Fighting generalizations with generalizations?

In my most recent post I shared some thoughts and stories related to “native speakers” in South Korea. A few friends on email, twitter and in blog comments mentioned that such stories are not just limited to South Korea, which I think is an important thing to keep in mind. While the subject of “native speakers” was fresh on my mind I wanted to share something I have been thinking about for a long time. In Teaching English as an International Language, Sandra Lee Mckay quotes Medgyes on his views on the advantages of what he calls non-NESTS (non-native English speaking teachers):

a) Only non-NESTS can serve as imitable models of the successful learner of English…
b) Non-NESTS can teach learning strategies more effectively…
c) Non-NESTS can provide learners with more information about the English language…
d) Non-NESTs are more able to anticipate language difficulties…
e) Non-NESTS can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners…
f) Only non-NESTS can benefit from sharing the learners’ mother tongue…

Wait, what?

Before taking a closer look at some of these points I’d like to mention McKay’s response. She says that while it is encouraging that Medgyes is emphasizing the strengths of bilingual teachers of English, “his discussion is highly problematic in that too rests on an acceptance of the native speaker fallacy in which billingual teachers are compared with so-called native speakers…Only when the native speaker fallacy is put aside can a full exploration of such strengths of bilingual teachers be undertaken.” (44) This makes a lot of sense to me and I think that such a list is not likely to be helpful to anyone as it pits “NNS” and “NS” teachers against each other. As a trainer of (mostly) Korean teachers I often feel that part of my job is to help the teachers not feel like “failed native speakers” and to help them realize the strengths that they (can) bring to the table. I am not convinced that this list is helpful for that.

What follows is my personal thoughts on each of  the points:
(With the admission that I might be falling into the same trap that Medgyes does)

a) Only non-NESTS can serve as imitable models of the successful learner of English…

Great. I think this is an extremely valuable point and one that I can’t emphasize enough. Excellent. Yes. My sincere hope is that this will be shouted from the rooftops and taken on by everyone.

b) Non-NESTS can teach learning strategies more effectively…

Why is this? I really have no idea! I would think that a teacher  familiar with learning strategies and has some idea how to teach them would be more effective than a teacher who is not, regardless of L1. Sorry, but I’m not buying this one.

c) Non-NESTS can provide learners with more information about the English language…

More information than what? This is perhaps the most confusing point for me. I don’t see how being a so-called NNEST would make it more likely that a teacher can provide more information about English. I just don’t get it.

I also think it is problematic that “providing information about the English language is somehow related to “good teaching.”

d) Non-NESTs are more able to anticipate language difficulties…

Always? Really? More than a NEST with experience, desire and a knack for such things? Does the non-NEST in question have to speak the same L1 as the student for this to be true? I am thoroughly unconvinced by this point.

e) Non-NESTS can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners…

I am happy to see the “can” here. Ok. I guess anyone “can” be more empathetic depending on a wide variety of factors. This point smells pretty moot to me because we could make the same point about any number of demographic breakdowns. I am pretty sure that non-NESTs don’t have a monopoly on empathy.

I am again thinking that teachers with the same cultural and L1 background here might have an “advantage” but I also believe that certain things can be learned and developed.

I also think that there is something to be said for teachers that are language learners too. I know some teachers that can speak numerous languages (sadly I am not on this list). Surely the experiences of learning other languages are also valuable in this regard and the empathy described above is not limited to teachers that happen to speak the same language as their students.

f) Only non-NESTS can benefit from sharing the learners’ mother tongue…

Ok, but surely some L1 users of English are out there that know the learners’ L1 too. Does this count? Do people have to share the same mother tongue for these benefits to be felt? Does a trained and knowledgeable teacher who knows a bit of the students’ L1 provide more benefit than a teacher that simply has the same mother tongue as the student?

It seems to me that in his zeal to help “non-NESTs” see their potential value Medgyes might have taken things too far it seems to me that he fights generalizations with generalizations and takes what is certainly a complicated issue and makes it seem so simple.

Perhaps I am taking things out of context here.
Perhaps I am 20 years too late with my critique.
Perhaps I am missing something.
Fair enough.

