Foreign Language Classrooms: Native versus Non-Native Teachers and Culture Integration

Marissa Wood

In our exponentially-growing multicultural society, the ability to speak multiple languages is crucial. It is thought that those who can reach more people will ultimately be more successful. Furthermore, a society in which more connections are made—linguistic and otherwise—makes for a more cohesive culture. Concurrent with those two ideas, modern civilization has fostered ideals about being multilingual after realizing the importance that target languages play in the path of understanding other cultures. Recognizing the importance of second (or third) language acquisition, most countries and educational institutions have language learning requirements in place (Spolsky, 2011). The effectiveness of language instruction and learning can have both individual and societal effects, so it is important to consider which circumstances afford people (and societies) the best chance for success.

There is thick debate about which teacher profile is most suitable to teach a language. There is also a widely-recognized notion that culture integration influences and enhances language learning. This paper will briefly explore the current argument regarding native speaker and non-native speaker teachers, as well as relate that argument to culture integration in the foreign language classroom. It will serve as a reflective composition regarding my own experiences as both a student and teacher in various settings of language education.

One of the biggest controversies in language education revolves around the background of the teacher: which is best, native speaker teachers (NSTs) or non-native speaker teachers (NNSTs)? Each group of teachers has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages in the traditional classroom. Naturally, native speakers have received more language input than non-native speakers and have inherently stronger language skills because of socialization. They also tend to have better pronunciation since they acquired the language directly from authentic sources. According to Medyges (1992), NSTs are proficient with use of spontaneous language making them more suitable for teaching conversation. Since practical use and application of the language is typically easier for them than a NNST, they tend to be more comfortable and confident instructors. As a native English-speaker teaching in Mexico, I agree with Medyges’ conclusion. I was most comfortable with guiding conversation clubs or working with higherlevel classes that included discussion. I not only preferred it, but also I felt more confident with my effectiveness as a teacher. The class deviated from the curriculum at times, but it was then I was able to assess the real, practical use of my students’ language acquisition. Inadvertently, this gave them a spontaneous opportunity to demonstrate their skills in a comfortable setting.
The comfort and confidence with the language (and perhaps habit) compels the NST to use the language in various facets of the classroom, not just content-related or lesson-specific language. Regardless of the motive of the teacher, a student in a classroom of a native-speaker teacher may in fact receive more second language (L2) input over the duration of the course. However, this confidence that NSTs experience could cause some aspects of essential grammar to be overlooked. Comparatively, native speakers neither analyze nor interpret the rules and uses of language to the extent that a person who is studying it does. Widdowson (1992) expresses that “although native speakers obviously have the more extensive experience as English language users, the non-native speakers have had experience as English language learners”. Native speakers take for granted the purposeful systems and structures of the language and rely on their innate ability to speak their mother tongue fluently. They rarely question their own language; they accept the rules subconsciously. While teaching my native language, there were times when students’ questions puzzled me. It was not a matter of knowing the grammar rule, but rather an issue with understanding and articulating why that rule existed. For this reason, it is dangerous for a student to assume that NSTs do not make errors.

Language use and grammar aside, there are many other factors that promote an environment conducive to learning. I now turn to the pupil and his or her preferences. Although there is little empirical evidence on the matter, Lasagabaster and Sierra (2002) conducted an insightful study with undergraduate students to find out about their views towards NSTs and NNSTs at various levels of education and among different branches of instruction. Interestingly, they mention that regarding English, “80% of the world’s English language teachers are NNSTs,” and furthermore, “despite these ratios, many still consider that foreign languages should be taught by native speakers of the language” (p. 132). This ideology is known as the ‘native speaker fallacy’, according to Phillipson (1992). From the questionnaires, the researchers found a general preference towards NSTs with an increase in preference as the level of education increased. However, “a slightly negative view of NSTs emerged when it came to the assessment of grammar […] there was a swing towards NNSTs when it came to the teaching of grammar” (Lasagabaster & Sierra, 2002, p. 135). We can conclude that in general, students prefer NSTs, but they recognize that NNSTs offer something of value as well in regards to the grammatical details of the language. As a language student of Spanish, French, and Dutch, I can say that I too had bought into the idea that NSTs were better. My reasoning was that I could get the most exposure to ‘real language’. However, going along with Lasagabaster and Sierra’s discourse, I did indeed notice that NNST correct grammatical errors more that NSTs in the moment of misuse. Moreover, after becoming a NNST of Spanish, my viewpoints changed dramatically; I thought of myself as a credible teacher and recognized that although I wasn’t a NST, I still could be an effective language instructor.

