The NEST/non-NEST debate



Like most of my posts, this one has been sparked off by a casual remark in a conversation. In this case, it was with a Spanish friend of mine, who was complaining that her Spanish PLS boss gave more credence and value to comments made at staff meetings by native speaker teachers, many of whom had hardly any teaching experience and, in one case, only a month’s experience of teaching in Spain.

The conversation reminded me of something that happened on one of the Drama Plus courses Dede and I used to run in Hungary.

I was doing a presentation on how to use stories to present grammar. Something very, very innocuous and uncontroversial.

Like all teachers, I have a few little tricks up my sleeve. Mine are really easy to spot. I am so paranoid about talking too much in class that I do two things constantly:

1     I say things which are clearly and sometimes outrageously untrue.

2     I pretend I don’t know words.

Why the first?

When I meet a new group of students or teachers/teacher-trainees on a course, I want to knock down … never quite sure what to call this … the wall of silent respect that exists between a class and a new teacher. I’m all for respecting teachers, but there are limits, especially if they’re talking nonsense. And I want any group I work with to know that I am as likely to talk nonsense as the next person.

To encourage them to think this, I might say something that is clearly not true. I once said to a new group of trainee teachers: “I have no idea how many irregular verbs there are in English – probably about a million.”  A few of them raised their eyebrows but no one said anything. I reacted to the raised eyebrows. I looked all innocent and say “What?” (falling intonation) “Something wrong?” A few nods. Someone said it sounded rather a lot. (There are between 400 and 500, I think).

“Look,” I say. “If I say something you think is nonsense OR something that you don’t agree with, you must tell me. I’m just the teacher here. That doesn’t mean I’m always right.  And it doesn’t mean you have to agree with me.”

Teacher as facilitator, enabler, whatever. Most definitely not teacher as all-knowing, all-seeing. That’s what we have God for.

Encouraging students to do more than raise their eyebrows when the teacher says something nonsensical or controversial has a really useful side-effect. It means that students actually ask me to repeat what I say even when I’m not (as far as I know) talking nonsense or trying to be controversial.

Listening encouraged all round. All good, so far.

Once students/teachers latch on to why I’m doing this, the atmosphere improves. And teaching becomes a DIALOGUE, not a monologue.

Why the second trick?

I enjoy stories, especially story presentations of new vocabulary or structure. I like to wander round the class picking up ideas from the students like burrs and feeding them into the story.

However, the story may need to maintain a narrative thread, so it may be necessary to supply most of the information and not let the students invent for themselves.

This is where I think it helps if you ‘forget’ words.

The narrative might go: “So, this woman (who the class have just described to me) goes to the … what do you call that place where you wait for a bus?”

“A bus stop!” they shout. They have by now been persuaded it’s all right to shout something out when the teacher is talking.

“Right, and then she catches a bus into town, and then she goes into a … uum….what do you call that place where you borrow books?”

“A library!”

“A what?”

“A LIBRARY, cloth-ears!” (They don’t actually shout ‘cloth-ears’, but that’s what they mean, in a friendly way).

“OK, she goes into a library, but she doesn’t know the name of the book she wants, so she  goes up to the ….. what’s the name of the person who works there?”

Etc. And of course there is always the chance that no one actually KNOWS the word. So I count to three and tell them it. No earth-shattering new methodology here, just a bit of interactive common sense.

Actually, the above exchange doesn’t read as well on the page as it feels in real life. And anyway, I don’t know any other way of teaching. It turns the whole process into a dialogue of discovery.

What has all this got to do with NESTs and non-NESTs?

Back to the Drama Plus course. I finished the session on story presentations and we were having some coffee. One of the participants came up to me.

“I love the way you pretend you don’t know words to keep us all involved,” she said.

“It isn’t always pretending,” I answered.

“No, it’s brilliant,” she said. “I’m going to do that when I get back to my class.”

This particular teacher was one of the very best teachers I’ve ever seen anywhere.  Everyone on the course was entranced by her enthusiasm and skill when she did short demonstration lessons. More than one participant expressed a wish in their course evaluation that she had been their English teacher.

However, when she left the course and went back home to the Czech Republic, she had a bit of a shock. After two weeks, her head teacher called her into her office.

She had taken several of her current students the year before and they weren’t impressed by the fact that her English seemed to have disappeared during the summer break. They had gone home and told their parents that their teacher had forgotten how to speak English. The parents rang the head.

She sent me an email and told me about it.

She had a young British colleague who was famously very relaxed about his knowledge (or lack of) English grammar. When students asked him to explain the difference between two similar examples, he would cheerfully tell them that he had no idea and promise to find out for them the next day. It was the same if they asked him what the difference was between two lexical items – ‘buy’ and ‘purchase’ for example.

I really like the idea of students in a small Czech city having access to a relaxed, young, cheerful and enthusiastic native speaker. But why didn’t the students go home and complain about HIM to their parents?

I think I’ll stop there for now. Re-visiting readers will note that the brilliant TV programme  The Wire featured strongly in the trailer for this post, and yet didn’t make an appearance here. As usual, the post had a mind of its own and went off in another direction. Maybe we’ll come back to The Wire and similar televisual and filmic challenges another time.

Meanwhile, anyone want to throw some petrol on the flames of this NEST/non-NEST distinction that I feel is still alive and well?

80 thoughts on “The NEST/non-NEST debate

  1. Being a NEST and not being able to answer a question is not cool, it’s actually normal, but Non-NESTs who have no information on a particular point, Ken, have no idea as to whether this is a key point they should know something about or if it is something obscure or rare, etc.

    I like the fact that you are opening this can again. I am interested because I want to explore my own level of tolerance of Non-NEST talk, which I sometimes fear is even lower than that of a NEST. And it shouldn’t.

    Give us some tests then.

    1. Great start, Marisa – at the end of the day, you are a high-end non-NEST (HENNST?) and if YOU think there is a problem, then there definitely is.

      I’m most interested in those moments when non-NESTs have to make a decision about what they tell students. Gavin’s ‘Go-off-and-Google-it’ is not always an option.

