to ‘get it’. He understood my struggles, which ideas and concepts I had trouble with, and how and why they varied from my own language.
I got a deeper, more ‘real’ sense of learning and better explanations than I’ve had with many of my native speaking teachers. Conversations with students of English that I’ve had over the years have confirmed this point. Sometimes, you need someone who’s dealt with similar difficulties and challenges, and made a great deal of progress in overcoming them, to explain.
Do you want to be taught basketball by the guy who struggled through training five times a week to get awesome? Or the guy who was born 7ft tall and never had to work at it?

Basketball - SAU v<img src=

Photo Credit © Southern Arkansas University | Flickr

They know where your mouth is going wrong

This is kind of like the point I listed above, but a bit more specific to pronunciation. If you have an excellent non-native teacher who has worked hard on their pronunciation, they’re likely to be able to explain how to improve more clearly. They can share their knowledge on developing pronunciation skills and identifying what mistakes you’re making.

They can give you better reasons than, “That’s just how we say it in South London”

I don’t even think I need to explain this one. How many classes have you had where someone throws a ‘why’ at you and your mind goes blank? Of course, if you’re a dedicated teacher you’ll go away and look it up, but still… having a non-native teacher sometimes means they can explain more effectively than someone who speaks it as their mother tongue but has never looked into why we say ‘red car’ and how it differs to other languages where you’d say ‘car red’.

Pronunciation isn’t everything

Accents are weird. But as long as you can be understood, and as long as your language is comprehensible, who cares about any other accent or dialect features? The reality is that no matter what country you’re from, your accent will be different to a degree, and there’s no ‘perfect English accent’. I have friends from Ireland, America, Canada, and Australia, and of course from time to time we don’t understand what the other one’s on about. Just a night in Liverpool provides all the evidence you need that native speakers aren’t necessarily easier to understand.
Especially as the world moves towards a ‘global English’, we should recognise and embrace the diversity of accents, as long as communication isn’t sacrificed in the process. We have to have standards with pronunciation, but an accent doesn’t necessarily affect intelligibility.

If you want to check out the different accents for England, this video will walk you through it.

They’re often more qualified, and more invested!

Many non-native speakers are aware that the job market is more difficult. And getting great at a foreign language takes a lot of time and effort. Although there are plenty of native teachers who put in the work, it’s pretty likely that a good non-native teacher has put in even more work.

As a result, they often put more time into achieving better qualifications than many of the lazier native speaker-teachers, who pick up an online 20 hour TEFL certificate, or skip it altogether because they’ve got a bachelors degree, and hit the ground running. I’ve met many non-native speakers who have worked hard on becoming expert English teachers with a sound grasp of teaching methodology. Much better than those who’ve done the bare minimum to get a decent job.

The bottom line is, if you have the necessary qualifications, understanding, ability, and passion, your first language doesn’t matter. You should be able to teach English, whether you’re a native or non-native English speaker.
So, if you’re a hard-working non-native speaker struggling to get a teaching job while your native English friend is getting tonnes of offers, don’t let it stop you. You deserve a job just as much, and there employers that agree, so keep looking and don’t let it stop you from teaching in your dream destination.

If you’re not sure which qualification you need, we can give you some guidance. 

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20 comments on “Why a Non-Native Teacher Can Be Better Than a Native Teacher”

  1. Alan Reply

    Find a native teacher who has mastered one or more foreign languages, and you get both correct pronunciation as well as the supposed benefits of a non-native teacher.

    • Julie Smith Reply

      I 100% agree. As a native speaker from England I have lived in different countries and as a matter of course have studied other languages. This has given me the perspective of the students. I also think listening to the students is vital, you can see where common struggles occur because of their own first language. I think this makes me a better teacher than another native speaker.

      • Kurt Steinbach Reply

        I too have lived in different countries. I am a NEST. I have studied and taken courses to learn Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Czech. I was taking Czech while teaching at an International Summer School as part of my ESL concentration teaching internship. All of the NESTs were required to teach and take Czech. It is a part of all NCATE [National Council of American Teacher Education] accredited ESL Teacher Education Programs in the U.S., so that ESL teachers can understand the struggles our students are going through. We were in Pilzen in the Czech Republic, when we were off campus, there was usually no one around who spoke English. It was difficult and frustrating during that summer trying to eat at a restaurant off campus, where no one spoke English, and the menus were in Czech anyway. . . .

  2. Dean Reply

    As a non-native English speaking teacher, this article boosts my morale so much. I get frustrated everytime I see a teaching job ad looking for native speakers ONLY though I know that a lot of non-native speakers out there are well-capable. The bottomline is we should not lose our faith in ourselves and believe that things are perfectly planned for each one of us.

