Some thoughts (and stories) about “native speakers” in South Korea

After some vague and cryptic comments in this blog about my thoughts on “native speakers” a few people asked me what I really meant or think about this  and wondered what the situation is in Korea. Thanks for the questions! I thought I’d start by sharing some (mostly) true stories that highlight some of the issues. Readers familiar with the ELT world in South Korea might not find them new or super interesting but hopefully they will give us something to think about while painting a picture for those that might be unfamiliar.

Story 1
In my first job at a language school in Korea I was given the task of finding new teachers for the school. At first I found an African-American woman that was extremely qualified and very interested in coming to the school. She really impressed me in emails and I was certain she would be a good fit. My director said we should find someone else without giving me much of a reason. The next person I found was a recent graduate that happened to be Vietnamese-American. She gave me the impression that she was really intelligent, caring and adaptable (qualities I deemed essential for the position) but she was also promptly rejected. When pushed, the director admitted that both rejections were because of race. I stopped trying to help him out and those that were eventually hired (a white Canadian couple hired through a recruiter) were generally disastrous for both the business and the students. You might say that this story  is more about race and racism but I would say that race is inherently tied into ideas of “native speakers.”

Story 2
In my work as a teacher trainer I have worked with some amazing Korean English teachers. I will always remember the conversation I had in 2009 with Ms. Park (not her real name). She is a dynamic, reflective, bright, hardworking, and insightful teacher. She is an extremely strong English speaker who has no problem conveying extremely complicated thoughts in English and she is also adept with classroom English. One day during a break we were talking about the importance of speaking English as related to being a good teacher and she shared a story with me.  She told me that,  despite all the effort and improvement she made with her English, she simply acts as a disciplinarian in the classes that she shares with the “native speaker” at her school. She said she never plans lessons or does much of anything except make sure that the students are listening when the “native speaker” teaches. This is a woman with an MA in the field, excellent English skills, 15 years’ experience, and a desire to teach and improve who has been relegated to this role.

Story 3
A Canadian friend of mine has an MA in Applied Linguistics and is quite the language and grammar nerd.  I think he might even do grammar exercises for fun. I know that he has a lot more patience for grammar books and such things than I do. Anyway, he teaches in a high school and has been told numerous times that he is only permitted to teach conversation. It seems that his main role is to  to show up and be a “native speaker ”  and by doing so to get students accustomed to interacting with “native speakers.” All his training, expertise and nerdiness are wasted by the perception that he cannot teach grammar because he is a “native speaker.” Similar stories of “native teachers” only being allowed to play games or forced to act as human tape recorders abound.

Story 4
Back when I first came to Korea there was a dude in the city I lived in. Not only was he sort of a jerk but he was also sort of a “fraud” as a “native speaker.” His English was generally ok but he often made simple mistakes while communicating in English. He was a white guy with an American passport that was born in a country that rhymes with Bechoslovakia. He lived there till he was about 12 and some tricky English points never fully seeped in. Anyway, because he had the American passport he was hired as a “native speaker.” I don’t mean to suggest that people who don’t speak English perfectly can’t be great teachers (see Story 2 above). My sense at the time was that he was not a very good teacher mostly based on the condescending way he talked about co-teachers and what I perceived as a lack of desire to improve as a teacher or help students improve. I fully believe that his students were disadvantaged by the fact that they were given such a teacher.
From my view, all these stories are symptoms of the policies for and perceptions about “native speakers” in South Korea. The official immigration policy in South Korea for “native speakers” is that in order to be hired as a “native” English teacher one must have a BA and have a passport from one of the 7 so-called listed English Speaking countries. It is, of course, very easy to bash government policies but I also think that “native speakerism” and the “cult of the native speaker” are also to blame for the above stories. Many parents and students believe that the best and only way to improve is to have a “native speaking” teacher. Many language schools believe that the best way to make money is by having (white) “native speakers.” Many teachers believe that just being a “native speaker” is enough to justify their place in the classroom.

I realize that this is an emotionally charged and potentially controversial issue. I also realize that this is pretty much a simplification of very many complicated issues. I welcome any polite and respectful disagreements and comments.

Update 1 (of many?) I fully realize that it might be strange for a white American male who was hired one month out of college with just a BA in History to be railing against a system that makes such things possible.
(Thanks to the anonymous friend that reminded me I wanted to be sure to mention something about this.

Update 1a A good friend and colleague suggested that Update 1 is useless and detracts from my points…because just because I happen to be what I happen to be doesn’t limit my ability to raise questions or make points. I thank this person for this insight and will keep it mind.

Update 2 It seems that this is a common thing in places other than just South Korea. Please see the comments for more on this.

