It is a long running debate. I actually find the question not very useful because the answer is: it depends.
Isn’t it also important that a teacher has in-dept knowledge of the language, the skills to teach, is passionate, and makes an effort to prepare a good lesson, regardless of their mother tongue?
However, as long as there is a strong insistence by recruiters to only hire native English speakers, the debate won’t go away.
The Strengths of Native English Speakers
Native English speakers argue that they make better English teachers because they grew up with the language.
They make a good point.
Non-native speakers often do not have good pronunciation and word-stress, and they sometimes also lack a deep understanding of the intrinsics of a language.
The Strengths of Non-Native English Speakers
There are many non-native speakers who have good pronunciation, word-stress, and a native-level grasp of English.
Those individuals often make great teachers:
- Their formal learning of knowledge about English helps them develop language awareness.
- They sometimes can explain English grammar better than native speakers, who just “feel” when a sentence is correct.
- They have walked in the shoes of an English learner, which enables them to be good learner models.
- They can be more sensitive to students’ learning problems and can anticipate their learning difficulties.
- They can teach language learning strategies more effectively than people who have never learned a second language.
Despite having all these strengths, non-native English speakers are often considered second rate teachers, especially in Thailand.
Native English speakers still have a special status of being a linguistic model of the English language. Their English knowledge and proficiency is regarded as a point of reference.
The ability to teach depends on the individual, and it depends on the setting and desired outcome of a class.
Judging a person’s ability to teach English only on their mother tongue seems as silly as judging a person’s ability to cook spaghetti based on their passport.
One last thought: I think Thailand is on the right track to demand non-native speakers take a TOEIC exam. There is no passing score, but if you end up with a score lower than 850 you are not at a native level yet. This should motivate you actively improve your English skills in all four areas of the language: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. You owe it to your students.
What do you think about this debate? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.