  3. Bernie Zoettl Reply

    As a non-native ESL teacher who has put in a lot of work and studying and who’s been in the English teaching business for over 12 years, I totally agree with your article! I, too, think that the ideal situation would be to have both native and non-native teachers. I can also confirm that many of my native colleagues are sometimes lost when it comes to grammar and ask me if I could explain the rules to them. And rather often native teachers also struggle to understand just why learners find certain things difficult to grasp – whereas I can understand the learners’ problems as I had to go through the same as a learner of the English language. I am, however, fully aware that in certain areas, I can never compete with native speakers; e.g. when it comes to idioms or certain phrasal verbs. As far as pronunciation is concerned, I’ve been told many times that I have a rather “neutral” English. Quite often, learners (who do not know where I’m from) take me for a Canadian – I’m actually Austrian. Personally, I have mostly been lucky enough not to have any trouble finding work in the EFL business (I teach at several centres in Austria and Malta), but I am fully aware of the fact that there is discrimination against NNS, just as I am also aware of the fact that unfortunately lots of non-native teachers (and also native teachers) are not fit for the job.

  4. nina Reply

    Wow..i really like this writing.it motivates me completely.i am a non native english speaker in my country and i am going to take one of the Ittt courses but knowing i can have a chance too, it’s wanderful. It insipres me to work harder to achieve my goal. And he is right when he says that non native can be better at grammar, to tell the truth we are . I have been working with volunteers from America for 4 years now in order to give us a hand while teaching english in some situations or phrases that only they know why is that, but in terms of grammar we are precisely correct.They miss this point..but they are great ☺

  5. Donna Reply

    I often ask my non-native colleagues their perspective on grammatical questions that my students have.

    I’d take a non-native speaker with qualifications over a monolingual untrained native speaker any day!

    This discussion leads to the bigger issue of ‘whose English is it?’. English isn’t OWNED by native speakers. (Some) native speakers need to get over themselves… what does ‘native’ mean anyway? Someone born in India who has grown up speaking English their whole life is as ‘native’ as a Londoner. It’s just a different English… plus the person born in India is probably tri-lingual as well!.

    • Garry Reply

      Donna, you sound very angry!
      You have posed several options for discussion within your piece.

      However, if what you say is true, I’m off to my local ESL book shop to order my copy of “New Indianglish File,” plus audio CDs.

      It possibly sounds as if you have a “Trump-like” (Alternative facts) approach to the issue with your views. There is no possible way a person from India, speaking English, could be considered as native as a person from London.

      I do appreciate your views though.
      Have a nice day.

      • John R. Yamamoto-Wilson Reply

        > There is no possible way a person from India, speaking English, could be considered as native as a person from London.

        Ah! Then you haven’t met a certain class of Indian speaker. I’m not talking about those who speak English as a syllable-timed language, spiced with expressions like “dearie dearie me” or whatever. I’m talking about people like the young man I met doing a masters course at the University College of North Wales at Bangor many years ago, who told me he was having difficulty finding work because prospective employers did not consider him to be a native speaker.

        “But,” I said, overwhelmed by his perfect pronunciation, extensive vocabulary and faultless grammar, “you could describe yourself as having native speaker ability any day of the week!”

        Whereupon he winced slightly, and said, with some asperity, “Well, I don’t think I should be doing myself very much credit if I did say that.”

        Brilliant answer, and totally appropriate! There are over 200,000 thousand Indians for whom English is their native tongue, and many of those, like this young man, speak a very pure form of received English.

        English is a world language. We accept it belongs to Americans, Australians, etc., as much as to Brits, and we need to wake up and realize that it also belongs to Nigerians, Kenyans, Indians, Samoans and many others around the world.

  6. Kurt Steinbach Reply

    The opening lines under the second subheading says, “Ask a native teacher how many tenses there are in the English language, or even what an intransitive verb is, and a lot of them won’t be able to tell you. Quite often, native speakers simply don’t have the same language awareness as non-native speakers who’ve learned English as a second language. They’ve never had to analyze why something does or doesn’t work.”

