How to Teach English Abroad as a Non-Native Speaker
Almost everybody knows at least one person who is living or traveling abroad while teaching English. This person is, most likely, from the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, or Canada.
In fact, many teachers start teaching English as a means to travel, to live abroad for a period of time, and to get to know new languages and cultures.
So naturally, having been an English teacher for almost my entire adult life (starting in 2006), last year I finally decided I should give it a shot. I researched all the visa possibilities, took notes, and started gathering paperwork. Then, I began looking for job offers online, and that’s when it hit me.
“Native speakers only” was a requirement in almost every single job posting.
“Okay, don’t let this discourage you,” I said to myself. “You can apply for those which don’t require that.”
But those which didn’t usually advertised “our teachers are native speakers” on their website. So, I quickly discarded those too.
And I got to applying to the few that I could.
Some of them politely rejected me after I supplied my passport scan. Others even had me perform a video interview — after which I usually got an email explaining that their students prefer native speakers.
I have many native English-speaking friends who teach English abroad with zero qualifications, so admittedly, I was upset. I am a certified and experienced teacher. How could this be fair?
In one particular case, I was so outraged that I contacted the school to ask why I had been rejected, since I fulfilled all their requirements.
This was the answer I received:
We were impressed by your video (and of course your experience). Your English is very fluent. You also came across as a good teacher with a good awareness of the needs of students. Unfortunately, our Italian students insist on teachers with American or British accents. This plays a part in our decision. I know it is very difficult but this is something you could work on. Our students like the possibility to be able to model US and UK accents.
Enough was enough. I had so many questions, and I needed answers. So I decided to do some research. Here’s what I found.
“Is student demand really the reason why this bias exists?”
I asked Marek Kiczkowiak, from TEFL Equity Advocates, a campaign aiming to provide non-native and native teachers with equal professional opportunities, and he says this is only partially true.
“When you ask students if they’d prefer a ‘native’ or ‘non-native speaker,’ many might express a preference for the former,” says Kiczkowiak. “However, once you start digging a bit deeper, it turns out most students don’t actually have a clear preference for either of the two groups.”
Kiczkowiak continues, “Tons of research has been done that shows that students would ideally prefer to be taught by both groups, for example. Other research shows that students appreciate ‘non-native speakers’ for their teaching skills, and might admire them as role models. Yet other research shows that students value other skills and qualities, such as knowledge, pedagogical preparation, ability to motivate, etcetera, in teachers much more highly than ‘nativeness.’”
In my experience, students really do not have a clear preference.
And most of them are not able to tell the difference between a native or a non-native teacher, unless they are very advanced.
I am not sure I would be the teacher that I am today if I hadn’t had to learn English myself. Because of this, I can very personally relate to my students’ experiences trying to learn English and provide them with useful strategies.
I believe, also, that learning from a non-native speaker like me is inspiring and motivating for students. They see someone who wasn’t born in the UK or the US able to speak the language fluently, and gain confidence in their ability to do it too.
Sadly, not all companies see it this way, and they continue to favor teachers with a passport from what is known as the ‘inner circle’ countries. Some countries even hire native speakers with no qualifications to teach whatsoever.
According to Kiczkowiak, this may be due to the fact that “in some countries, the proficiency of local ‘non-native speaker’ teachers is quite low. As a result, students might leave high school barely speaking any English, despite having studied it for 10 years. They might conclude that if they want to learn English, they need to have classes with ‘native speakers.’ Especially if they’re constantly told so by private language schools.”
“Are the requirements higher for non-native speakers?”
“I find it shocking that a ‘non-native speaker’ with an MA degree in teaching might have to do a CELTA to increase their employability, when an 18-year-old ‘native speaker’ with the right passport can get a job practically anywhere with a four-week certificate,” says Kiczkowiak.
Although native speakers usually find work without having any qualifications, as a non-native teacher, the more qualifications you have, the better.
Most schools require a Bachelor’s degree as a bare minimum. However, Veronika Vas, a non-native speaker from Hungary who has been teaching in Vietnam for about a year, managed to find work without it.
“I did not have a degree, but I had an excellent attitude, a humble but confident personality, and I had a great connection with my kids,” says Vas. “I did get a TEFL [Teaching English as a Foreign Language] certificate that gave me some confidence to start teaching, but a month’s experience is more relevant, if you ask me.”
You may be lucky and find work with any TEFL certificate, but a CELTA or Trinity TESOL certificate would greatly improve your prospects.
The best-paying schools usually require CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) or an equivalent certificate. Although some teachers have some degree of success with online courses — especially if they have experience — it’s better to be on the safe side. Some schools even offer teachers the opportunity to take a CELTA course for free, or with significant discounts, if they agree to sign a contract with them for one or two years.
My experience in my home country of Uruguay is similar to Veronika’s. I have been teaching for almost 10 years without a college degree. It is not a requirement here, and it is not common for English teachers to have a degree. Most teachers do some sort of teacher training, although some of them don’t. I have a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate, and other language certificates, and I believe that I am a very good teacher. I also have excellent recommendations.
