Native vs. Non-Native English Teachers—Which Should You Choose?

Published on
December 2, 2020
|
Updated on
May 10, 2021
|
📖
11
min read
Written by
Ramsay Lewis

Many English learners express a preference for native-speaking English teachers—but are they actually better? No, and here’s why.

Native vs. Non-Native English Teachers—Which Should You Choose?

I get this question a lot: is it better to have a native English-speaking teacher? Or can a non-native English speaking teacher be just as effective?

I’m not going to lie: as a native English-speaker that spent several years bumming around Europe teaching English, I absolutely benefited from the preference that many English learners have to learn from a native English speaker. Being a native-speaker definitely helped me find work.

And it’s not always just because native speakers have mastered the language. 

There’s also sometimes a perception that non-native English-speaking teachers use more outdated methods. This may stem from experiences with uninspired teachers in school using traditional (but boring) methods. 

But the truth is that non-native English teachers are often just as good as native-English speakers—and sometimes they’re better. 

For example, when I worked at an English immersion summer camp for youth in Southwest England, the best teacher (in my humble opinion) was a lady from Greece. 

English was her second language. 

Later, when I taught in an English immersion summer camp for children in Southeast France, the best teacher (this time without a doubt) was, again, Greek. English was her third language.

I can confidently say that both of these individuals were better English teachers than I was.

So it is absolutely not the case that native English-speaking teachers (let’s call them “NESTs”) are automatically better than non-native English-speaking teachers (NNESTs).

In this article, I want to give you my perspective on the advantages and disadvantages of native vs. non-native English speakers as teachers. I’m hoping that, by the end, you’ll be in a better position to choose a teacher that is most appropriate for you. 

But first, do you actually need English lessons?

The question about whether NESTs or NNESTs would be a better English teacher for you assumes that you need an English teacher. 

But I want to highlight a point I’ve made elsewhere: not everyone needs to take English lessons. In fact, there are several disadvantages to learning English in a classroom

While it’s true that tutoring and one-on-one lessons can be a very effective way to learn English, they’re not for everyone. Before enrolling in an English course, I recommend that you think carefully about whether lessons are the right choice for you. If they are, then think about what kind of English lessons would be the most appropriate. 

Only after doing all that does it make sense to start thinking about whether your English teacher needs to be a native speaker or not. 

Advantages of native speakers as teachers

They know how people “naturally” talk

The big, obvious advantage of having native speakers as teachers is that they know the language. They can speak it fluently, but, more than that, they are usually able to model its use in a particularly natural way.

That depth of knowledge of the language, and the high level of competence, can be useful to the English learner. 

They can tell you interesting things about where they’re from

Another advantage is that the native speaker can tell you about more than just the language—they can also tell you about their culture.

When I taught in France, the majority of the conversations I had with my clients were about Canada and the difference between Canada and France. The reason was that that’s what my clients were interested in. 

Most of them hadn’t been to Canada and they were curious about it. What’s it like? How is it different from France? 

If you’re learning English because you’re curious about the culture of English-speaking places, actually meeting someone from those places may be a really interesting and useful experience for you. 

They’re easier to find than ever

Twenty years ago finding an English native speaker was tricky unless you lived in a big city. 

If you’re happy to have lessons online via video, it’s now easier than ever.

Popular places to find an English teacher online include italki ($10 free credit), Preply, Cambly, Verbling, Amazing Talker, and Langcer.

And if you’re looking for a conversation exchange partner, I’d recommend checking out Tandem, Bilingua, or HelloTalk.

Disadvantages of native speakers

They often have a worse understanding of English grammar

I’ve worked in five different English-teaching organisations. Almost all of them had NNESTs in addition to NESTs. I feel comfortable saying that, more often than not, it was the non-native speakers that had a better grasp of English grammar.

That may not be all that surprising: non-native English speakers have to really learn English grammar; they had to practise it over and over to get good at it. 

Native speakers, like myself, can often get by on the strength of our ear. We’re able to hear what sounds right and what doesn’t without necessarily understanding why. 

That’s fine in conversation. But if you want someone to explain English grammar to you, non-natives might actually be better. 

They’re not always good at recognising or teaching other versions of English

I’ve noticed that many English speakers aren’t great at acknowledging or accepting accents that are different from their own.

That goes for me too. I remember doing an activity with a vocabulary worksheet in a school I worked for. We were learning car vocabulary. One of the words was “tyre” and, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what it was. 