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28 comments

  1. mrchrisjwilson

    Thanks for stirring things up Mike. At the summer school I’m currently at I looked round the teachers room and we are all from the 7 countries (in fact, it’s about 60% English 5% Scottish, 5% Northern Irish 5% Welsh and 25% Irish). Out of that they are all white. When talking about hiring an Afro-American at my previous job they commented that they would warn him about the racism in the country I was as they had experienced other teachers leave soon after arriving citing racism as the reason [in the end he joined and stayed for over a whole year]
    A final tag on thought, I wonder if the continued prevalence of the idea “non L1 in the classroom” is a way to continue the dominance of “Native speakers” within ELT. What do you think?

    • mikecorea

      Hey Chris! Thanks for the response! I guess I like the sound of “stirring things up.” I think your point about L1 in the classroom is a very good one and I think it is very closely linked with “native speakerism.” I suppose like with any good “conspiracy theory” we could start by following the money. Lots of people have benefited (and still are benefiting) from such prejudices.

      Thank you also for sharing the breakdown of your summer school. Very interesting for sure.
      I think sometimes it is too easy to chalk things up to racism when it is simply a matter of govt visa policies or something else.

      Thanks again and enjoy the summer!

  2. timjulian

    This is pretty much the situation here in Italy. Take a look at the ads on the TEFL websites for teachers in Italy and you’ll see that most of them explicitly advertise for native speakers. I’m actually rather proud of the fact that my school has (finally) definitively rejected this overt racism and we now employ a Polish and a Hungarian teacher as well as US, UK and Australian nationals. We were, frankly, expecting some sort of reaction, as Italian learners have been sold the myth of NS superiority for decades, but it actually didn’t happen, as the teachers in question were so clearly competent that the issue of their birthplace was forgotten after five minutes in the classroom. I’m still occasionally asked (by parents of YL students) if all our teachers are NS and I reply “Native speakers or with native speaker competence” which usually shuts them up.
    I think Chris makes a very valid point – training schools such as IH and the big publishers had every reason to stress “English only” classrooms, with an emphasis on communication. I’m sure this was done with the best intentions but there were unfortunate consequences.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comment and for helping me see that this is not just a “Korea thing.” I guess I knew it wasn’t but to hear it from someone else is really helpful for me. I like your “Native speakers or with native speaker competence” line. I think that would be an effective one. Good on you and your school for the policy. It gives me hope! Thanks again for stopping by!

  3. Rachael Roberts

    Interesting insight. This seems to be (I might be wrong) a feature of the private language school. I had many similar experiences in Poland, but in the Further Ed. sector in the UK I know excellent Argentinian, Czech, Polish and Russian teachers of English who were hired, and thrive. But I guess asylum seekers and refugees aren’t expected to complain about not having a native speaker.. I think that’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? People running private language schools often don’t want to risk putting off the paying students. There was some debate at mine about hiring a teacher from Manchester because the accent might not be acceptable! Of course, they’re actually missing out on some great teachers, so good to hear that some schools (such as yours @timjulian) are resisting the pressure and allowing students to see that native speaker doesn’t necessarily mean the best teacher.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments Rachael. Some of the above examples are actually from public school..which means…actually I don’t know what it means. It does seem to me that public schools here in Korea are much more diverse than private language schools. Just as a bit of background there are loads of foreign teachers in the schools here. I think your point about not wanting to put off paying students is right on the money. I do think that now I would fight a lot harder than I did 10+ years ago.

      My other hope is that in the long run schools that end up hiring good teachers get the benefits of it so it ends up that hiring teachers just because they are “NS” doesn’t make good business sense either.

      Interesting point about the teacher from Manchester. There are a lot of prejudices out there it seems!

      Thanks for the insights! 🙂

  4. Sarah

    I will never teach at a private language school in South Korea – thanks for confirming that. I’m exactly what they’re looking for too – white, American native speaker with a degree in teaching English, but their practices disgust me. Have fun working in an environment that relegates you to the role of clown to entertain the clients. You couldn’t pay me all the money in the world. I have too much self respect.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments Sarah. I fear that I painted too negative of a picture as it is not always like that. Also, not all the stories are from the private sector if that really matters. I…ummm wouldn’t characterize my current position as a clown hired to entertain clients but I would say there are many positions focused on something between babysitting and edutainment. Thanks for reading and commenting and best of luck with everything.

  5. Kevin Stein

    Can’t say things are much different here in Japan. Especially at the private language schools, directors are looking for teachers which fit the stereotype expected by the students. I used to work as a director at a non-profit International Cultural Exchange Center, and even there, I had difficulty employing the teachers who I felt would give the students the best learning experience. I hired a Spanish and a German teacher who both had MA in TESOL. They were great teachers and I slotted in an hour here and there for them to teach some of the English classes. Their classes received amazing student feedback and after two years, they were teaching a full schedule of English classes. Which opened the door to hiring more teachers with native level fluency regardless of their country of origin. Which I think just goes to show that aside from overt discrimination and simple racism, I think there are many private school owners simply don’t know enough about what happens in a classroom and what is best for their students.

