Inequality in ELT – my thoughts on Jeremy Harmer’s blog post

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My answer to Jeremy Harmer’s blog post. I decided to share it here to see what your thoughts are:

As an English teacher from Slovakia, living and working in the Czech Republic, I consider myself a part of the “common” teaching crowd (and I don’t use this term in a negative way – it’s just the way it is and, to be honest, I feel happy where I am, so do not send me any VIP plenary speaker invites jest yet, please!;))

Of course, there are hierarchies and structures.

I feel that most critical voices stem from the fact that language teaching is considered to be one of those noble, “selfless”, egalitarian occupations and, naturally, any mention of “profit” is bound to be sneered at, even if it’s deserved.

Also, unfortunately, foreign language teaching is very much undervalued within too many political systems around the world. Organisers there have a difficult task balancing quality of content, number of participants and satisfaction of all parties involved.

While there surely are brilliant minds all over the world that aren’t given due respect or reward, the brilliant minds that are invited to conferences and are respected in the world of ELT (whether thanks to intelligence, personal charm, a bit of ‘egotism’, etc.) have something to give. Neither they, nor the organisers can be blamed for “unequal” treatment, even if “profit” is involved (and where isn’t?).

We do live in an unequal world, after all. Hopefully, thanks to language teaching, the possibilities are becoming equally open to everyone.

At the same time, however, I am a little concerned about a different kind of inequality, still existing in every-day teaching situations in many countries. I’ve got personal experience from a prestigious state-owned bilingual grammar school in Slovakia, where I used to teach English with some of my native-speaking colleagues. Here, the pressures from parents to have more native-speaking teachers were so high that the school management had to offer many more advantages, both in terms of pay and other perks, to “attract” native speaking teachers. The parents saw this as absolutely acceptable and were willing to provide separate funds to provide more finances for native speaking teachers. It goes without saying that, while the local teachers were automatically expected not only to do their teaching job well, but the majority of paperwork, organise parent-meetings, as well as be held responsible for the success of the students at exams, even so, they were paid much less.

What we need, I feel, is change the existing discriminatory attitudes that put “native” teachers above their non-native speaking ELT colleagues.

What do you think?


12 Comments on “Inequality in ELT – my thoughts on Jeremy Harmer’s blog post”

  1. Non native English teachers are the real Heros!
    English speaking countries should owe you a lot for keeping English language alive and making it more spoken in the world.
    I don’t give native speakers any credit for speaking their own language.

    I was born in Lebanon where French language was predominant as a second language. Now it is the English language that is taking over French. You know why? because non native people don’t want to speak French anymore and they decided to speak English. What I am trying to say is that: what if non native people decide to boycott one language, is there any future left for the boycotted language? Can native English teacher make it survive?
    What if in Europe or the Middle East we suddenly decide to speak Japanese?


    • I’m glad to read such a passionate reply, Mirella – especially because of your multi-cultural background and experience. It’s a very good point that English is not “lingua-franca”, but a language learnt and used by majority of people who ‘keep it alive’. It’s an unfair situation from the start for those who need to learn it as a foreign language, but, hopefully, the attitudes are changing for the better, thanks to a more connected world, too :)
      I wish you a lovely weekend – I’ll be off-line till Monday, going to a cottage in the mountains.. See you (read you) then;)


  2. I guess it’s the same all over the world :(

    Back in Poland I was earning peanuts being a non-native and had to deal with plenty of paperwork as well.
    Here in Turkey, being a foreigner, I earn a lot more than the Turkish staff and they are the ones who write comments, evaluation forms etc mainly because the foreigners don’t speak Turkish.

    It is very sad and discouraging for many.

    The same thing happens when a non-NEST is looking for a job abroad. S/he is often immediately disqualified regardless of qualifications and experience.

    Solution? God knows but the sheer fact of discussing the issue seems to be a step forward.

    Good luck with your blog btw! Wishing you plenty of readers Marian! :)


    • Great point about ELT jobs abroad, Anita. Same view here. It’s quite a depressing experience for a non-NEST to look for a post in a different country. Some sort of “equal opportunities” measures are in place in other fields, but in ELT this seems to be a norm – two people working in the same post, one of them automatically achieving higher status and getting better pay on account of their place of birth. Ridiculous, really.
      I really feel this hasn’t been talked about enough out in the open.

      Anyway, many thanks for your thoughts – I really appreciate your visit, Anita!


  3. Chris Ozog says:

    I’m a native speaker (also working in the Czech Rep.) and I couldn’t agree more with what’s been written above. When I taught in Central America, I was embarrassed to learn that I earned about 25% more than the local English teachers, in the same school, doing the same job. They were also more experienced than me, had had to learn English and could, of course, understand their learners problems translating from Spanish far far better than me. I was further outraged to discover that many schools – even those of repute such as many IHs – require native speakers and will not accept, say, a French girl with C2 English and 5 years teaching experience. For me, what matters most and what should be rewarded most, is teaching ability. Sure, you have to be able to speak English well, but you probably wouldn’t be trying to teach it if you didn’t.

    One counter argument which is sometimes made, though not by me as I don’t believe in it, is that of a guaranteed language level from a native speaker. This would mainly apply to state-run institutions, as private language schools, in my experience, only employ NNSTs of C1 or above. There was a report when I was in Costa Rica which stated that most of their state school English teachers were of B1 level at best (or something like that, I forget the details). This, of course, has a negative effect on the English in the classroom as the teacher’s English is not at a sufficient level to help their students progress past A2. At least with a NST, this shouldn’t be an issue. As I said, I don’t buy that as it’s part of a larger problem of resources and education in this localised context, but it is an argument I’ve heard.

