Native Speakers; Necessary But Not Compulsory

By: Afrianto Daud
(The following article was first written for the Jakarta Post)

It’s really interesting to read the last two posts on the issue of native speakers and non native speakers published by the Jakarta Post, a critical view by Martin Nelly, Non-native vs. Native English Teachers on 10/29/2011 and then responded by Rohan Mulgaonkar, The Truth about Native Speakers on 11/12/2011. The two pieces have enriched our understanding on the position of native and non-native English speakers in the discourse of English teaching in Indonesia. This article is intended to add some more points of discussion about that contentious issue.

Just like Rohan, I simply agree with Nelly Martin reminding us about the fact that native English speakers (NTs) do not necessarily make them being competent English teachers. This due to the fact that being a teacher is not enough just to have good communication skills (as owned by a native speaker), but it also requires other necessary competencies, such as teaching skills, lesson plans design, classroom management, and how to pedagogically communicate with students. Thus, being a native speaker is clearly not enough. To put it in Phillipson’s words (1996), "Teachers are made rather than born, whether they are natives or non-natives."

I also have the same opinion with Rohan that resist the presumed generalization made by Nelly Martin that took one bad case committed by an individual native speaker, in this case 'introducing' his or her students with 'f words' in the classroom to question the credibility of all native speakers.

Whether NTs are important for the process of English language learning is indeed being a hot issue lately. This is especially the case when we speak English in its current status as an international language (EIL). English has evolved with various variants (World Englishes) in the last few decades. Today we are no longer recognizing English model only from places which Kachru (1985) called as inner circle of countries (U.S., British, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand), but also many variants from outer circle countries, such as India, Singapore, Bangladesh, Malaysia, the Philippines, and others. Not to mention varieties from expanding circle countries, like China, Korea, South America, and Indonesia.

Accordingly, the so-called ‘standard English’ is no longer relevant and subject to question. Which kind of English is going to use and which variety deserves to be the standard? Moreover, it is undeniable fact that today people can communicate with any variants of English. Thus, the position of a native speaker as a language model becomes questionable. In other words, the existence of NTs is not as important as before.

In the context of English teaching as a foreign language (EFL) in Indonesia, however, a well trained native speaker of English is still quite important, but it is not a compulsory. While there is a decline in the importance of ‘standard English’ due to a lot English varieties lately, a competent NT is still believed to be a good friend and a good learning resource for students who learn English as a foreign language in Indonesia. With exceptions in some places, generally speaking Indonesia is still a place with limited conducive environment to practice English either inside or outside the class. And the existence of a NT, in some ways, could solve the problems.

Throughout my learning (and teaching) experience, qualified NTs could motivate the students to be more eager to learn and practice their English. The NTS are also considered to be good sources of learning in terms pronunciations, new vocabulary, accent, certain slang, gestures, and cultural aspects of language. It is clear that they are also good speaking partners when the students practice their English. So, I am with Vidar Weseth saying in her/his letter that if a NT is considered effective to help learning process work well, why not? (Jakarta Post, 12/11/2011)

While it might be a good idea to have NTs, its existence is not compulsory. This is attributable to the fact that with the development of technology, English language learners could easily get access to various English resources with NTs on them. They could listen to English movie, English news, and English conversation through DVD, TV, and other electronic media. They could even make a real time interaction with native speakers anytime online on the Internet.

I think that the most crucial points related to the issue of NTs is not questioning the validity of their existence as English teachers in Indonesia, but more on the aspect of justice or fairness, as also addressed by Martin in her piece. It seems to me that there is a tendency in many English/educational institutions in Indonesia to apply different policy between NTs and non-native speaker teachers (NNTs) regarding their status and salary. It is no longer a new issue that many NTs are paid better and given more facilities compared to local teachers. A university where I used to teach, for example, provides various facilities and pays much higher for NTs than the NNTs. In fact, they do relatively the same duties and works.

It will certainly potential to create a feeling of injustice and unfairness on the side of NNTs. They just can’t accept the fact that they are treated differently just because they are not native speakers. In the field, however, NNTs may have more advantages compared to NTs. For example, non-native teachers must have greater empathy because they know from experience what difficulties their own students may encounter in acquiring a sound system of another language. They could also richer experience how to a foreign language learner. So, they could work out with the students better than NTs.

To make it short, in my opinion, just treat NTs as they should be. It is okay to recruit them into the teaching staff, but the criteria should be set clear and reasonable. This includes reconsidering the information requirements which are quite complicated in the Department of Education, as Rohan enunciated. Then, if they could meet the set up criteria; they should deserve to get it. Certain privileges for NTs should be no longer exist.

The writer is an Australia Development Scholarship alumni, and currently doing his doctoral degree at TESOL International, Monash University in Australia.

I teach (and learn) for the same reason I breathe. Jatuh cinta dengan kegiatan belajar dan mengajar, karena dua aktifitas inilah yang menjadikan peradaban terus tumbuh dan berkembang ^_^ I have been teaching in various institutions in Indonesia, ranging from primary school to university level. I am currently an associate professor in the English education department of Universitas Riau, Indonesia. My research interests are in the areas of (English) teacher training and education, English Language Teaching, and educational policy in the Indonesian context. I am happy to share my knowledge with all interested teachers worldwide. Feel free to contact me through my email as seen in my blog :-). Many thanks!

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1:53 PM delete

This is an interesting reflection on an otherwise well debated issue. I agree with Daud in that a native speaking English teacher might still be necessary but not necessarily desirable over non-native counterparts and the yardstick of this necessity should not be the first language of the teacher but his professional performance. Rather than being dismissive, Daud hints at the possibility of perhaps greater and more effective team teaching.

12:27 AM delete

Thank you for your worthy comment, Raqib. Yes, team teaching is a very good idea to make use the potential advantage of having NT in ELT.