Why "native speakerism" ultimately just doesn't make cents

Last year in a piece I published, entitled "The elephant in the room: discriminatory hiring practices in ELT", I tried to make the case as to why employing a "native speaker" model when hiring English teachers is a legal and moral faux pas (Jenkins, 2017). Based on the language written in the Discrimination Convention in Geneva in 1958 (United Nations, 1958), discrimination in any form was essentially outlawed decades ago. Similarly, in many countries today explicit employment discrimination is illegal. So how can recruiters expressly deny someone an employment opportunity just because he/she isn't a "native speaker"? Isn't that against the law? And by the way, what does "native speaker" mean exactly? Does it mean one who is a passport holder of a native English speaking country? One's accent is "native"? Can bilinguals be considered "native"? With the expansion of a language that has become a lingua franca (Jenkins, 2000), there doesn't seem to be consensus on what a "native speaker of English" actually is these days, yet recruiters are really adamant about having them. 

Another side of the debate is concerned with the morality of a "native only" recruitment policy. Research shows that the "native only" framework may subject fellow "nonnative" speaking teachers to unspeakable psychological and emotional torment. In a compelling plenary, Richardson (2016) rehearsed scholarly works that highlighted the "inadequacies" that "nonnative" speaking teachers feel when measured to their "native" counterparts. She also reviewed some of the strategies they employ to avoid being "detected" as a "nonnative" speaker. Adrian Holliday (2014) suggests that employing such a framework is tantamount to "neo-racism", with "race [being] implicit in the Othering of 'non-native speaker' teachers" (Holliday, 2014). Is this really what recruiters endorse? Are we comfortable with allowing human beings to question their self-worth, to actively deny their origins, in the name of earning a living?

Beyond the serious legal and moral implications of employing a "native speaker only" framework, it's just bad for business. In terms of market demand, the mantra of customers preferring "native speaker" teachers to "nonnative" speakers has been challenged repeatedly by empirical research. As such, companies adopting this approach are operating on a fallacy (for a succinct overview of other basic fallacies of "native speakerism", I invite you to read Marek Kiczkowiak's (2014) piece written for the British Council). Another important factor in the ELT business is the concept of supply and demand. As we know, there's tremendous demand by companies and institutes clamoring for "native speaker" teachers because of their ostensible worth in language teaching. Yet if 80% of the English teachers worldwide are "non-native" (Canagarajah, 2005), then that doesn't leave an abundant amount of "native speakers" to serve the 1.5 billion English language learners in the world (Beare, 2017), does it? And that figure is expected to jump to 2 billion by 2020. The perception that only "native speaker" teachers are the most well equipped to teach English is not sustainable, not morally and not economically, and it must be re-conceptualized to accommodate the realities of the growing ELT market.

I remember working as a consultant for a staffing project in Saudi Arabia, and a new university wanted to hire 50 teachers by the fall semester. They started recruiting in July (just a little fashionably late), and they wanted 50 "native speaker" teachers! I said, "Wow! That's not feasible and all the best with that because there aren't that many "native speaker" teachers just sitting around waiting to come to Saudi Arabia!" Ultimately, they couldn't complete the project because they stipulated a "native speaker" only hiring policy. "Nonnative" speaker teachers need to be accorded their due worth and value to change the perception that "nonnative" is somehow synonymous with lower quality. In fact, we know from research that "nonnative" speaker teachers are in many cases better poised to teach certain aspects of the language by virtue of them having successfully gone through the language acquisition process. So how is that these fallacies continue to underpin the market, even to the extent that businesses and/or projects fail as a result? In any case, for a market that's expanding ever so rapidly, "native speakerism" will not make lots of cents in the long run...and it doesn't make any sense now for that matter.



Beare, K (2017). How many people learn English? ThoughtCo. Available at https://www.thoughtco.com/how-many-people-learn-english-globally-1210367 (accessed 9 June 2018).

Canagarajah, A. S. (ed.) (2005). Reclaiming the local in language policy and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Holliday, A. (2014). ‘Native speakerism’. Adrian Holliday. Available at http://adrianholliday.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/nism-encyc16plain-submitted.pdf (accessed 9 June 2018).

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, S. (2017). The elephant in the room: discriminatory hiring practices in ELT. ELT Journal71(3), 373-376.

Kiczkowiak, M. (2014). Native English-speaking teachers: Always the right choice. British Council Voices Magazine. Available at https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/native-english-speaking-teachers-always-right-choice (accessed 9 June 2018).

Richardson, S. (2016). ‘The “native factor”, the haves and the have-nots’. IATEFL Online. Available at https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2016/session/plenary-silvana-richardson (accessed 9 June 2018).

United Nations. (1958). Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention. Geneva: OHCHR. Available at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/EmploymentAndOccupation.aspx (accessed 9 June 2018).