Since I have been thinking about this for 3+ years I’d love to see your thoughts on what I am missing, if anything.

Citation Station: 

Medgyes, P. 1992. “Native or non-native: who’s worth more?” ELT Journal 46/4: 340-9

McKay, S. 2002. “Teaching English as an International Language.” Oxford: Oxford University Press

Related Links:
(Here are some links that came to mind after posting…not 100% related to this post but surely interesting and thought provoking)


  1. livinglearning

    I am really glad to see this post – I agree with a lot of it. I wrote a paper on the topic a couple semesters ago (along with everyone else studying TESOL or AppLing, I’m sure) and used Medgyes as my main source. I appreciate that he’s trying to level the playing field and show that NNESTs bring something important to the classroom. However, I am unhappy with his starting point – the need to (dis)prove that any teacher is better than any other teacher just based on their language-learning background, and buying into the native-speaker myth with his “we might not speak like a NS but we can do other things better” attitude. I think it takes more than that to make someone a good teacher (whatever ‘good’ means). Also, it seems like he was comparing untrained NESTs (where the T is debatable) to trained and near-fluent NNESTs (where the T is beyond doubt) and that comparison makes me unhappy. What about the rest of us on the whole spectrum in between? I think that falling along the spectrum between Medgyes extremes is what makes the list so fuzzy for me.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the response, Anne! It is nice to unload my thoughts like this…haha I have been thinking about that page in the book for a very long time! I am also happy that you questioned the idea of “good” because that is something that I also found problematic. I agree with you on the point of Medgyes trying to “level the playing field” but these points are not very persuasive for me.

      It seems quite reasonable that he was talking about untrained “NESTs” so thanks for that (and please be sure to see Ben’s comments about that.) Also, I think spectrum is an important word/concept here because these things are gray (as we have discussed). I mean I am sure that there are plenty of L1 users of Korean (or whatever) that happen to use English quite well but are not necessarily equipped with all the abilities that Medgyes assumes they would simply have by virtue of being an L2 user of English. Also, I’d like to hope that “native speakers” can develop some of things that he mentions and that the door is not completely shut solely by their mother tongue.

      Lots to think about…. thanks!

  2. Ben Naismith

    Totally agree Mike. Although I think I would agree with pretty much all Medgyes’ points if by NEST he actually meant “newly-qualified / inexperienced NEST”. In that case, I would have to agree that a lot of fresh CELTA grads are far behind their non-native contemporaries, especially when it comes to language awareness, reasons for learners’ errors, etc.

    It seems to me that NEST and Non-NEST teachers tend to have opposite strengths and weaknesses to start, but that with time and experience everything levels out (assuming the teacher is committed to professional development).

    Embarrassingly, I haven’t read the book you’re quoting, but will add it to my list.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comment, Ben! I appreciate it. I have been wondering about about this for a long time so it is nice to read some thoughts from others. I really like your point about “leveling out” (with the important caveat that the T be committed to development). I like your point about fresh CELTA grads as well. I can’t help but think that inexperienced teachers with loads of language learning experiences would also be in a good position for some aspects of M’s list. .

      As far as the book goes….I think it is probably worth reading. My personal take was that it glossed over culture and how it fits into this huge puzzle. I generally preferred this one: (World Englishes by Andy Kirkpatrick) and found it quite provocative. I’m not overload your reading list but I really enjoyed this one too: (English as a Global Language by David Crystal) though it might even be a bit dated already since it is from 2003.

      Thanks again for the comments!

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    • mikecorea

      As per Phillipson 1992 (Linguistic Imperialism) it is being used to mean [the fallacy that] the best/most desirable/ideal teachers are native speakers.