      1. Thanks, Ken for HENNST upgrade!

        I just wanted to clarify that my low(ish) levels of tolerance have nothing to do with my students in English Language Classes, but with Non-NEST teachers in my teacher education courses, or Non-NEST speakers at conferences. Although I value their teaching abilities, ideas. or personality, etc, very much, it still bothers me when for example, they are modelling something and make mistakes (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation).

        I need to go into hypnosis!!!!!

        When I have to make a decision…hmmm…. actually to be quite honest, I don’t think too long or hard when I have to decide. I think “does this sound/feel OK?” or I will either know the answer or will not. If I don’t, then I will ask someone or google it or something like that and I don’t have a problem telling my students that I am not sure or don’t know.

        Hope my answer was more relevant this time!

  2. Whenever I don’t know the answer to a question, I honestly tell my students that I’ll have to ask a NEST for the correct answer. Interestingly, in 99% of all cases, the NESTs don’t know the answer themselves. This has made me feel a bit less guilty about not knowing everything about the English language. I’ve very rarely taught students who were disappointed with me for not knowing the answer straight away or who thought less highly of me after I had admitted that I needed to look something up for them. To the few indignant know-alls who criticise me for having to look up the answer I usually say “If I was perfect and knew everything, I would probably be doing Angela Merkel’s job right now. I’m not omniscient, neither when it comes to English nor when it comes to the German language.” This especially helps with students if they doubt your expertise. Ask them a question about their own mother tongue and they will certainly have difficulties answering it themselves. Being a NEST doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you can answer every single question that might come up in the classroom. If you explain that to students, they become much more understanding and tolerant, which make me feel better as well.

    1. I’m getting HENNST comments first, right? I know both Marisa and Petra to be not only committed and hard-working professionals but good-as-native speakers. Let’s see who else comes to the stage…

  3. I really wish I had time here and now to blog a few more points, mainly work-stories that I have picked up from non-NESTs on courses.

    Coming soon!

  4. Being a NEST I was a bit hesitant to leave a comment as I know you want non-NEST responses, but I just wanted to raise one point (well two)…

    First of all I don’t think non-NESTs should feel in any way guilty or bad if they are faced with a query regarding a non-standard form of English. After all English is fragmented into countless regional/social/ethnic accents and dialects. Even a native speaker might struggle to decipher a TV programme which relies heavily on Black English vernacular (BEV) or another variety of English which is significantly divergent from the standard forms.

    My second point refers more to the Britney Spears lyric query. Whilst the meaning of song lyrics will often be more problematic for non-NESTs to explain (due to their often non-sensical nature) the factor which may prevent a teacher from being able to explain these lyrics may be as much to do with age as with origin. There is often a generational divide in language, whereby grandparents or even parents are perplexed by the speech of their own offspring. For example, as I am (barely) still relatively young I can tell you that the line “boy you got me blinded” is simply a reference to being blinded by love. However, someone ten or fifteen years older than me might not see the meaning so clearly.

    In essence, I believe these areas will always be difficult by their very nature and that non-NESTs should not lose sleep over them, and if faced with any awkward questions over a translation they should open the topic up to the class, ask the students what THEY think it means, or to go away and investigate themselves as it never hurts to teach the importance of independent learning.

    1. Great points, Ty.

      Goodness – I DID give the impression that I only want comments from non-NESTs, didn’t I? I have amended the initial request now. Thanks for drawing my attention to it.


  5. Hi Ken !
    Here’s a confession of a non-nest teacher.!…I agree with most of the nest teacher’s view above that it is very normal that you might not know the meaning of a word as I don’t know what “Wire” really means and I am curious .In the classroom environment ,what is important is the fact that you are confident as a teacher and modest enough to know that one doesn’t have to know everything and even very professional skilled nest teachers are prone to make mistakes . When it happens that ı don’t know a difficult word ,I honestly tell my students that ı can ask to a nest about it and they usually never criticise me for doing that rather than appreciate my honesty with them . To me,what’s important is to be determined and curious to learn and to make research and to improve in all the areas that we are interested in .If there was an ending point ,then everybody’s knowledge would be the same and we wouldn’t be different and there wouldn’t be any challenge .I am so happy to hear different dialects and different accents …I think its cool !

    1. Hello Gita

      Just to satisfy your curiosity “a wire” usually means a listening device used by the police which is attached to a person who is on some kind of undercover mission.


  6. Hi Ken,

    Although you want comments from native speakers, perhaps this is a different aspect that a number of teachers face. What happens when students expect a NEST to know the answer, but he/she doesn’t? Does it in anyway diminish respect or alter views on competency, professionalism, etc by the students?

    In Japan, the teacher is unfortunately viewed as all-knowing. In addition, there’s the (unspoken) stigma that a NEST isn’t really a real teacher, but simply a native speaker with whom students can practice and receive guidance in English. The dichotomy is such that many will pay thousands of dollars, yet in many cases view the native teacher as somewhere between a conversational partner and a teacher.

    As a result, there’s some pressure for the teacher to always give an answer. Too many “I don’t knows” or, even worse, answers given on the fly that aren’t thorough or perfectly accurate, diminish the respect students have for said teacher. That lack of respect often appears in comments by the students, as when they advice one another to ask another teacher for help on difficult topics.


      1. I’m still fascinated by some of the things in Chris Cotter’s comment about teaching in Japan – a NEST isn;t a real teacher?? That’s a new topic altogether! And I STILL want to know what your last line means.

        Chris, if you have blogged or written about this somewhere else, please leave us a reference.

    1. I like you, Darren, you’re clearly someone who could start a fight in an empty room. Calling Petra and Marisa good-as-native speakers has nothing to do with what I regard as norms for students to aspire to.

      If you ever get to meet these two delightful non-NESTs, you’d be excused for thinking they were native speakers.

    2. With the risk of being controversial, I would have to say that when teaching a language, a standard has to be set. That standard is usually the most prestigious and powerful dialect of that particular language, in the case of English, this would be received pronunciation, I imagine Greek as a foreign language would be based around the Athenian norm, not the Cypriot version.

