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Pros and cons of being a native speaker MFL teacher

As the supply of "home grown" language teachers continues to dry up the UK is depending more and more, as in other fields of employment, on imported labour. I don't know if anyone keeps records on these things, but it is fair to say that a very significant and increasing minority of our French, German and Spanish teachers were born outside the UK.

Although not a new phenomenon, free movement of labour in the EU guarantees a reasonable supply of native speaker teachers and in general this is to be welcomed.

Native speakers have the enormous and obvious advantage of being fluent speakers and writers. This should not be under-estimated. Fluency makes the job of language teaching easier and students are exposed to excellent models of language. At A-level in particular, where great exposure to comprehensible input becomes possible, native speakers really come into their own. Fluency also encourages a teacher not to rely excessively on teaching about the language rather than through it. Some non native teachers are forced into dubious methodologies because they just don't have the language skills they need to do better.

Furthermore native speakers bring a detailed and usually up to date knowledge of their cultures to our classrooms and are able to share this not only with students but with their non-native colleagues.

But being a native speaker is not without its issues. If the teacher's command of English is suspect, this can cause issues with relationships and classroom control. Children require clarity and can be quick to pick on weakness.

In addition, not having gone through the process of learning the target language as a non-native may mean that it is harder to put yourself into the shoes of the learner. This may be exacerbated if the teacher has not had a grounding in the grammar of their own language. Fortunately, for teachers from mainland Europe, this not usually the case. French natives will have learned their "passé composé" in a not dissimilar way to British children.

Furthermore, native speakers will be less familiar with the routines and traditions of schooling in the UK. This counts. In all sorts of ways teachers are working within a long-standing educational culture the rules of which it is useful to know: ways of marking, common teaching methodologies, school behaviour policies, the tradition of collegiate working in the UK, staffing hierarchies, homework policies and general expectations. Understanding the fine detail of these is vital for any teacher and if a native speaker fails to adapt to these students' progress may be harmed.

On the other hand, native speakers bring a fresh and somewhat more objective view to UK school practices. Some may find some of our teaching less rigorous than they would like, for example.

As teachers we are formed to a considerable extent by our own school experience. I, like many, learned a lot about teaching languages from my own teachers who, as luck would have it, were strong on methodology. Native speakers may, I stress may, have a different background in that regard and have a narrower, more traditional methodology. Effective training through PGCE, Teach First or other means is meant to give students a sound methodological foundation. Evidence suggests this is inconsistent, however, so native speakers, along with non natives, may not have a full repertoire of effective techniques.

I was fortunate to work alongside a number of very good native speaker practitioners who brought a lot to our departments. One or two struggled somewhat, as did non-natives. I believe we should try to put to one side any possible prejudices we may hold in this area. Headteachers can be reluctant to employ native speakers as they are something of an unknown quantity, but these days we need to welcome them with open arms, help and encourage them as much as possible. Without them we are sunk.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. Assuming that native speakers will not know as much about their school policies as non native speakers, or that their English might not be good enough is rather patronising, to say the least.

  2. Not at all. I wrote "if" and "may". These can be real issues. But thanks for reading. The whole tone of my post was balanced and not, I believe, patronising.


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