This is embarrassing because it’s just the British spelling version of “tire”, the rubber part of the wheel. It’s pronounced the same, and most of the letters are the same, but something about that “y” instead of an “i” just really confused me. 

It’s not just me. 

I’ve often seen English teachers teaching something—vocabulary, pronunciation, expressions—without any recognition that what they’re teaching is just one way (of several). 

NNESTs, in my experience, are often better at qualifying what they teach, letting students know that this pronunciation or spelling or word or grammatical construct may not be used everywhere. It’s not “the right way” so much as it is “one right way”. 

Partly I think that’s normal: Native-speakers are hired because they are a kind of expert. And so, when we teach, say, pronunciation, it’s easiest to teach our own pronunciation. 

Still, I think it is incumbent on teachers, like me, to inform our student that what we’re teaching is one way of pronouncing a word—not necessarily the right way. 

In my experience, NNESTs are better at this than NESTs, probably because they’ve had to learn it themselves.

They’re not always that interested in teaching English

The truth is that not all NESTs are passionate about teaching English. Lots of them just want to travel, and teaching English is a convenient—and sometimes lucrative—way to make a living in another country. 

If you live in Spain, Thailand, or Italy—basically anywhere with a beach—I’d be willing to bet that many of the English speaking teachers in your area are mostly there because they like to travel, and not so much because they love teaching.

It’s different for NNESTs. 

First, it’s very difficult to find work teaching English if you’re not a native English-speaker, so NNESTs tend to be dedicated and have really polished their craft. 

They aren’t just doing it for a year or two while they travel; they’ve invested a tonne of time,actually like teaching, and are often very good at it.

Advantages of non-native speakers

There are usually more non-native speakers available

The fact is that if you’re not in an immersion English programme or living in an English-speaking country, it’s probably going to be easier for you to find NNESTs.

When I lived in France, I sometimes went to an English-French language exchange meetup. I was one of the few native English speakers there—sometimes I was the only one. 

But there were lots of French speakers that wanted to practise English. And they often ended up just chatting with each other.

It’s a numbers game

Non-native English speakers are probably going to be easier to find if you don’t live in an English-speaking place. There are more of them, and that's a massive advantage.

They are an example of successful language learning

We have a saying in English that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” The idea is, roughly, that having role models can help you achieve great things.

One of the advantages of learning English from a NNEST is that, because they are a person that has learned English fluently, they embody the success that their students are looking for. It might be easier for you, a student, to imagine yourself becoming proficient at English when you can see a person who has done it. 

But not only that, NNESTs can also model the learning skills that helped them to be successful learning English. For example, language teachers may demonstrate how they use Youtube to learn English or show how they overcame their fear of speaking

NNESTs know what the barriers to learning are because they have already overcome them. They know what challenges students will face because they have already faced them. 

By having learned English themselves, NNESTs can demonstrate to students that learning English is possible if you put in the work. And they can model the learning strategies that students can use to achieve that same success. 

They may be better at teaching

Some research suggests that NESTs approach their lessons differently than NNESTs. 

NNESTs are more likely to integrate language into the context—either the situation or the linguistic context. The researchers suggest that this developed through their experience having to cope in English-speaking situations. 

On the other hand, NESTs tend to teach using more abstract principles, making students more “consciously aware” of the language rather than focusing on using it to communicate meaning. 

NNESTs may therefore be more likely to teach in a way that is consistent with what we know about the theory behind language learning: that learning language in context matters. For that reason, NNESTs may be more successful at helping you develop your ability to convey meaning. 

The research also found that non-native speaking teachers prepared for their classes more carefully. This may be because NESTs may feel more comfortable winging it whereas NNESTs may not have that same confidence, and therefore prepared more thoroughly than their native-speaking colleagues. 

Finally, especially for lower levels, teachers that share a mother tongue with the student may be particularly well-placed to teach effectively. They can switch to their mother tongue to translate difficult ideas or more easily teach vocabulary.

Disadvantages of non-native speakers

Lack of depth of informal language uses or slang

NNESTs may not have the same depth of language knowledge as native-speakers. This may show up in particular subject areas or in particular dialects. 

Indeed, some research does show that it is in language competency where NNESTs may be slightly behind NESTs. 

You might be tempted to slip into your native tongue

If you share a native language with your teacher, it can be tempting to use it—at the expense of practising English. 