“Why is it that I can teach in my country, but not in other countries?”
First, speaking the students’ first language is an advantage. The students definitely appreciate that I can explain difficult concepts in their first language if I need to.
If you speak the language of the place in which you want to teach, it will give you an immediate advantage. So, when you have a particular country in mind that you would like to work in, a good strategy would be to learn the language on at least at a basic level.
That said, when trying to find work abroad, my slight Latin American accent isn’t particularly advantageous in interviews.
Accent seems to be one of the major features that attracts (or repels) potential employers. As a matter of fact, I have been instructed several times by companies to take steps toward eliminating my accent. Although my pronunciation is excellent — having studied phonetics for a long time — I do have a slight accent, which relates more to intonation and other features that give away where I am from.
In my view, non-native speakers usually have fewer problems understanding other non-natives than understanding, say, an American who speaks very quickly, or a British teacher with a very strong accent. I would say that my slight accent does not get in the way of clear pronunciation, or how I teach it to my students.
I would not like to get rid of my accent, as it is a testimony of my heritage and the country I come from.
“Does it make sense for teachers to completely get rid of their accents in order to improve their job opportunities?”
Kiczkowiak thinks definitely not.
“No!” he says. “That would be horrible. It would take us back to the world of Pygmalion.”
And he quotes David Crystal in an interview he did for TEFL Equity Advocates:
Sounding native is no longer the point. I can think of only one category of person who needs to sound native – i.e. totally lose a NS identity – and that is: spies. Everyone else should be proud of their NS identity and not wish to lose it. […] Just as I want to experience the glorious diversity of English accents and dialects in Britain, which enrich our linguistic and literary heritage, so I want to experience this diversity on the newly emerging global scene. I want to hear X-tinted English – fill in the ‘X’ by Canadian, French, Russian, Ghanaian, Brazilian…what you will. It would be a sadly denuded English linguistic world if people were being taught as if this wonderful series of varieties did not exist.
“So what can we non-native teachers do in order to improve our chances of getting a job and fulfilling our long-term travel dreams?”
Everyone seems to agree that not giving up is a huge part of the deal:
“I’d say the key thing is to believe in yourself,” says Kiczkowiak. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not a good teacher because of the country you were born in.”
Jessica Hill is a native-speaking English teacher who has worked in Thailand and China. She thinks that, even though most companies specify “native English teachers” as a requirement, in their job posts, “most of the time that is simply a preference and not a hard rule.”
“Be patient with yourself, and go with the flow,” says Hill. “Try to be as prepared as possible before you go — like getting an internationally accredited TEFL certification. Arm yourself with as much information about the country and culture you’re going to, but ultimately, remember to have fun. If you have fun, your students will too.”
Kristi Fuoco is also a native-speaking English teacher working in Germany, and she has a different view. She feels that, as a native speaker, she had an advantage over non-native teachers.
“In Germany they won’t even consider you unless you are a native English speaker, except in very rare cases,” Fuoco says. “Many companies use the fact that their teachers are native English speakers as a marketing tactic.“
Fuoco advises taking a full CELTA or TEFL course, and getting some experience teaching before you go, even if it’s just tutoring.
“Know your language and realize that you will be asked about every aspect of it, from the tiniest grammatical issue to concepts about your own country you may have never considered. Where you’re from is just as interesting to your students as what you’re teaching them, so be prepared for questions or assumptions about your own country,” Fuoco says. “But also know that it will be a fun, rewarding, and always interesting experience that will give you some of the best stories you can imagine. I’m so glad I got to teach and I now have a much greater appreciation for anyone who is speaking and/or learning a second language.”
As a non-native teacher, you will have to work twice as hard (or even more!) to get a job, but the rewards will be immense.
You will grow both as a teacher and as a person, and have a lot of fun in the process. If you are up for the challenge, make sure you are well-prepared.
“Do your TEFL and come to Vietnam. There are jobs everywhere and I’m sure people will be bound to get a good one if they are willing to work for it,” suggests Vas. “If someone has a true passion for education, people will notice it and ask you to fill in some positions. Maybe not right away, but again, patience is very important in my opinion. It is never impossible and instead of thinking of yourself as someone with not enough to offer, think about the advantages of being a non-native speaker, because you must be having a different take on teaching a language you also had to learn yourself. Never forget: Being native does not result in being a good teacher.”
If you’re determined to teach English abroad, do your research, get your certification, learn as much as you can about the job, and don’t lose heart.
We non-native teachers should not give up on our dreams to teach abroad — not only for ourselves, but also because we are the only ones who can change this bias.
In our globalized world, English should be for every person who speaks it, and “nativeness” should not a teaching qualification. There are places for both kinds of teachers, pros and cons to each, and plenty of students for everybody. But we can only change the industry from within.
It might take more effort, but it will be worth it in the end, and take it from me — your traveling experience will be truly life-changing.