Against Intellectual Sloth

Dellar’s latest post: Five things I’ve learned from running the ‘English questions answered’ group has been lauded without any attempt at a critical examination of its contents. Five points are made, and here, I’ll discuss the first one.

1. Language awareness is not something you’re born with.

Dellar begins:

In this day and age, it should hardly need stating that traditional notions about the relative merits of so-called ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ teachers are ridiculously outdated. It is impossible to tell from the language used by many of the most regular contributors whether English is their mother tongue or not. It’s also, of course, irrelevant.

I agree with the first sentence.

The second sentence carefully refers only to “many of the most regular contributors”, thus ignoring the fact that in other cases it is possible to tell from the language used by contributors whether English is their mother tongue or not. Here’s the sloth, the lazy generalisation that needs comment. And it isn’t mere nit picking. While, of course we should defend non-native English speaker teachers (NNESTs) against wrongful discrimination, we should do so with respect for the evidence. There are tens of thousands of NNESTs whose command of English is demonstrably excellent; and the arguments about the added qualifications which they bring to the job, including bilingualism, knowledge of local contexts, and often superior knowledge of English and of teaching methods compared to that of native speaker teachers are persuasive.

But these teachers are not completely representitive. More than 90% of those currently teaching English as a foreign language are non-native English speakers (British Council, 2015). Most of these NNESTs teach in their own countries, and the evidence suggests that many – probably a majority – of these teachers today don’t have the command of English required to teach the English courses set out in the national curricula, which increasingly focus on communicative language teaching (CLT). To take the example of China, studies by Zhang (2012), Chen and Goh (2011), and Yan (2012) highlight the teachers’ lack of proficiency in oral communication in English as one of the key factors impeding the successful implemenation of a CLT curriculum.

Similar results have been found in studies carried out in other countries. A 1994 study by Reves & Medgyes (cited in Braine, 2005) asked 216 native speaker and non-native speaker English teachers from 10 countries (Brazil, former Czechoslovalua, Hungary, Israel, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, Sweden, former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe) about their experiences as teachers. The overwhelming majority of the participants were non-native speakers of English, and in their responses, 84% of the non-native speaker subjects said that they had various difficulties using English and that their teaching was adversely affected by these difficulties. Difficulties with vocabulary and fluency were most frequently mentioned, followed by speaking, pronunciation, and listening comprehension.

No good comes from ignoring these facts. To skate so carelessly over the evidence surely harms more than it helps the cause of NNESTs , and it clouds more than it clarifies the complicated arguments involved in moving towards a better, more pluralistic view of the English language and of what should, and, should not, be taught in ELT.


Braine, G. (2005) A History of Research on Non-Native Speaker English Teachers. In: Llurda E. (eds) Non-Native Language Teachers. Educational Linguistics, vol 5. Springer, Boston, MA.

Chen, Z. and Goh, C. (2011)  Teaching oral English in higher education: Challenges to EFL teachers Teaching in Higher Education, 16(3), 333 – 345.

Yan, C. (2012) ‘We can only change in a small way’: A study of secondary English teachers’ implementation of curriculum reform in China. Journal of Educational Change, 13, 431 – 447.

Zhang, D. (2012). Chinese Primary School English Curriculum Reform. In Ruan, J. and  Leung, C. Perspectives on Teaching and Learning English Literacy in China. NY Springer

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