    How many tenses there are or the definition of intransitive verb is called Trivia. You can look it up on the Internet, no teacher required. Knowing those things is not teaching. At the end of the same subheading, it say, “I can hear native speakers with no qualifications crying out ‘it doesn’t matter – I speak English perfectly, I don’t need to know the exact reasons or rules!’ This might be the case, but your learners do.”Not to be too technical, but I thought we were talking about Native Speaking English TEACHERS versus Non-native Speaking English Teachers, not Native English Speakerss versus Non-native English Speaking teachers? I know many Native English Speaking TEFL-TESL Teachers, and all of them know the rules. We learned explicit versus Implicit grammar in my Modern English Grammar Class in my ESL English Classes, my Teacher Education program,my Linguistics Courses, and again in My ESl Endorsement Courses. So stop comparing Native Speakers and Non-Native Speaking Teachers. NESTs are Native English Speakers who are certified to teach English. a Native Speaker of English is not a Teacher and has no training as such. A Non-native English Speaking Teacher, usually has to be at least at the advanced level in English in order to teach. A Native English Speaking Teacher also has to have proven himself or herself to be an expert in English in order to teach it, or at least a Degree in English, which indicates some expertise. That Degree in English, means you spent four years studying English. In addition, while NNES Teachers may have memorized a copy of the grammar rules, they tend to be much less knowledgeable when using and applying those rules, in my experience. Application of the rules is much more important. My students can look up the rules, but I have to teach and reteach them how to apply them, and the same goes for NNESTs. I have observed them in Online classes, and they tend to make more mistakes, both in speaking and in chat. They make the same mistakes in their classes that they make in our online teachers groups, which they think doesn’t count. And it doesn’t, but as a past evaluator, my posts have fewer errors. I edit and correct any typos, and while auto-correct does frustrate me, especially in Facebook, which even auto-corrects on my laptop, I do not ever make the excuse, I am on my smart phone. We are teachers. Correct your mistakes wherever and whenever you find them. If you make the mistakes in informal situations, it’s a good bet you’re making them in front of students where it counts. It can ruin an otherwise great evaluation, because my evaluation is not the only one that counts. Others are evaluating them and are reviewing and adding to my evaluations.

    By the way, how many tenses are there in English? How many tenses are there in English? On page 1 of the Google results, I found the following answers: Two, three, eleven, twelve, and thirteen. I have seen the results of multiple polls where other answers were given and a poll where the answer that had the highest percentage was seven, coming in at just over 33%. Like I said above, how many tenses are there in English? Two, past and present; three, past present, and future; 11, 12, 13? it’s a trivia question. When a student asks me such a question. I take a page from my History of English Classes, and make them aware of the controversy, and ask further questions. What about the subjunctive; is it a tense? It’s called subjunctive mood, not tense. Passive and Active are Voices, not tenses. What are they really asking with this question. I usually tell my students that the three categories of tenses are talking about the present; current actions, past actions, and the future, so i say 3 and a half, because I am running is a current action in progress, with shades of the future. In my class, I make my students think, and i lead them to discover the answers. I rarely give them the answers. If they want to know how many tenses there are, right now. I will turn on the computer with the big screen and Google it. They will see the Google page with at least five different answers on the 1st page and see it is not an easy question. That’s reality. I tell them past, present, and future because 11, 12, or 13 is scary and daunting. My job is to teach them and help them reach their goals, not to scare them. I’m a teacher, not a horror writer. My name is Kurt Steinbach, not Stephen King . . .

    • TEFL Exchange Reply

      Hi Kurt,

      We’d argue that knowing different grammars and understandings of tense is certainly not trivia. It’s language awareness. In fact, the Cambridge Delta exam specifically asks ‘language awareness’ questions where you’re asked to identify certain classes of words…intransitive verbs would be an example of this.

      ‘They make the same mistakes in their classes that they make in our online teachers groups, which they think doesn’t count.’ I think it sounds like you’re generalizing on a small sample size of your own personal experience. I hope you realize that while this may be the case for you, and even for many NNESTs, generalizing in this manner is logically flawed and limited by confirmation bias and small sample size.

      Look, there are TEFL teachers who do not have the required level of English. There are likewise native speakers who are employed as teachers and do not possess the requisite language awareness or subject knowledge. The point we’re making is people should be judged on merit, not on first language. I’ve had many professors and supervisors who were non-native English speakers and had specialized extensively in the practice of English teaching.

      Despite our disagreement though, you’re clearly a passionate teacher with a great understanding of English, so congratulations. 🙂

    • Rodolfo Palma N. Reply

      Really like the way you point out the difference between a Native English Speaker TEACHER and A Native English Speaker period . Unfortunately , there are a lot of unqualified and poorly trained individuals out there claiming to be Teachers who only help to increase some of the wrong perceptions the general public has regarding what it takes to be a language teacher .
      The one point in the article I strongly agree with is how it mentions that a Non-native English teacher is more likely to experience and project a sense of emphaty , on the other hand , what really is important is proper training along with real certifications .
      Being a Non-native English speaker myself who has worked as a teacher for a number of years , I’ve had personally experienced the not so great feeling of being excluded from some job opportunities in my home country because my first language is not English , and yes , it is frustraiting , specially when you see ads like this ” English Teachers wanted , no experience required , NATIVES ONLY ” It’s like ,/ WTF/ , personally I find these ads very excluding and discriminating , but at the same time I am aware of how schools use this situation to attract business , particularly in a country like Mexico , where the general perception is that anything foreign must be better somehow . Anyway , I really enjoyed reading your post Mr. Steinbach .