      I know that perhaps the topic of “world Englishes” makes this somewhat murky but in my opinion teaching a standard (native speaker norm) as a basis for our students is the only option.

      1. Way-hay! Wow, Ty – now that IS controversial!!

        Let’s start with the fact that most people learning Greek are either (a) going to visit Greece (b) gong to speak to Greeks or (c) both. This justifies an Athenian norm, if such a thing exists. (Marisa – help!)

        How do you possibly justify any native speaker norm using the same syllogistic reasoning?

      2. You are right, Ken, there is indeed an Athenian dialect as there is in any language the equivalent of the “High” variety, the language of government, the media and the people in the capital, usually.

      3. I have been trying to stay out this but RP is a like red to a bull for me – Ty on what grounds can you argue that RP is the most prestigious and powerful dialect? If it so powerful why is it no longer used as the main dialect, say for example by the BBC? I tend to agree we have to teach a standard but on what standard would you base it – UK Eng is totally different to US but both are widely used and then what about the other countries that make up the so called inner circle model (see the work of kachru). On top of that there is evidence as noted by Jenkins and the other ELFers that so called models of English is in fact now being influenced by the so-called outer and expanding circles so I really dispute the RP claim .
        I tend to think that most non-NESTs can bring a lot more to the classroom than many NESTS – afterall a NEST has probably had four weeks of training compared to a non-NESTS teaching degree. The former also has little idea of how English works while the latter has learnt it so knows the difficulties etc – I am not saying one is better than the other but what tires me is the clear discrimination than can go one merely because a teacher is non NEST.

  7. I’m following this with interest (i’m a NEST) but i feeling more and more that the wrong question is being asked.
    And then there’s the interpretation of events.
    IF a student thinks it’s cool that they caught out the NEST surely they would also think it cool to have caught out the non- NEST?
    Isn’t a simple case of catching out the teacher. (IF)
    And isn’t it important for ANY teacher using material to make sure THEY understand it and anticipate the student’s questions as far as possible?
    Looking at how the language is used in the context and the students trying to understand it seems better practice than giving a “teacher’s answer.”
    But really, as providers of a service shouldn’t we be asking how the student’s feel about having a NEST or a non-NEST?
    Or am i way off?

    1. No way off or way on here, chris! You’ve made some great points.

      I’m just reacting to conversations with teachers all over the place. Actually, my wife Dede’s MA dissertation was about student perceptions of being taught by NESTs and non-NESTs. Her research focus groups were students who were taught by both at the same time (not team-teaching, but on the same program). what the students liked best? teacher enthusiasm.

      1. That was the obvious question to ask – what were her findings?
        Here’s another question, though off subject – i’ve noticed that you reply almost instantly to comments at almost any time of day, but i don’t think you are constantly infront of your computer.
        How do you do it?
        If so how do you set up the link to the blog?

  8. Answer to Chris’s question: I AM constantly in front of my computer! 😛

    Actually, at this time of day, I’m normally in the famous shed at the end of the garden, with just a pen and a piece of paper, writing new stuff. So there is usually a break in proceedings viz-a-viz the blog.

    Today things are a little out of kilter, because an electrician is here setting up a proper connection to the shed. I seem to be in his way anywhere apart from here in my office.

    However, even when the shed goes electric, I will only use the electricity for light and warmth. If i actually took my laptop out there, I would be blogging, tweeting and answering emails all day, and that would defeat the purpose of having built the shed in the first place.

    I can of course connect to the blog via my iPhone, but so far I don’t know (and don’t want to know) how to write anything on the blog via the phone.

    Hope that all makes sense!

  9. Me? Start a fight? Never! Anyone who says that will get a …. oh, sorry…

    I’m just reading Jennifer Jenkins at the moment (reviewing it for Alex Case) and I guess I got over excited….

    1. I know a few people who would like to start a fight with JJ. And she’s SUCH a lovely person when you get to know her. 😛 Actually, she was Dede’s MA tutor at Kings.

  10. Actually the result of the research was that it didn’t matter if they were NESTs or non-NESTs as long as they were good and enthusiastic teachers who valued their students and believed they could learn. The students were 16-year-olds in Romania who valued being taught by both. The Romanian teachers understood their needs and the native speakers engaged them in conversation. The student valued them for the different ways they met their needs. The key was good teaching.

  11. The conversations here are very similar to the issue in education of the deaf here in the States. Is it better for deaf students to have a Deaf signing teacher, or a hearing signing teacher?

    As a hearing signing teacher, when I have a question about a conceptually accurate sign, I ask a Deaf native signer. If a student has a question that I cannot answer, we go ask the Deaf signer together.

    The question becomes murkier as we get into teaching the English language and reading, as my brain clearly does not read in the same way as someone who has no access to the phonemes of language.

    That doesn’t really answer your question, so I’ll answer it quickly here: my students think it’s amusing when I can’t answer a question about sign language, but it doesn’t change their respect of me from what I can tell. It just fits when I tell them that we are all life-long learners!

    I’ll pose another question regarding NEST vs. non-NEST teachers: do you find that non-NEST teacher are more aware of the rules of the language? I have found that a number of non-native (hearing) signers are better able to articulate the rules of the language because they had to study the language–and a Deaf signer has to stop and think a lot more when asked about a rule because the rules are so internalized.

    1. Dear dmigler,

      I had 4 yrs in Poland w about a 50-50 mix of NESTs and non; I found the non’s to have MUCH greater linguistic awareness of English, and were able to offer much better learner-training tips, having been there themselves.

      (The most useful experiences which informed my teaching have been trying to learn four FLs. (Not simultaneously :))

  12. I actually address this issue in my classes and make a point of it – I point out how learning is a life-long process and try to make them realize how dull life would be if we knew everything. I’ll always remember one of my Uni teachers who told us she was not a walking dictionary. A crude way to say it, but it’s true. Besides, when I had a native American speaker as a guest in class, he didn’t know some words that were in the coursebook for Lower-intermediate level because he used different ones and I don’t think kids thought less of him, I think they were a bit proud.
    As for me, of course I don’t like not knowing and I struggle with a sense of unease, mostly caused by pure vanity and expectation to be perfect. As for my classes, I tend to turn my not knowing a word in English into a small research project and create a sense of togetherness in the group by working on finding out the meaning.
    Children tend to see us as all-knowing but I try to break those illusions from the start. They need to know that being a teacher does not necessarily mean being an expert, and being an expert does not mean being a god. Teachers, especially the ones in state schools, abuse that misconception.