      (not that there is no such thing as native speakers which is another topic)

  4. Che

    You guys are beating around the bush nicely here, almost coming to it, alluding, implying, reaching…. alas! and not explicitly mentioning it: most of AL theorists are extremely biased about the native speaker fallacies/tenets, including Phillipson, himself. The fact is that the world of ESL/EFL is adopting English-Only classrooms more and more,and this is a shame when bilingual teaching is the bomb. Any one of these highly prejudicial Medgyes can easily be exposed in an instant— if we suppose that the EFL/ESL teacher can speak his/her students’ L1, regardless of their own L1s, and knows something about Systemic Functional Linguistics:

    a) Only non-NESTS can serve as imitable models of the successful learner of English…

    No: on the other hand NESTs who speak their students’ L1s show exactly the same thing- “Wow, you learned my L1 that well! Okay, you’ve become a highly ‘imitable model of a successful’ L2 learner!”.

    b) Non-NESTS can teach learning strategies more effectively…

    Straight up prejudice that requires no deconstruction. However, NESTs and NNESTs who are good at teaching learning strategies effectively….. need I go on?

    c) Non-NESTS can provide learners with more information about the English language…

    As somebody asked above, “Huh?” I think Medgyes expands on this foolish point with, “During their own learning process, non-NESTs have gained abundant knowledge about and insight into how the English language works, which might be presumed to make them better informants than their native colleagues” (Medgyes, 1992: 347). Right? No, no, no. NESTS, too, especially those who have laboriously studied their students’ L1s, can have ‘abundant knowledge and insight into how English’ and universal grammatical properties, in general, function.

    d) Non-NESTs are more able to anticipate language difficulties…

    Real thick overgeneralizing here; again, how about bilingual NESTs? Yes, we, too can anticipate language difficulties, and grammar, for a lot of us, is hard-wired, whereas with many NNESTs, it’s not.

    e) Non-NESTS can be more empathetic to the needs and problems of their learners…

    Silly. But, if you’re thinking about taking up a career in AP ****BEWARE**** much of it is rubbish, like this!

    f) Only non-NESTS can benefit from sharing the learners’ mother tongue…

    Wow! My students’ L1 is Korean. My L1 is English. I also speak Korean. Hmmm? Oh, yeah, I DO share my students’ L1 all the time.

    • mikecorea

      I just realized I never responded to this. Sorry for the long delay. I don’t have much to say except thanks for stopping by and helping put the final nail in the coffin on that list.

      • Patrick Andrews

        I think there are important points here in your posting and the replies. However, do we really address the way that the NEST/non-NEST distinction is not so important as how well the teacher knows the language being taught. Some NEST teachers are not so competent in certain kinds of areas of language (perhaps academic writing, for example) as some non-NESTs. For example, a non-NEST who has done a Master’s degree might be better at teaching academic writing than a NEST who just has experience of writing at Bachelor level.

      • mikecorea

        I think you raise a great point and another layer of complexity for an already complex issue. I think that is my main issue with the list (which I will say I am very happy it exists).It is just too simple and doesn’t account for so many things like the point that you mentioned. Thanks very much for reading and commenting!

  5. Marek Kiczkowiak

    Hi Mike,
    Another great post and some very interesting comments. You just voiced exactly the same critique of Medgyes’ arguments I’ve had in mind for quite some time now.
    As your title says, he has tried to fight stereotypes with even more stereotypes. None of them are always true, and I think they only exacerbate the division between the two groups. Why should NNESTs only be good for teaching grammar? And why should NESTs be always better at teaching speaking? Such generalisations just don’t hold water if you look at them more closely. I wish a more inclusive approach developed, in which we would get rid of the two labels and simply view all of us as English teachers. The recruitment would be done based on qualifications, language skills and experience, regardless of your nationality.
    Although we might disagree with the way he approached the topic, we’ve got to give Medgyes credit, though. He was the first to openly speak against the discrimination, and he’s definitely put the topic on the agenda. I think he’s also given many NNESTs self-confidence and value, which is very important.
    I’m actually going to interview Medgyes for a new blog I set up with some colleagues to fight against inequality in TEFL: If you get a chance Mike, it’d be great if you could contribute a post there (I sent you an email about it). Actually, this post would be a great follow up to the interview as it nicely responds to the points Medgyes has raised many times and opens a debate. Of course, we’d direct the readers to your blog, which would get you more traffic and followers. What do you think?
    Thanks again for a great post.

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