    • Karl Millsom Reply

      Kurt, I find this to be a bery idealised view of Native Speaker Teachers. Perhaps you teach in a prr of the workd where policy and standards enaure that that is a reality, but out here in South East Asia, Native English Speakers who find it a dozen times easier to get a job—not to mention the requisite visas and work permits—than Non Native Speakers do, qualifications be damned!
      As such, the employment pool is full of Native English Speakers who’s quality of English is terrible, let alone their knowledge/awareness of English standards/rules.
      In Indonesia, a Native English Speaker can get a visa and a job with basically any bachelor’s degree and nothing else, (even more certain if the indicidual is white) as TEFL is an underdeveloped and unrecognised qualification here. Knowing this, NES back-packers and gap-year kids flood the place looking to pay for their surfing trips by teaching. and they’re often awful teachers from the perspectives of both methodology and awareness.
      Very rarely—not never, of course—do I encounter a NNEST who matches this description.
      So while everything you say is valid, Kurt, it is often not reality in my experience. And when that is the case, often NNES do seem to make better teachers than NES. It is not a matter of potential, of who *could* be better, but rather a matter of looking at the teachers available and seeing who in fact *is* better.

      • Karl Millsom Reply

        That said, I still want to make it absolutely clear that when it *is* a question of potential, of who *could* be a better teacher, then it absolutely comes down to the individual. If I had to pick the best half dozen teachers I habe ever worked with, off the top of my head it would be a pretty even split between NES and NNES teachers.

  7. Helia Rethmann Reply

    This comment may be most relevant to TESL teachers (i.e. those teaching English in an English speaking country) but the cultural pitfalls non-native teachers personally experience upon moving to another country may also benefit their future ESL students.
    As a German, I have taught ESL and TESL in the US for over 15 years, and I’m still amazed when most of my US students think concepts like ‘making small-talk’, ‘sandwiching criticism’, and coming up with ‘white lies’ to be universal (hint: they’re not). My ESL students appreciate decoding the meaning of “We must do this again!” and “I better let you go” (on the phone), and I don’t think we would bond the same way had I not blundered my way through many a social situation before them.
    True fluency is linguistic as well as social, and who better to instruct cultural strangers than other cultural strangers?

  8. RICHARD FIELDEN-WATKINSON Reply

    I’m sorry but this ‘blog’ post is terrible. It just exacerbates the problem, with provocative lines such as ‘native speakers simply don’t have the same language awareness as non-native speakers’. This is prejudice, not fighting prejudice as the author thinks.

    The solution is to stop saying one group of people is ‘better’ than another group of people, not to simply shout louder for your side.

  9. Pingback: Accent Differences: Do They Really Matter?

  10. Victoria Surtees Reply

    I am not usually the type to comment on blog posts, but I think there are a few things that are missing from this article that are really important. The first is the employment context this is speaking to – specifically that (as many here have mentioned), companies and schools preferentially hire white speakers from specific countries (England, Canada, USA, Australia, Ireland) over non-native speakers often despite the fact that the native speakers have few teaching qualifications and very little experience. I am not joking when I say that job ads explicitly exclude non-natives and racially minorities in their ads. If the company DOES hire non-native speakers, they are often paid much less than natives, despite often being more qualified. I do not mean to say that there are not excellent qualified native speaking teachers (of course there are!) but those who are unqualified are systematically hired over more qualified applicants. This article is at least trying to redress the balance – so I give it some props for that. The second thing is that being a good teacher is just as much about knowing how to run an effective class as it is being “an expert”. Many coaches work with athletes who are much more able than them – that does not mean they are not good coaches. Besides, most English classes are for beginners to intermediate levels, at which point teaching strategies are undoubtedly much more important than the “authenticity” of the teacher’s idiomatic repertoire. Finally, I would like to point out something that was missed in the article. Non-native TEFL instructors are often locals (not always of course but often), meaning they have a better understanding of the local education system (and it’s constraints), can speak the local language, are more likley to stay and develop sustainable programs, and can usually work well with other staff who speak the local language. How about we just get on board with qualified English teachers? That seems like the way to go to me!

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