Are native English teachers really better?

I am going to dispel common myth

native and non-native teachersA couple weeks ago we discussed whether learners really need to practice with native speakers to achieve fluency.

The answer being, in short, that fluency is possible even without making native speaking friends.

But another similar misconception I see constantly is that people (even those who are not learning English) believe native speaking teachers are always better.

And while there are many great native English teachers, there are also many amazing non-native English teachers. In fact, non-native teachers are often better than native teachers, as we will discuss today.

Let’s look at the following three points, which will help us compare the advantages of both native and non-native teachers:

  1. Natives often lack knowledge, training, and passion
  2. Natives can never truly understand your experience
  3. The true native advantages

1) What is really important

I’ll start with my own teaching story.

I’ve been teaching English for almost six years now and interacted with English learners from hundreds of countries.

Back at the beginning of my career (damn that makes me feel old!), I was hired to my first few teaching gigs [jobs] with virtually no experience. I gave my resume to a few language schools, and simply based on the fact that I’m a native speaker, they gave me a job.

Luckily since then I have learned A LOT about teaching (and learning), and now I consider myself a pretty good educator. But at the beginning, most of my experience came out of my own language learning and following the English books the school gave me.

I always enjoyed studying English in high school and university, and I believe even before teaching I had a better understanding of English grammar than the average American. But does this mean that I was more qualified or a better option than a Brazilian English teacher with REAL training and experience?

No! Obviously not.

A question you may never have asked is, “Why do natives usually teach English?”

travel Europe English teacher

Teaching English in other countries is a good way to travel. The salary is good. Many native English speakers use this as a way to discover the world. They generally don’t have more training than a TEFL certificate, which is easy to obtain, and does not provide real world training.

So this should be common sense: Passion and experience are ALWAYS more important than where a teacher is from.

Having a high level of English or even native proficiency helps a lot when teaching, but it is not a substitute for work ethic and a genuine desire to do a good job.

Some teachers (both native and non-native speakers) have a natural ability and/or strong proficiency but simply don’t know how to teach (or are too lazy to learn).

Apart from this, a native teacher is not a magical solution to your English learning problems. If you don’t have a strong desire to learn and dedication to your process, even the best teacher in the world cannot help you.

Non-native English teachers generally become teachers because they enjoy it and are fascinated by the language. They are lifelong learners. Beyond having professional training, they usually teach because they feel motivated, they enjoy it, and they are good at it.

Just being a native does not mean that you know anything about teaching. The average American knows much less about English grammar than the average English learner.

Just think about this with your own language. Could you teach me complex grammar rules from your language (it doesn’t count if you teach your own language)? Probably not. So why would you expect it to be any different for English?

Some native English teachers are wonderful. They are well studied in the language and its intricacies AND passionate about it (like Chad, Justin, and me). But never assume that native equals expert.

2) The empathy factor

empathy Don’t ignore the fact that non-native teachers are first and foremost English learners themselves. Natives inherited the language from their family, as you inherited your first language.

What this means is that a non-native teacher, particularly one that has the same native language as you, understands exactly what you are going through as a learner. She understands every speed bump [struggle]. And because she has overcome these issues herself, she can help you to do the same.

I, for example, am a language learner myself. And while this has helped my teaching a lot, I can never understand the struggles that learners of English have from a first-person view (unless I can find a way to erase the language from my brain and re-learn it, which is not going to happen anytime soon!).

A non-native teacher empathizes with your frustrations of learning English, and (if she is good at what she does), will passionately help you succeed.

3) What natives actually do better

Let’s make something clear: I am not saying that non-native teachers are always better. I don’t want to be out of a job ?. There are of course distinct situations in which having a native teacher is an (huge) advantage!

First, natives have a general comfort with the language, an ability to play with it and to artfully break the rules. There are exceptions, but it is extremely challenging for a non-native to do this.

I always think one of the best tests of advanced fluency is being able to make jokes and be humorous in the language. It’s certainly easier for a native speaker to show you how to do this.

native english teacherSecond, it is a giant challenge for a non-native to reach the same level of vocabulary that the average (educated) native speaker has. Although I have met a couple non-native English teachers who could give me a run for my money [be competition], this is rare to find.

Natives are also versed in the most dynamic aspects of the language like slang and expressions.

The last advantage that natives typically have over non-native teachers—and probably the most popular—is pronunciation. Natives are practically born with perfect pronunciation in the language. And it’s an aspect that a non-native teacher won’t have had a lot of training in.

However, unless your teacher knows how to assist you in replicating pronunciation and achieving the rhythm and flow of the language, it will only be useful for input, which you can get independently anyway.

In fact, most of these aspects can be improved on your own if you are dedicated and work hard (although I know for many of us it’s a challenge to find the time).

For example, your vocabulary can be greatly broadened by reading and using memorization software. You can get experience understanding native speakers by watching TV series and listening to podcasts. And there are many exercises that have been proven to improve learners’ pronunciation.

Finding the best of both worlds

We can’t clearly say whether a native or non-native teacher is better. It depends on various factors, like your level of English, what specifically you need help with, and your teacher’s experience.

Are you looking to master native pronunciation? Then a native teacher (who has lots of experience training this) is probably perfect for you.

Do you need help with the basics so you can have simple conversations? Non-native is where it is at!

Need to study for an exam like the TOEFL? It will depend completely on whether your teacher has experience with that!

Basically, it’s about finding what works best for you, and not making judgments about a teacher because she is a native or non-native. First, you have seen what kind of teacher she is.

I hope you have found this helpful! But I want to know what you think: Are native or non-native teachers better? And why? COMMENT below now!


Like this? Next you should read The Truth About Speaking with Native Speakers

  • Vinícius H Barbosa says:

    I think each of them has their own benefits. In order to empower your english skills both may help. It gonna depends on what are your goals as you said.

    • Ethan says:

      That’s for sure. If you could afford one of each, it would definitely be super beneficial. I actually did it while learning Hebrew for a little bit, and each teacher had her own advantages. Ultimately, I stuck with the non-native teacher and got a weekly exchange partner who was native.