I saw this sometimes when I worked in France. My company liked the fact that my French wasn’t that good because it meant that I wouldn’t switch into French with the clients. 

If you’re looking for a more immersive experience, you may not want to learn from a teacher that speaks the same language as you. 

Uninspired teaching?

I’ve occasionally come across students who are turned off of NNESTs because they have had bad experiences at school with teachers who weren’t very good. 

These teachers may have been older, and learned English from a textbook in the 1960s at about the same time they designed their English course. They may not have changed things since.

I think this is fairly common in English-speaking countries too—I certainly know some French teachers in my own school system had classes that were, to put it bluntly, not good. 

So some people, I think, expect that all NNESTs may have a style similar to their least favourite teachers from school: kind of out-of-date and ineffective. They may be apprehensive for those reasons. 

While you may find teachers like that (among both NNESTs and NESTs), I think these are fairly uncommon now. Most adult language tutors and private tutors have moved past this and have more sophisticated teaching styles and tools.

So while I am aware that some students of English are apprehensive about the teaching style of NNESTs, I think it’s generally not the case that the teaching style of NNESTs is less interesting or less effective. 

So, how can the independent learner apply all that?

Great, so there are some advantages and disadvantages to learning from native speakers and non-native speakers. But what can you do with all that? 

Here is what I would suggest.

A native English-speaking teacher is probably better for you if:

  • You’re at a very high level of English,
  • You want to learn English for a very specific purpose (for example, to talk about complex ideas in a particular professional or academic context), or
  • You have a very particular accent that you’re trying to learn and you want coaching in it. 

A non-native speaker is probably better if:

  • You have a relatively low level and need to be able to speak in your mother tongue,
  • You want in-person lessons that aren’t expensive and you don’t live in an English-speaking country, or
  • You would find it motivating to learn English from someone who has done it themselves.

And if you don’t find yourself in any of the categories above, probably you could benefit from either a NEST or a NNEST. 

Perhaps more important than your teacher’s native language is what they are like as a teacher. 

Some are inspiring and use creative activities; others use outdated and, frankly, ineffective methods. Some leave you enjoying English, and some make you wish you were doing anything else. 

Ideally, you’ll find a teacher with whom you have chemistry; someone who will motivate you. That may be more important than whether they are a native English speaker.

What about native vs. non-native English-speaking conversation partners? 

Do you need native-English speakers as conversation partners?

Absolutely not. 

Non-native speakers are great to practise with. Much of my early French I actually learned at a French conversation meetup in Glasgow. I got to an A2 level over a few months in part by chatting with my Scottish neighbours a few times a week at a local pub.

When you’re looking for a conversation partner, non-native speakers can be just as useful as native-speakers.

The important thing is that you use the language. 

Native vs. Non-native English teachers: either can be effective

The majority of this article has been about the pros and cons of native vs. non-native English teachers. 

The conclusion is that, for most English learners, both native and non-native speaking teachers can be effective. 

While some of us may have had experience with NNESTs in school that weren’t good, the reality is that most non-native private tutors and those that teach at modern adult language schools are usually quite good. 

If you’ve written off a NNEST because of a bad experience in school, you might be missing out. 

Rather than making a decision about your teacher based on their native language, I encourage you to look for other characteristics that make someone a good teacher: whether they seem prepared, whether you enjoy working with them, and whether you’re making progress. 

But I’d also like to take this moment to remind you that the most important factor in your English learning isn’t your teacher—it’s you. 

We learn a language by learning it; that is, by putting in the effort and time to sit down and actively engage with it

An inspiring teacher is great, whether that’s a native or non-native, but you will learn English from any teacher if you put in the work. 

Heck, you can learn English alone if you want to—and many people do. 

So, sure, take an English class or hire a tutor if you think that’s best for you. 

But my advice is to not get too concerned about whether they’re a native speaker or not. 

Find someone that you like... and then make sure you’re consistently engaged with English—listening to it, reading it, speaking it, and writing it. 

If you do that, you’ll see progress regardless of who your teacher is.

References

García Merino, I. (1997). Native English-speaking teachers versus non-native English-speaking teachers. Revista alicantina de estudios ingleses, 10, 69-79.

Kurniawati, K., & Rizki, D. (2018). Native vs. non-native EFL teachers: Who are better?. Studies in English Language and Education, 5(1), 137-147.