Native teachers vs non-native teachers

I think I’ve mentioned before that, in the offline world, I also teach languages. The language I enjoy teaching the most, though, is the one I didn’t grow up hearing: Japanese. This language I’ve been working at for so many years that it feels like a lifetime (a very worth-it kind of lifetime), and sometimes I feel like I could keep studying and teaching it for the rest of my life. It’s a love affair, no doubt about it.

Telling people you teach a language that isn’t your own evokes one of two reactions: a kind of disbelieving admiration, or righteous indignation. The disbelieving admiration route always goes down the path of “Noooooo way! How cool is that!”, and honestly, who’s going to complain about getting props like that? The outright indignation can get downright vicious, though. Thankfully I’ve yet to meet someone self-righteous enough to slap me upside the head about my job, but a lot of people scoff at the notion that a foreign language could be taught by anybody BUT a native.

I disagree, big time. Non-native teachers have as many advantages as native teachers, and can teach you just as well (in some situations, even better).

Here’s a pros vs cons list of these two types of teachers:

Native teachers

Pros

You will always learn proper pronunciation from them. Really, this one is obvious.

– Being born into the culture, very often they are more accurate in linking culture to language. I say “very often” because expats who lived for long periods in that country aren’t so bad at doing this either.

The best of them are unbeatably good at teaching grammar, since they’ve been using it in practice their whole life before even going on to learn how to explain it.

They’re great for intermediate-to-advanced students, because at these levels they can focus on what they do best: talking and explaining language in natural context, instead of through isolated bits of it.

Cons

– Contrary to popular belief, being a native does not mean you’re trained (nor able) to teach your own language. The foreign language teaching programs of many countries only require a Bachelor’s degree to participate in them, and many people use this resource as a way to travel easily (particularly to east Asian countries, such as China, Korea and Japan), but how well can a biochemical engineering major teach his or her language if he’s never actually studied it in depth? College level language education tends to be much more rigorous regarding this, but private language schools can be a lot more relaxed regarding who they hire, as long as they follow the school’s curriculum.

– Similarly, native teachers who’re teaching to kill time or to earn a few bucks while travelling very often lack impartiality. I’ve often seen people thrown in for a loop, or even deeply offended, when students asked an explanation about a less-than-pretty aspect of their own culture.

– There are also the ones that can’t kick the habit of teaching their language as if they were teaching it to children or to people in their own country. Some native teachers only explain grammar (because in their own country, there’s no need to explain other aspects of language if the students speak the language before and after class) and don’t bother to make sure their students can speak.

– Lastly, there are the native teachers who can’t be bothered to learn a second language. This is a personal pet peeve: if one’s teaching a foreign language, then by definition sometimes one’s gonna have to step back into a language both parties understand (even if you’re aiming to hold the class in that language).

Non-native teachers

Pros

– For the most part, non-native teachers are not allowed to teach if they don’t have some sort of official language certification, so you can be sure your non-native teacher has training and in-depth knowledge.

– The best non-native teachers have devoted a good deal of their lives to that language, majoring in it, living immersed in it, studying its every crook and cranny, while still remaining attached to their own culture. For the same reason, they can be very good at explaining grammar. Therefore, they have an easier time “laying bridges” between languages, which eases the learning process for a beginner student.

– Because they’re unavoidably bilingual, these teachers (if they know how not to over-do it) are actually pretty good at supporting your first steps in a language

Cons

– … keywords being “if they know how not to over-do it“. Several non-native teachers, in particular non-experienced ones, have the bad habit of speaking for large blocks of the class in the language they share with the students, limiting themselves to using the target language only for examples and short sentences. For the teacher, this is not a big issue, but for a beginner student, this is the kiss of death, because it gives place to the creation of a bad habit: learning about a language… in another language.

– Non-native teachers were students once, which obviously means they have a certain level in the language. This, in turn, means there’s a roof to what they can teach (and unfortunately, the moment they can a lot of teachers forget that their knowledge is more limited than a trained native’s).

Not all non-native teachers can teach you proper pronunciation, since many have a strong foreign accent while speaking in the target language. In my experience, the ones that teach with a native-like pronunciation are in fact a small minority (if you should find one, hold on to him or her for dear life!).

Conclusions

As you see, there are arguments for and against both types of teacher. In the end, the most effective learning you’ll ever do will be with someone that matches your learning style; finding that person can take a while, but it is very much worth it when you find that person. You’ll feel your learning improve by leaps and bounds!

Remember: regardless of it being online or offline, by taking (paid) classes with someone you’re retaining their services, and you should get your money’s worth! Here are a few pieces of advice to ensure you do:

  • If you’ve signed up to a language school, ask what kind of teachers they hire (native or non-native) and what kind of certifications they ask of their employees: if “being a native” is the only criteria for hiring, leave that place like a bat out of hell. Schools that hire “tourist teachers” tend to be in it for the money, and don’t particularly care if the teacher KNOWS how to teach you (and they usually don’t invest in training them either).
  • If you’re taking classes with a tutor or professional teacher through an online service (such as Italki), remember to review their teaching profile thoroughly. You can always ask them about their teaching experience, to make sure you’re satisfied before reserving a session with them.
  • If you’re working hard every day and yet, you don’t feel satisfied with the pace at which you’re learning, chances are the teacher’s methods don’t match your learning style. Most teachers (both native and non-native) will lend an ear to your concerns and try to adapt their methods to you, but some teachers can be very rigid and tell you you’re the one that should adapt. If this is the case, ask for a change of class or your money back.

Are you a native, or non-native teacher? What are your thoughts on this slightly controversial topic? I’d love to hear your experiences with both worlds, so don’t doubt to share them in the comment section!