    1. Thanks, Liv…

      as I see it, confident non-native speakers like you have great strategies for dealing with the inevitable times when something crops up and you feel a little uncertain (as we all do).

      What becomes clearer and clearer is that non-NESTs should ALL have your confidence and should all recognise their importance in the scheme of things. As should, for example, PLS employers who don’t interview non-NESTs for teaching posts.

  13. I’m a bit wary about this compartmentalization of teachers – the NEST’s are for this and the NNEST’s are for that. It’s true that my language knowledge was pretty shaky in my early days as a teacher (and fascinating that these should be the case with sign languages too), but after ten years in the classroom, a CELTA, a DELTA and a Masters degree I think I can match up to most NNEST’s! Likewise, why shouldn’t a NNEST be a pronunciation role-model, or a font of cultural knowledge? There is a danger in assuming that all native speakers are culturallly informed about everything foreign, and that NNS are only good for test prep… it does us all down as a profession.

    As for the RP thing… how can we teach a native speaker standard when such a thing doesn’t exist?

    Not starting a fight, mind. I just don’t like stereotypes.

    1. The RP thing – my main point was that we wouldn’t go and teach our students the finer points of Geordie or Scouse.

      We tend to teach very standardised language based on southern dialects such as RP.

      I wasn’t necessarily espousing the benefits of RP in any way.

      In addition, I know the language I speak and the language I teach are two very different forms…this is why I believe in a standard.

      1. Although I would have to disagree about there not being a native speaker standard.

        Whilst all native speakers may not talk in this standard the vast majority of the time, every native speaker has the capacity to accomodate their language to a more standard form when talking to someone from another part of the UK. I have heard Liverpudlians switch from speaking a thick version of their dialect which to me, barely sounded English into something I could readily understand.

        It is this underlying standard which we are all able to switch to, that most resembles what you find in a typical coursebook.

  14. Ken,

    My point was that I have been both a NEST and a non-NSST (teaching Spanish) and in both cases I have not known everything, nor have I understood everything. As a Spanish teacher I would regularly say “Sorry, I don’t know the word for…” and then we would look it up. However, I did know a lot, a lot more than my learners and they were happy to learn from me and learn how to become slightly more independent by using dictionaries and online resources-

    So even though “just Google it” is not always an option, there are plenty of others – phone a friend, text a friend, email a friend, ask a colleague…. the list goes on.

    I don’t always understand the telly, or song lyrics. This is to be expected. If I’m interested, I find out what it all means – and if I’m not, I don’t worry about it.

    I went to see District 9 recently whilst in Moscow. I think I understood about 70% of the South African dialogue and nothing of what the aliens said (because they spoke alien and that was subtitled in Russian). Still enjoyed the film…

    Surely both NESTs and non-NESTs have to teach learners strategies for understanding stuff, strategies for finding the answers, and comfort/tolerance levels for those occasions when 100% comprehension is not achievable.

    As I said, I think this is a non-issue – and I say that as someone who has both learnt foreign languages, and taught a language which is not natively mine. It’s all about how you set it up, the trust and confidence people have in you, the strategies you adopt… etc., etc.



  15. I haven’t visited your blog,Ken for a couple of days and- it seems to me I’ve missed a lot.
    I like studying more than teaching; looking up a word in a dict. is one of my favourites, as well as listening to nests, non-nests, music, watching films in English, etc. Consulting the dict-ry is a common thing for EVERYBODY in my class. When I don’t know the word the student needs at the moment, I tell him about it, ask him to look it up in a dictionary himself, because it’s HIS/HERS .To some naughty students I sometimes give the examples of the words in their native l-ge that they definitely don’t know.
    Yesterday I told my group that when I was checking the spelling of the word “porridge’ in a dict-ry I found an interesting saying and hope it’s not old- fashioned: HOLD YOUR BREATH TO COOL YOUR PORRIDGE. We even did some work with the saying, translating it into Russian, trying to understand it.
    I hope my students feel my love to the language, they often see me reading Eng. books during long breaks. They’ll forgive me my ignorance.
    I teach children and teens. But once when I taught adults in l-ge courses, some of my st-s complained that I said “I don’t know” at the lessons. Our head teacher advised me to use some other explanation in this case.
    I didn’t follow her advice. Hope, I’m not wrong.

    1. Thanks, Alya… your last paragraph says a lot … sts need to know there is NOTHING WRONG with ANY teacher saying that – for the moment – I don’t know, and they should trust her professionalism that she will find out.

      We need to train students to feel this way about their teachers.

  16. (I’m writing this while half-watching the match on TV (Milan have just scored)).
    Not that I’m a football fan, mind.

    Fascinating range of comments to your post.

    I’d like to add mine: when we interview pre-service/in-service teachers interested in taking the CELTA course, I interview a range of nationalitites though, being in Italy, many are Italian nationals.
    What often emerges about a third of the way into the course is that they go through a ‘crisis’ period in which, surrounded by several NSs, they lose confidence in their own ability to speak and use English.
    They then realise that only through thorough language analysis and lesson preparation can they really learn about the language they are teaching. All this after a stage of ‘I’ve learnt this language so I know what the students will have trouble with’. The ones who are humble enough, both NESTs and Non, are in the end the best knowers of the language. And I agree with Gavin who says the teacher’s role is to guide and train students to find info for themselves.


    1. I have read some great comments in your posts so far Ken and I agree with most – but I think we have may be missed the point somewhere along the line.

      Some of us have confidence and options.

      Others don’t. And for many teachers it IS an issue, e.g. when you might lose your job because a DOS will listen to some comments by parents or students but will not support you.