    Another argument for NSTs is pronunciation. Again, I think it’s nonsense, but people say it. This is especially true with YLs, where they are such good mimicks of what is said that they tend to just ‘pick up’ accents. If you have a NST, you get a ‘natural’ accent in your kid. English teachers need clear pronunciation, but they don’t need to speak like someone born and brought up in California or London. Indeed, would many learners and parents of learners not prefer less specific, more international accents than the two I just mentioned? And NNSTs are more likely to have more international accents, over the more localised accents of NSTs (see my final point below).

    To sum up my opinions, teaching ability is far more important that being (like) a native speaker. I speak French and Spanish and would far rather go into a class with an Italian teacher of one of those languages who could teach well, than with a native speaker of either language who couldn’t. Thus, for me, remuneration packages should reflect this and there should be no difference in pay or conditions between NNSTs and NSTs.

    Last thing: Mirella, I don’t see the relevance of your comment about giving native speakers credit for speaking their own language. I have never sought for that and, believe me, it can actually work against you. When I worked in Argentina, there was frequently an attitude that learners wanted a NST and a NNST. Why? The Argentinian teacher could do the difficult stuff like grammar, while the NST could do conversation. And I mean, just conversation (maybe with a little bit of pron. or vocab as it came up). Would you like to be in that position? It really does make you question why you do the job.

    And finally, I’m from Scotland and so have a ‘non-standard’ native speaker accent. This, too, is sometimes frowned upon; I don’t speak RP or American and so coursebook English is not my English. Believe me, there are some people who have a problem with that. I have a NNST colleague here who thinks I should modify my accent to suit the coursebook. What a complete waste of time that would be! I’d get it wrong, more than right. But there you. So, just to point out that it’s not all plain sailing for NSTs either.


    • Ironically, Chris, I’m an example of someone whose spoken English was greatly improved thanks to NSTs! I had a chance to attend courses as a teenager where I knew I would be taught by native-speakers and I feel I learnt the most not during, but after classes, thanks to socialising. I’m sure I could become a successful English teacher because of this early contact with NSTs since I was a teenager, which boosted my speaking, as well as social skills in English. I could adapt and develop many useful “models” of behaviour that have helped me in my ELT life.

      So, while I perfectly understand the sentiment behind the demand for NSTs all over the world, and would probably choose a NST for my own child, as an English teacher myself it’s a difficult fact to live with that my experience, language and teaching skills, no matter how I develop them, would hardly be considered sufficient not only abroad, but in my own country!

      I’m very grateful that you shared your experience as a NST from Scotland with a similar problem, as it beautifully shows the utter stupidity of any such argument that English / RP is the only standard and correct accent to teach (with). As teachers, we aren’t providing the perfect “specimen” of a language to be learnt, but helping on the way to absorb as many different accents, modes, functions, etc. as possible. It’s about providing experienced guidance, not serving as a role-model.

      Thanks for your thoughts, Chris. I really appreciate them.



  4. Anne Hodgson says:

    The situation in Germany might be a little different.

    You need a German degree to be employed by a K-13 school, which comes with a golden life-time employment guarantee. Few English native speaker expats can afford the 5 years fulltime study you need to acquire that degree.

    Private schools might prefer to employ native speaker expats, I’d say, but only on a freelance or temporary basis, without the substantial benefits and job security their non-native, fulltime German collegues enjoy.

    So many of us expats strike out on our own, combining teaching and various English language services to make a (good) living. Still, many consider what we do a dead end job.


    • Glad to have read your thoughts on this, Anne. To be honest, after reading the words “golden life-time employment guarantee” the first thought in my mind was: now there’s a country that knows how to appreciate its teachers!
      I suppose the situation was very different in Central and Eastern Europe, where teaching suffered from a very serious lack of respect since the early 90s. Teaching was a rather pitiable profession and it only slowly gained a modicum of respect and appreciation in society and there’s still a long way to go.
      It’s all about “equal opportunities” I suppose.


  5. ALiCe__M says:

    All my teachers in France were non native speakers of English and brilliant(please note I wrote “and” and not “but” here!). I also had teachers in British pubs, in the staffroom, in the streets of London, at the cinema, on the radio… and now twitter : brilliant teachers too! I call them my teachers of the second type (TST). Now would my TST have such a strong influence on my French little brain if I had not known my first teachers, the non native teachers of English? I don’t think so. My point is that the two types of teachers are complementary and *both* very crucial to learning a language. They should be equally respected, thanked and admired.


    • I couldn’t agree more, Alice! Love that the prevalent idea in your comment is equality and complementation. Very well put! Needless to say, I’ve got the same feeling about my teachers from both “groups” (however artificial this division into two groups is). A good teacher is a good teacher, regardless of where they come from.
      Thanks for this great comment!


  6. I’m not a language teacher, but I took German from both native German speakers and non-native speakers. I learned something different from each, all of it valuable. Just from reading your blog posts and comments, it’s clear to me that you have a mastery of English that is superior to many native English speakers. Growing up in an English-speaking environment does not guarantee a solid foundation in the language, and certainly not the ability to teach it.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m generally in favor of pay for performance. Good luck!


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