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EL teachers: Native Speakers or not?

Statistically speaking, it is impossible to have only native speakers as EL teachers for the whole wide world. That would mean that the UK population should do nothing but! If we take into account the global shortage of teachers in general, the question becomes purely academic. And yet here we are, an international community of educators, all of us with a good knowledge of English, trying to face the modern challenges and to solve the current problems together. How did we learn, and what has changed in ELT today? TE gives us a wonderful platform for exchanging our stories and sharing our diverse experiences.

My own school EL teacher was not a native speaker, same as all the other teachers in all the other schools in my area. Her English is still exceptional. She managed to make the new subject fascinating, exciting and easy for us when we were in primary school, only eight years old. She taught us the correct pronunciation and intonation, instilled the need to consult a dictionary regularly, explained the whole concept of polysemy and encouraged us to speak English among ourselves at all times. To this day I greet her with, “Hello Teacher!” My numerous former students of various ages greet me the same way wherever they meet me. 

My teacher was the only one out of twenty who would use the communicative approach and teach us all the basic skills. The other teachers mostly conducted their lessons in Russian, followed the grammar- translation method, and made their students learn any topic by heart, but not really speak. Some of them had no English sounds and no idea of intonation. In short they “gave” their lessons but did not really teach anything useful, same as their own teachers before that. And yet I have met many colleagues who had no real skills of their own but managed to motivate their students, to convey the need for further studies. Knowledge of the subject is not the only thing that matters; love what you teach and share your love with your students! If they need to they will continue their education in the future.

My school teacher would somehow persuade a visitor to our academic town to come to her lessons and talk to us in English. Usually those were scientists, very well educated native speakers who came to one of the numerous research institutes for a long or short stay to engage in a joint project. Since our own parents were also mostly scientists we were used to hearing a lot of scientific terms. The difference was in the surrounding vocabulary so to speak, English and not our native tongue. Those early encounters and conversations became part and parcel of my own education, especially because I was invariably the designated student speaker welcoming our visitors to school.

As a student at Moscow University, a British EL specialist would have a weekly class with us during the five year full-time course. One of them, Anthony Hope Sawyer, taught us a lot of useful everyday vocabulary including the amazing trick of swearing alphabetically and backwards, a four-letter-word combination for every letter of the alphabet. We were only nineteen at the time, naturally enthralled by this area of language learning firmly hidden from us in the previous years. I used it aloud once, when accosted by a couple of very drunk young men in the Moscow metro. What usually happens when you suddenly speak a foreign language in your own country? People tend to leave you alone. This time however the men sobered up and blushed by the time I got to the letter “G”. One of them stammered in pure Transatlantic nasal, “Excuse us m’am, we had no idea you were British!”

As a university teacher I attended any and all lectures and teacher refresher courses delivered by native speakers of English who would come for an academic year to teach staff and students. Some of them were very good and others were excellent. Among them I fondly remember Angus MacQueen, now a well-known British documentary award-winning screenwriter. His energy was contagious, his enthusiasm for EL teaching amazing, his ability to motivate and involve teachers and students alike in the whole ELT process superb. He helped me overcome a few residual obstacles to my own free-flowing speech which lingered after my university student years. I realized that it was not necessary to strictly follow the RP norm all the time, with all the speakers, in all the situations, and learned to use various accents and registers.

Today the possibilities presented by the ever-developing ICT are enormous. If you wish to speak American or any other variant of English, all you need to do is go online and click. You may find recordings of lessons for any level, listen to live speech, sing songs, and have one-on-one sessions with an EL teacher regardless of where you and they are. I believe we can now combine both EL teaching by native and non-native speakers. One can stick to the traditional live education at a school or institution which usually means that one is taught by a non-native EL teacher. If needed we can find a way to complement our basic education by finding native EL teachers online.

Nina MK, Ph.D

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