      And I think it is not quite the same to be a NEST and confess to not knowing – although I have known students who will criticise even the native speaking teacher when they are, according to them, not knowledgeable enough.

      There are some rough and fuzzy edges to this which I was not fully keen on exploring at first but, on second thoughts, I don’t see why I shouldn’t, like power relationships and the fact that NEST’s, whether they are your fully trained up CELTA or DELTA or beyond holder, or an uneducated barely literate individual who cannot produce a correctly written sentence or paragraph, are supposed to be the experts.

      There is politics behind this. The British Councils and USIS agencies of this world have convinced us that the native speaker reigns supreme. And the grass-skirted natives should feel grateful for the handouts.

      Why, if not for this reason, have they invaded the stateschool sector in my country, for example, offering gratis training, etc.

      I am not suggesting that you or native speaking colleagues who have responded belong to this category, but there has been a lot of gentle but persistent and insidiously introduced brain-washing and persuasion tactics – read Philipson please, if you haven’t.

      I recall a meeting with the great John Munby (of Communicative Syllabus Design), an important author who gave up ELT to become BC ELO in Athens some years ago. His first words to me at some British Council do (where I think I represented the grass-skirted native) were that we should be careful and not compete with the BC on ESP contracts because Greece was “their patch”

      Believe me, this attitude has not changed much within such organisations.

      Where it HAS changed is amongst professional teachers such as the people I follow and who follow me on Twitter and I am very glad it has, but institutional attitudes die hard and the damage has already been done.

      In my humble opinion.

      1. Well, if it is still true that DOSes will support a parent against a teacher, then I hope it’s the same regardless of where the twacher is wrong.


        “The British Councils and USIS agencies of this world have convinced us that the native speaker reigns supreme. And the grass-skirted natives should feel grateful for the handouts.”


  17. Maria, an excellent riposte. Native speakers CAN be experts, but the automatic assumption that they are ALL experts, purely by accident of birth, is very wrong. The situation (now) described in Ken’s post, the difference in expectations for NNS and NS in the Czech republic, is not uncommon, still. We have a lot of work to do. More textbooks with authentic voices might be a start…

  18. In response to Shaun’s post

    I meant that RP has HISTORICALLY been considered a more prestigious dialect.
    With the society we now find ourselves in, it has become highly unfashionable to favour any accent or dialect on the ground of discrimination (despite the fact that many of us privately do have preferences and opinions).

    1. Ty – you say there is a standard, and it is a Southern English (UK) form. So a speaker of General American is unacceptable? How about an Australian? If you say that these are not ok, then you are being ridiculous. If you say that they are, you are just revealing that you have made judgements based on your own prejudices rather than on any linguistic grounds. WHY, if a teacher has a Liverpudlian accent, shouldn’t he or she be a teacher? How about a native speaker of Nigerian or Indian English?
      There is a great danger that ideals of pronunciation become socially and poitically loaded. English, as Maria pointed out, should NOT be considered “our patch” any more.

      1. Interesting point about accents. Just yesterday I talked to a recording studio for language learning materials which explained they weren’t interested in a ‘posh’ accent, as they put it, for their materials. 🙂 But they did seem keen on using NSs.
        I agree with Ty here. I’ve always pushed forward the ideas that are emerging in black and white here – that it’s the teacher that counts – and have always recommended good NNEST and NEST colleagues for work rather than any old NS. Is being a NS enough? Here in the north of Italy, at least, days are gone when schools employed you only because you were a Native Speaker of English (that’s how I started though!). Now both Native and Non are judged more on their skill and ability to teach, though a certain linguistic competence must be guaranteed.
        During a CELTA, for example, I’ve seen some excellent NNESTs and dreary NESTs. Both go away with clear ideas on their strengths and areas to work on afterwards, including pron awareness.

        Some students however are stuck with that “NS is better” idea in their head but don’t realise that they may never come into contact with or hear that particular pronunciation of that nationality other than during time with the teacher…….. so yes, Ty, Maria, it isn’t ‘our patch’, but the large institutions continue plugging that as a survival tactic, strategy but inevitably unachievable goal.




      2. My point isn’t about accents. It’s about dialects. I, myself DO NOT have a southern UK accent and I have no problem with anyone from anywhere with ANY accent being a teacher of English, this isn’t my point.

        I just don’t see anything wrong with having a standard model of a particular language to teach. It’s perfectly acceptable with other languages (as confirmed by Marisa with the case of Greek) but to suggest doing the same with English is met with resistance and hostility (yes, i know the circumstances with English & Greek are different, but Spanish is also a world language yet I was always taught Spanish with a Madrid/Spanish mainland DIALECT, not say Mexican or Cuban.

        The essence of what I’m trying to get at is that an Australian teacher wouldn’t walk into a classroom and teach “G’day mate” as a standard English greeting. They teach the standard greeting. The same follows with other language they teach. This isn’t saying they shouldn’t be teachers, of course not that IS ridiculous. And it has nothing to do with their accents, as this is largely irrelevant since students need to be exposed to different accents.

      3. In addition, whilst I propose that native speaker standards exist (mulitiple standards, a UK one, a US one..etc) the argument over which one should be taught in the classroom is not one I intended to start…..sorry!

  19. I am not an ESL teacher, just an ordinary classroom teacher (I had to ask Ken what a NEST was). This debate seems quite heated. I was just wondering if German, Chinese or French as second language teachers have the same debate as ESL teachers? And do ESL teachers worry about the millions (one of Ken’s Tricks) of variations in the English language depending on where the NEST is from?

    1. Good question about German, Chinese etc… I IMAGINE – and I may be HORRIBLY WRONG here … that part of our debate is about which English to teach – Nigerian? Singaporean? etc Maybe those massive distinctions don’t exist in other languages.

      And of course the fact it, there are a billion people learning English. Apparently.

      You’ll have to decide if this is one of my outrageous remarks. 😛

    1. No worries, Ty – these issues are so inter-related.

      This comes across like one of those discussions in the pub after a conference, where the topic veers all over the place. All good!