    • mikecorea

      Sir,
      Thanks so much for the response. Your example here gives me a bit of hope that in the end teaching ability (and not skin color or accent) will win out in the end. It’s surely possible that I am being optimistic but with people like yourself making decision and standing by them and a generation of students learning from “non-natives” perhaps there is hope. My other hope is that private school owners will see that it is good business to hire good teachers and let them do their thing (again maybe overly optimistic). Thanks again fo the comments and for sharing the story.

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  7. Ratnavathy Ragunathan

    Hello there,
    This is a rather interesting post, and one that’s close to my heart as well. I’m an English teacher, and I must say that I’m passionate and absolutely love what I do. I’m Malaysian, and this makes me a ‘non-native’ teacher, so to speak, but I must say that I am equally qualified, and teach English with my heart and soul. Interestingly, the whole “native teacher” phenomenon isn’t merely in South Korea. The place I used to work in Malaysia was similar in the nature of their policies as well. Initially, they wanted “native” speaking teacher, preferably whites, and in the end, faced the repercussions of their work policies – teachers “disappearing” and learners complaining of poor quality classes. It took them a long time to realize, but eventually they did. Thank goodness for the Directors of Studies who came in and saw past the “native-speaking” teachers phenomenon, teachers were then recruited based on their qualifications and expertise, more than their “skin” colour or passport for the matter.

    At the moment, I’m in South Korea, taking a break and exploring the job market. Initially, I thought it was going to be difficult despite my qualifications and expertise. On the contrary, I “stumbled” upon a language school that was owned by a very “aware” Korean lady, and a lovely one at that. She’s got a Masters in TESOL, and realizes the importance of hiring qualified and skilled teachers for her school. I’m not working at her place, but we’ve become friends and keep in touch on a very regular basis. It brings such joy to me when we speak so passionately about teaching, and how she wishes to enlighten the minds of Korean parents on the importance of learning English from a qualified teacher rather than a “native” teacher. Well, that’s a start, and a start is always a great thing….

    • mikecorea

      Hi!

      Thanks so much for the comments! Wow. It is very nice to hear from you. Your comments as well as some from others have given me a bit more hope about this situation. I also think your point about the repercussions of racially based hiring is a good one…and another reason for hope. Thanks so much for sharing! I hope you have a lovely time in Korea!

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    • mikecorea

      Good question. I feel like there is a particular Korean EFL taste to these…but I don’t think such issues are at all exclusive to Korea. If that makes sense.

      • Marek Kiczkowiak

        No, it isn’t. As somebody mentioned above, same goes for Italy. And Spain. Actually over 70% of jobs advertised on tefl.com are for native speakers only.
        The way you describe it, definitely doesn’t make me want to go to teach in Korea. I don’t think I’d want to work for a school where there’s so much discrimination.
        Actually, in many places, e.g. the EU, hiring and advertising for a mother tongue is illegal. There have been precedents in the UK when schools were sued and actually lost. This is one of the reasons why you never find native only ads there. I’d b curious to know whether there’s a similar law in South Korea.
        I’m part of a research project and soon we’ll be conducting a survey among students and recruiters (we’re trying to collect results from as many different countries as possible) about their attitudes towards native and non-native speakers. Would you be interested in taking part and distributing the survey in the school you work for? Could email you a copy of the questionnaire.
        Thanks for the post!

      • mikecorea

        Hi Marek,
        Thanks for the insightful comments. I think I mentioned the required passports thing in the comments on my other post but I’ll mention it here for anyone following along. For most English teaching jobs in Korea the teacher needs to have a passport of (and to have gone to HS (I think) in one of 7 countries. I generally love Korea and find it a nice place to live and work but this is one aspect I can’t agree with. You mentioned “‘native’ only” ads being illegal in the EU. In Korea I’d say they are mostly commonplace.

        Regarding the questionaire. I’d be happy to participate and spread it around in my social networks. In my current work environment there is not many people I could ask. It sounds very interesting. Best of luck!
        (my email btw is michaelEgriffin at gmail.)

      • Marek Kiczkowiak

        Unfortunately, the fact they are illegal does not make them less common place. Most schools either don’t know about the law or consciously ignore it as they are convinced nobody will ever sue them.
        Thanks for the email and wanting to participate 🙂 We’re doing a small trial one to iron out the last details. Once the final version is ready (probably a matter of two weeks or so), I’ll email it to you.

    • Phil Cozens

      I don’t think they are just related to Korea as I encountered similar situations in Taiwan. One small point to add is that ‘beards’ on native speakers often negate any qualifications they may have in many Oriental countries.

      • mikecorea

        Thanks for the comments! Interesting point regarding beards as well. I have been in Taiwan for 2 months and my beard attracted a few strange looks. 🙂

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