TESOL Spain 2017 finished up with a compelling plenary from Silvana Richardson on native-speakerism and bias in ELT. She covered the topic from many angles, but out of all of them, I would just like to focus on one – the use of the phrase “native-speaker teachers” as a pull-factor in advertising language courses. Why has this come to be seen as a good thing - if indeed it has been?
Silvana points out that when school owners are challenged about using “native-speaker teachers” in their adverts, they will reply that they are only responding to the realities of the market – the customers want native speakers, and in the world of business, the customer is always right. But DO the customers want native speakers? Silvana goes on to quote research in which the evidence points the other way – the majority of customers prefer bilingual teachers – bilingual in the student’s L1 and the target language. A huge proportion of ‘native-speaker teachers’ do not fulfil this description, while many non-native teachers do.
How can we explain, therefore, the perceived advertising pull of native speakers? It may be simply a vicious circle – the customer sees it on the advertising and concludes that it must be a good thing. Like fat-free water, perhaps – the customer doesn’t realise it’s a thing they might want until an advert tells them it is. Then, having learnt that it’s something they want, they expect it. School owners then try to fulfil the very expectation they have created, and the circle is completed. Imagine the consequences of this on the job prospects of the non-native-speaker teacher.
Silvana rounds of the argument with a call to challenge the perceptions of the market. Even in cases where the customer wants native speaker teachers, the customer is not always right. Caving in to native speakerism is a race to the bottom. What if the customer’s demands were racist or sexist – should we be comply then? Where does it stop? No, she says – we must stick to our principles and prove to the customer that the measure of a good teacher has nothing to do with their mother tongue.
Silvana encourages the audience to be active against native speakerism, and recommended TEFL Equity Advocates as a go-to website for further information. She also highlighted TESOL Spain’s position statement against discrimination.