  20. Weighing in on this, I’m going to defend Ty on this one. Whether we like it or not, there are certainly dominant forms of English in the world and certain forms or dialects are preferable for communication. We must teach to a standard (or really standards) or no one will be able to speak to each other. I can understand my Turkish students pronunciation errors because I’ve lived here so long, but other native speakers can’t, nor can the other foreigners who do business with Turkish speakers of English. In any language, there is a range of acceptable pronunciation standards. Deviate too far and you risk communication breakdown.

    Unfortunately for learners of English, because of the widespread use of English and Hollywood’s penchant for incorporating diverse dialects into its films, we understand very large variations in pronunciation. This is not the case for other countries without TV, film and radio that represent a diverse array of the spoken language. I can understand southeastern Turkish rather well because I’ve traveled there often, my Turkish students in Istanbul, on the other hand, cannot. The same also often went for Czechs trying to understand foreign accents. As an American, I have no trouble understanding many varieties of black slang, but for the life of me, I can’t understand some of the (to me) strange dialects coming out of Britain.

    Ty is right, we do resort to a dominant form of English when speaking to each other. I remember sitting at a bar with two colleagues from Northern England. When they spoke to the group of us, it was fine. When they spoke to each other, I could understand maybe only 50% of what they were saying. Even for myself, the English I use at home is different from the English I used at university or at work.

    Realistically, with CNN being the first international news station, that form of American English became very dominant. The same now goes for the BBC and Al-Jazeera. Globalization of news networks is one way in which a standard, dominant form of international English is created.

    As a manager, I am not going to hire people with less dominant forms of English. This means that someone with a strong southern drawl, someone that speaks like a rapper, or a Scot, that even I can’t understand for the life of me, will not get hired. You can moan all you want about unfairness, but we need to be realistic. If I can’t understand the Scot applying for the job, how would it in any way be useful for my students to learn English from him (of course I not talking about all Scots here)? My students need to communicate with other foreigners and a strong Scottish accent or dialectical knowledge will not aid them in this endeavor.

    Students need to learn general, dominant forms of English, then they can specialize. Look at Arabic. Everyone learns Egyptian Arabic because almost everyone understands it. Once you learn that form, then you go and learn more region specific varieties depending on why you’re learning it. I tell my students the same thing. If you work with a lot of Brits, focus on British English. If you work with Taiwanese try to find English material from Taiwan. First get some of the standard forms of English down, then specialize.

    On the flip side, I want my students exposed to teachers with many different accents as I think it helps my students get used to a range of English accents. However, this range of accents needs to be near to the dominant forms current on the international scene.

    I agree with many posters that both NESTs and NNESTS have much to offer students, but training and education should be just as important as the teacher’s native language. Someone else above mentioned that students value both types of teachers for different reasons. I see that in Turkey as well. Many students will hire private Turkish teachers for grammar lessons, but they will hire native speakers for conversation practice or exams with a speaking component.

    Are their prejudices within ELT among schools as well as among students? Yes, certainly. For many reasons, students often value a NEST over a non-NEST. However, in Turkey, most students are aware that the NESTs have very little education on teaching English and will complain in a heartbeat about any teacher that makes even a small slip up in class.

    NESTs here are paid big money while NNESTs often get paid very little because they are being given the “gracious gift” of being able to work with NESTs at an English school. This is something I hate, but I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

    A lot of this has to do with economics as well. NESTs are coming from richer countries and expect higher salaries. They are much more difficult to come across. They’re going to get paid more. NNESTs are often a dime a dozen and there is a steady supply of highly qualified ones. Supply and demand has a lot to do with the salaries offered.

    It’s not just the ELT industry either, it’s the perceptions of our students as well (perhaps influenced by the ELT industry :P)I’m as willing to hire a Turk as I am a NEST, but our students don’t always feel the same way about who they want for a teacher. In the end, ELT is still a big business and we often have to meet our customers’ needs.

    There’s a lot at play here and I often feel like people focus on this issue simply as if it’s about prejudices against NNESTs within the ELT industry. That’s definitely a factor, but there’s so much more to it. Our strong western need to be PC also comes into play here. Our we simply defending NNESTs and blaming the evil product of an imperalistic ELT industry out of a gut reaction or are we looking at all the factors and approaching this form a more objective angle?

    My personal take on this is that NNESTs are more qualified than your average crash course TEFL holding NEST. However, NESTs tend to hold the possibility to be much better teachers quicker in Turkey. I have found it extremely difficult at times to get Turkish teachers to apply standard ELT practice in the classroom. They simply come from an education system that is teacher-centered, grammar translation focused, and rote-memorization based. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some good Turkish teachers, but most of them have been very resistant to adopting student-centered approaches. NESTs on the other hand, even if they didn’t get the training in their TEFL course, are much less resistant to adapting proscribed basic ELT teaching approaches. NESTs also force the students to speak and practice English whereas students often resort to Turkish with Turkish teachers.

    It’s not an issue of one vs. the other. Each has their own advantages and difficulties. This has gotten a tad bit long, so I’ll stop here.

    1. Big point here Nick:

      “NESTs here are paid big money while NNESTs often get paid very little because they are being given the “gracious gift” of being able to work with NESTs at an English school.”

      That sounds both completely outrageous and hard to eradicate.

  21. First of all, sorry Marisa!

    Let’s make an analogy. Because football was codified in England, should they host the world cup every four years and continue to define the rules for the rest of the world to follow?

    It’s been touched upon, perhaps unconsciously, but “standard” Englishes are a product of power and dominance. First nationhood, then empire, then a new empire, are what have driven the rise of English. But the assumption that a native form should be the standard is not, in reality, based on choosing the ‘best’, the ‘clearest’ or the ‘purest’ English. Chaucer, Shakespeare and Johnson all helped create an English – which one was standard, and if one of them was why didn’t we stop there? Can we accept that changes to the language can be generated outside the native speaker inner circle?

    If intelligibility is really the motivation, research is showing that some native speaker features like weak forms are more difficult to catch. Early days, but look into the Lingua Franca Core and see how a global standard might emerge.

