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The native English speaker phenomenon in China

By DenisDNT | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2017-01-06 10:22

The native English speaker phenomenon in China

Students practice English at a primary school in Dexing, Jiangxi province, in front of an Olympic bulletin board in May. [Photo/China Daily]

In my previous blog entry, Native Teachers Wanted... What do you mean?, I was trying to explain how unclear it is when school administrators, educators, recruiters and so-called teachers' agents use the phrase on thousands of job ads online, ignorantly or knowingly blurring the actual meaning of what they intend to say. This shortsightedness sprang from the original popular trend of "native English speaking ESL teachers" being needed to teach in local schools in China, just like in all other countries where English is not spoken as a first language. It is the most popular requirement would-be English teachers in China have to meet, overshadowing other requirements concerning working experience, training, education, age, etc. The popularity of this phenomenon has also made it the most controversial in the ESL industry. In this blog I will try to expose some of those controversies as objectively as I can, using the question and answer technique so that people commenting on this blog can easily refer to specific questions.

1. So who is a Native English Speaker? Common sense tells us that this is a person whose mother tongue is English.

2. So what's a mother tongue? One's native language, according to Merriam-Webster's dictionary.

3. Can a person have two or more mother tongues or native languages? Yes. (My personal opinion).

4. Do you get your mother tongue from your parents or from the environment in which you grew up? From both. (My personal opinion).

5. So if one's parents are from a country where English is not a first language but the person is born and educated in a country where English is a first language, is that child a native English speaker? It will depend on some other factors. (My personal opinion).

6. If just one of my parents is a native English speaker living in a country where English is not a first language, then I am born and educated in that country, am I a native English speaker? It will depend on some other factors. (My personal opinion).

7. Do immigrants in countries where English is used as a first language qualify as native English speakers? No, in most cases. (My personal opinion).

8. Can native English speakers be identified racially? No. A simple survey a colleague and I carried out in Shanghai in 2012 proved this answer very wrong. Here is what we did in case somebody wants to repeat the survey. We wrote a CV for a dummy teacher. We made sure most of the requirements usually asked were met. Then we got two head shot pictures online, one, a black American and the other a white American. We added the two pictures to 20 copies of the same CV each. Then we got online and applied for as many ESL job ads as we could using the CVs we had made. My friend had the CV with the head shot of the black American while I had the other. The one with the white guy's head shot on the CV got 18 positive replies, three promises to get back and one "Sorry, the position is taken". The other CV, with the black guy's head shot, got two positive replies calling for an interview, seven replies saying only native English speakers were needed and 13 emails got no replies. Our little survey was just to find out whether recruiters really do read through CVs or they just take a look at applicants' pictures that are usually at the top of the CV. We got served. So, some people in China attribute native English speaking to physical looks and worse still, race, an addition to the controversy we are exploring. Now back to the series of questions.

9. You are from Italy but did your university studies in England majoring in English and finally got a certificate to teach English. Are you a native English speaker? No. You are a near-native English speaker. (My personal opinion).

10. You are a British citizen, born and raised in China in the Chinese education system. Are you a native English speaker? It's hard to say. (My personal opinion).

These 10 questions above, including the short story, expose the controversies around the phrase commonly found on ESL job ads in China: "Our school is looking for native English speakers..."

Dear recruiters, usually you get one or two applicants because 30 to 50 others are wondering whether they qualify as native English speakers or not. Among those 30 to 50 hesitant applicants you might have the best teacher who fits the position you have. Globalization will only get better with more and more people interacting and physical racial traces getting almost eliminated. The number of speakers of English as a second language has already outnumbered that of speakers of English as a first language. It will get more and more difficult to find the native English speaker that used to be decades ago.

Pay more attention to other requirements that qualify a person to teach English as a second language. Remember, being a native English speaker doesn't qualify a person automatically to teach English, especially to learners of English as a second language.

As mentioned in the previous blog, if you are looking for ESL teachers to teach in your school, the right way to phrase it is: "We are looking for native English speaking ESL teachers for..." NOT "We are looking for English speakers" or worse, "We are looking for native speakers" or worse still, "We are looking for natives."

Regards and happy New Year 2017.

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