“Is it acceptable to use the term non-native speaker?”

I am a non-right-handed, non-male, non-young teacher of English as a foreign language. However, I am white British, and the language I teach is also my first language. For some (both employers and learners) in TEFL; this puts me in a privileged position.

What is really relevant?

The fact that I’m left-handed and female should be seen as irrelevant. Why include the information here, and why try to define myself by what I’m not (right-handed, male)? Surely my qualifications and experience are enough to say who I am professionally? This ‘othering’ (as a “non-native” speaker; somehow “non-standard”) is nevertheless the situation many speakers of English as a second or subsequent language find themselves in when applying, or being vetted for, a job in TEFL.


Although the terms “native” and “non-native” have been banned by organisations such as TESOL and the British Association of Applied Linguistics (BAAL), and their inclusion in job advertisements is now illegal in many countries, the problem remains that in the mindsets of many (both students and practitioners) “native” speakers (and their associated culture – usually white Western) are somehow superior as teachers and models of language use. However, this does not take into account the realities of the majority of learners of English, who will use the language to communicate with other second-language speakers, and in a cultural context far removed from, say, London, Cambridge, or Boston Massachusetts. Added to this is the belief that only “native” speakers have an intrinsic ‘feel’ for the language they teach: this view is so widespread that it is reproduced by ChatGPT (Artificial Intelligence is trained by exposure to many thousands of examples of human texts/speech on the topic in question):

Native speakers typically possess an intuitive understanding of the language’s grammar, vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, and pronunciation, as they have grown up using the language in everyday life. They are considered to have the highest level of proficiency and fluency in that

language. [https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/native-speakerism-%E2%80%93-what- it-and-why-does-it-matter]

Further, it is believed that the “non-native” speakers alone know what it’s like to learn English (and how difficult it is) and are alone privileged to understand English teaching in their home country.

Anyone who has studied for CELTA or DELTA/Dip TESOL would take issue with the first of these points; the second limits the cultural competence and adaptability of all teachers to the point that suggests no student should be taught by a non-national of his or her home country; thus rendering the ‘superior’ “native speaker” from e.g. the UK or USA largely unemployable.


This two-tier classification into “native” and “non-native” teachers also allows for discrimination in terms of pay, position and career prospects: I’ve worked at a school where “non-natives” were both paid a lower hourly rate and limited in the range of classes they were asked to teach (no advanced- level students! No exam classes!) Despite being pedagogically extremely competent and very well- qualified, my multilingual colleagues were passed over in favour of minimally qualified (and much less competent) monolingual English speakers.

The absurdity of this situation has been apparent to many of those working in TEFL for some time; however, the “native”/ “non-native” dichotomy remains, perhaps partly because there is no neat way of referring to individuals’ linguistic identities, and people are naturally lazy when it comes to definitions. Having lived in Germany for over a decade, I am able to call myself bilingual with English as my dominant language; other colleagues are monolingual English, others still are multilingual. This more fluid, nuanced approach, I feel, more fully reflects the realities of both teachers and learners today. I wouldn’t be comfortable defining myself as a “native” speaker (and by implication, defining others as “non-native”), nor would I be willing to work for an institution listing “native speaker” or “Western look” among its hiring criteria.

The following articles (both by Adrian Holliday) are a useful introduction to native speakerism: https://academic.oup.com/eltj/article/60/4/385/499514


Kirstie Jackson Wilms worked as a face-to-face General English trainer in Oxford before moving to Germany in 2010, where she continued to teach (mainly) Business English online. She joined the Publishing team of an online training provider in 2018. Kirstie is CELTA and DELTA qualified and is currently working towards an MA in Professional Development in Language Education (MA PDLE). Her professional interests are in developing learner autonomy through materials writing and classroom practice. In her free time she enjoys hiking, reading crime novels, and watching cricket. Check out her blog: https://tefl45.wordpress.com/

Categories: CPD