    1. Your analogy is interesting but I see nothing wrong with acknowledging the origin of the English language.

      Perhaps I am prejudiced towards an English model for the English language…but as long as my students can communicate in English effectively I see nothing wrong with personal preferences.

      I am under no illusions over the “ownership” of the language, if anything we lost that to the americans a long time ago, who now boast far more control over the future of English than we do.

      And I can accept your point that changes to the language can be generated outside the native speaker inner circle, I do not, however, believe that these changes should necessarily be taught to EFL students.

      For example, stative verbs being used in the present continuous in Indian English. This is a feature not present in most, if any of the native speaker countries, therefore it is rather inappropriate to teach as a norm.

      I also think you are overlooking what the vast majority of students WANT. Most students learn English so that they can be understood by the maximum number of people. The best way of achieving this is by using a native speaker model, because whether you like it or not, this is where learners tend to turn to for a natural accurate model of the language.

      I am not denying your point about the competing variations of English, and it is clear that you do not agree with my preference for British English, but I agree with Nick. You should teach your students a widely recognised variety/standard (and it obvious that the two most recognised varieties of English are British and American) and let them specialise at a later time.

      1. I’m sorry we dastardly americans stole ownership of your language, Ty. We tend to think we own everything… If it makes it any better, this american’s favourite comedian is from the UK. 🙂 (And I also prefer the British spelling of such words as favourite, colour, and honour.)

    2. Stellar points Darren. I think it is definitely a crossroads that we will come to in the future. If the majority of English speakers are in China or India, should that become the core and should we teach it? Will 2nd language learners from India be more desirable than native speakers from America or Britain? Who can say? I really do believe the media has a tremendous effect on the globality of Englishes and I think what’s defined as standard English depends largely on them in the eyes of the international community.

      Something I often wonder is if we should even bother correcting mistakes that are intelligible. If our goal is really communication, why even bother with mistakes that don’t lead to breakdowns?

      Can we accept that changes to the language can occur from outside the native circle? Yes, I definitely think we can and should.

      As you say, a standard is a product of dominance and as long as Western media and Western corporations continue their dominance I say we stick with our Englishes. When this power shifts, ELT will have to shift as well. That’s my 2 cents.

  22. Who is your favorite comedian, Danielle? And have you seen Eddie Izzard on American and British spelling?

    1. Eddie Izzard is a legend!

      …And I happen to prefer the American spelling with verbs ending in -ize (customize, socialize) rather than the UK -ise.

  23. Wow! What an avalanche you have started, Ken!

    I must say that when I have trainees with a very strong accent, I usually ask them to try and standardize, at least while modelling – otherwise there’s terrible confusion when the students hear the tapes and don’t know that /ðɪn/ is New Zealand for “then”

    I have more to say on this and the dominance of L1 speakers but I just saw your tweet and if you invite me to dinner you know you will have to fly me to the UK too!!!


  24. see the thing about NESTs etc is that u can talk about it as much as you want (you = one in RP, OK?) but the fact is that the vast majority of ELT in the world is done by non-NESTs (95%+ I’d guess, so the question is a bit academic (in the other sense). It is true that NESTs who shouldn’t really be anywhere near a classroom get jobs above much more qualified non-NESTs (and that’s not something to feel good about). But most of the good EL teaching in the world is done by Non-NESTs anyway.

    And then the question has to be ‘what IS a NEST?’ Birth? Education?

    And the varieties of English around the world are many and varied so it’s difficult to talk about prestige Vs anymore!

    Idealistic? No. Though we may have to persuade people who are unenlightened!!
    When you hire a teacher the 3 questions should be: are they competent speakers of English? Do they know something ABOUT the language and about language learning? And can they teach?

    If u ask those qs straight out the (outmoded) concept of the NEST disappears.

    (RP? ughootabkiddin, right?)

    1. Thank you JH! And completely by accident, you qualify for dinner in Fulham, cooked for you by Mrs Wilson.


    2. You make a persuasive argument! Do you think the problem could be student attitudes towards NNESTs rather than peer opinions? Do we need to enlighten both teachers and students?

      And i hope you don’t mind if i steal the “what is a nest” (and do they even still exist/relevant) question as a possible dissertation topic 🙂

      As a student, I have always been taught by NESTs, and my instinctual preference for a language teacher would be a NEST. Even with the knowledge that many NNESTs are far more capable and qualified. It must just be an ingrained bias (unjustified, yes, but persistant nonetheless).

    3. Another thought following on from the “nest/nnest issue being academic” thread…

      After spending some time in China over the summer I was deeply impressed with their blossoming efforts in the field of teaching Mandarin as a second language. I stayed at Shandong University and clearly they have learnt lessons from the ELT arena. The teaching methods were eerily similar to what is taught on a CELTA/Trinity course (although the more traditional rote learning was not entirely absent).

      I also realised how seriously the Chinese government are becoming in fostering interest for MSL (Mandarin as a second language).

      It just makes me wonder if this argument will be taking place in 50 years time in Mandarin, not English.

      1. My wife is learning Mandarin Chinese here in London. Never mind rote learning, she CRAVES some behaviourist repetition practice, otherwise she can’t make the pronunciation patterns stick.

      2. I know how she feels, we were on a three week study programme with a compulsory mandarin element, after 4 days of solid drilling pronunciation we still couldn’t approximate the tones/phonemes very well….it certainly is challenging for the beginner (but I think if you perservere with the phonetics/phonology many other aspects of the language are far easier!

  25. Ty, adult beginner-level learners do like to have a NNEST here (Italy). Maybe that’s to do with their difficulty of making a bad impression in public. They like the teacher to give them translations, to be their safety net in case they fall.

    Language schools reinforce this by only allowing NNESTs to teach up to Intermediate (B1) level. Over and above is NEST territory. Maybe students blindly follow this rule, never pausing to ponder why.

    What is the implicit difference between the two categories if both are effective teachers, apart from pron? It’s theof the whole cultural baggage that a NEST might carry. All those funny little customs that aren’t that funny until compared with another way of doing things. Recounted from “the horses mouth” so to speak rather than heard about secondhand… The big WE and THEY difference. What do NNESTs say? In England we say or they say..?

    This is a never-ending discussion. How did you ever come up with the title, Ken?


    1. Great discussion, Ken!
      Chris, your ‘WE’, ‘THEY’ question has given me pause for thought. Thnk you.
      As a British English teacher, I’ve found myself in a quasi NNEST position teaching English in the US. Most of the time I’m teaching from a ‘WE’ position (as in WE AmE and BrE speakers say/do this) but there are times when I find myself in a ‘THEY’ position (as in THEY seem to say/do X in AmE).
      As well as linguistic, the questions students raise are often cultural, so for example, ‘why-do-they-tip-15-20%?’ or ‘why-do-they-pay-with-notes-not-change?’-type questions. They are not always complimentary, so for example, ‘weren’t-they-just-being-fake-when-they-said-that-friendly-thing?’ is one I’ve heard raised more than once in different forms. I don’t recall students being so frank about things they noticed about Brits when I was teaching in the UK, no doubt because they didn’t want to offend me. And maybe some of the questions students have raised would have been better left unsaid, but I’m inclined to think not. Getting them out there in the open has meant they can be puzzled over, discussed and challenged. So I’d just like to chip in that I think an ‘THEY’ position on a language can come in very handy sometimes.

      1. Hey Vicki, this is going to segue very neatly into my next post about culture. Dede is in the opposite situation to you, being an American teaching English in London. When she first started, she was constantly stumped by questions about English culture, and after complaints from some students abotu her pronunciation, she was recommended to try to change the way she pronounced the /a:/ sound in ‘fast’. Interestingly, I was never asked to do the same thing, despite my noticeable Manchester accent. 😛

  26. Not so much a title, Chris, just a sympathetic ear to people like Hana, Natasha (blogs passim). And watching untrained inexperienced NESTs getting the red carpet treatment right across Central Europe after the Berlin Wall came down. The clientele of our Drama Plus course were 90% people from Eastern Europe, who arrived with this firm belief that they could never be as good as a native-speaker. Hopefully, they went home knowing that was rubbish.

  27. Why would you remove this discussion, Ken? I am sure a lot of people have been following it, a lot more than the ones who contributed to it and although we’ve been just lurkers, we have definitely found it interesting and thought-provoking.
    I’m joining Patrick in his protest.

  28. OK – the blog stays!

    I suppose I was thinking ‘yesterday’s papers’. Will instead think ‘Teacher’s Forum’.

    I have actually been quietly deleting previous blogs, but I had a feeling this one was different.

    Thank you for your support, everyone.

    1. No storage problem – I just think people might have had enough of seeing this particular posting when they visit my blog.

      I tend to think of blogs being as being more like newspapers than resource books, but the negative response I’ve had to ditching this particular blog has made me realise I have to think differently 🙂

  29. I’ve come to this fascinating debate quite late, but I am so glad it’s still here! I’d like to mention something that happened to me with regards the NEST/NNEST discussion.

    About 10-15 years ago I attended a 2-week Teacher Refresher course on “New Methodologies” in Hastings. I was a bit surprised when I found out that I was the only NEST on the course out of 14 participants from all over the world. I’d like to say that it was the best 2 weeks ever and as teachers we all bonded very well and we all had the same aspirations- to learn new things and refresh our techniques. What I discovered was that whenever we had to do feedback on any group activity, I was always chosen unanimously to give the feedback for whichever group I was in. I have to say, I am usually the “quiet one” in any group dynamics and so I found this was a bit difficult for me and yes, I felt embarrassed at having to speak out on behalf of everyone, when their level of English was really excellent. The teachers assumed that simply because I was a NEST, it would be “better” for me to summarise our activities etc. I remember gently and politely refusing to be the spokesperson all the time and this was a good move as the teachers realised that they did as good a job if not a much better job than me.

    For me a great teacher of English whether native or non native speaker, has to have excellent knowledge of the subject, be enthusiastic about the language, be open to change, empathise with students and most of all be confident in the knowledge and skills they are imparting. Nationality shouldn’t come into it at all. This is my most humble opinion.

    1. Janet, your humble thoughts have hit the nail on the head! Why on earth did these excellent professionals feel the need to defer to you (you’re being modest about your abilities, but whoever the native speaker was, it’s a sad but predictable reaction.

      I’m glad I didn’t bin the post!

  30. After conscientiously reading all of the comments above, I feel it’s only fair I get to put in my 2 cents here.

    I’m a NEST, and my girlfriend/future-wife is a NNEST teaching Business English and elementary German (shes a native Spanish speaker) in a college for students doing two year degrees in marketing, business, etc.

    Apart from the fact that she teaches more hours than any of her colleagues, she has to deal with the odd student who, not only doesn’t trust her knowledge of the language, but actually thinks they know more than her and will blatantly contradict her saying “uh, well I was in England one summer and they say it that way” or something like that.

    Add to that the fact that she’s a woman and therefore has to demonstrate twice as much as her male colleagues, and you’ve got an incredible cocktail of stress and frustration.

    Luckily, she has the total support of the school’s director, so in this case the pressure comes from the student end and not the management end.

    In my experience as a learner, the best teachers I ever had in Spanish were a native bilingual (US/Arg.) and a nNEST–who taught Phonology mind you, and was an absolute wizard.

    Ty et al’s tangent reminded me of this Spanish phonology class, when this teacher openly recognized the inherent contradiction in his teaching–he approached phonology from a sociolinguistic, “variationist” perspective a la Labov, but when evaluating our pronunciation he told us it was “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”…clearly he recognized that communication and mutual understanding were the important things, not obtaining a perfect “Español latinoamericano estándar” accent.

    Getting all these perfectly rational and reasonable arguments through the skulls of students with a strong anti-NNEST bias is usually a slow and difficult process.

    1. Thank you, Nicholas!

      just when I was thinking I was making too much of the pressures facing NNESTs, you come up with the perfect example of the problems they face. And, as your example clearly demonstrates, it’s often the students themselves who feel they have the right to criticise. It’s good to hear that your partner has the support of the director – that at least is a step forward.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s