Non-native speaker teachers may have an advantage when it comes to connecting with students personally, if both teacher and student share the same culture. Building rapport with pupils has been thought to positively influence the educational experience. It promotes a greater chance for success due to improved student motivation and makes the learning process more amiable. An NST may have greater difficulty building rapport with his or her students because he or she may not be able to connect with them on an individual level. Research has shown that students have increased anxiety with NSTs, and admit to having a difficult time understanding, communicating, and developing relationships with them (Florence, 2012). A NNST from the same culture (speaking the same language) as his or her students may be best suited to build meaningful relationships with them. Not only do they share the same language, but they also possibly share the same ideals, may have similar backgrounds, and can relate to the same cultural phenomena. In this case, the teacher serves as more of a mentor through the language-learning process. As a Spanish teacher to Americans in the United States, I often incorporated rules or tricks that helped me better understand and use the language when I originally studied it. For example, I teach a rhyme in English to remember a Spanish grammar aspect: “this and these have T’s” in reference to demonstrative pronouns este, estos, eso, esos. The students understand the connection and learning occurs.
This raises the question, is the relationship among teacher and student more valuable than the actual content of the program? Some would argue that language use and its correctness prevails as top priority in the foreign language classroom. It is believed that NNST do not have as good a grasp on the language as a whole when compared to native speakers. The moment in which the person first acquired the language has a lot to do with his or her practical use abilities. However, in general, the skills are not comparable to those of a native speaker. A non-native speaker may lack the intuition and creativity that a native speaker naturally possesses. Furthermore, a NNST will inherently make more mistakes than a NST. In a qualitative study about non-native Spanish speaker teachers, participants were asked various questions to reflect on their teaching. In regards to mistakes, all participants interviewed claimed that “making mistakes was acceptable, whether on the part of the student or on the part of the teacher” (Thompson & Fioramonte, 2013, p. 571). They all had articulated to their students that making mistakes was part of the language learning process; it demonstrates to the student that the NNST is also a learner of the language, like them, and maybe just farther along in the journey. Another aspect this study explored was pronunciation. Although some participants were confident with their pronunciation as NNSTs, others encouraged their students that being exposed to a variety of Spanish speakers was important. One participant expressed her value of pronunciation and stated that she has worked very hard on her own accent; she had echoed this to her students, and relayed the idea that if they are not pronouncing things correctly, there could be a lapse in communication. Thompson and Fioramonte (2013) reflect on this by saying, “some of these strong opinions of the self-perception of pronunciation also carried over into the realm of how these participants viewed other NNSs’ pronunciation” (p. 573).

Existing literature points to the idea that the level of instruction is very influential in deciding which teacher is better for a specific program. Lasagabaster and Sierra (2002) state that there is a possibility that “NSTs and NNSTs are each more suitable at different stages of language learning” (p. 133). I agree with that sentiment and conclude the following: Novice-level students will benefit more from having a NNST that shares their own language and culture. This is because the teacher to student relationship will be stronger, the student will feel more comfortable, and the teacher will be able to give support about the language-learning process because he or she too has studied and acquired it in the same manner. Intermediate and advanced-level students will benefit more from having a NST. When language learners reach higher levels of acquisition, the use for spontaneous language increases, and the demand for conversational and communicative skills is pertinent. Therefore, a native speaker would be more appropriate to guide students in the natural speech progression.

Language acquisition is not the only aspect of a foreign language classroom. Understanding the culture from which the language is derived is thought to enhance the learning process. The American Council of Foreign Language suggests that “students cannot truly master the language until they have also mastered the cultural contexts in which the language occurs” (National Standards in Foreign Language Education Project, 1996). Additionally, Peterson and Bronwyn (2003) state that “linguists and anthropologists have long recognized that the forms and uses of a given language reflect the cultural values of the society in which the language is spoken” (p. 1). Here we find an additional question: who can teach about a language’s culture in a more effective, inclusive way? It is plausible that a NST has the best chance at educating on matters of his or her own specific country’s culture. However, a NNST may have better insight into the multinational culture of a specific language. A native speaker may be isolated in the knowledge of his or her own country’s culture. On the other hand, the non-native speaker experienced an involuntary contrast with his or her own culture, giving him or her a set of references that the native speaker does not possess. The process of creation and development of a NNST implies a structured integration of cultural elements, addressing concerns about cultural inexperience. As a foreign teacher instructing my native language, I experienced this phenomenon and was forced to recognize my American-culture paradigm in contrast with other English-speaking cultures. Conversely, when teaching Spanish to American students I am able to incorporate a wide variety of Spanish-speaking countries’ cultures.
In order for language education to be successful, it is important that the teacher is well-versed in cultural content as well as pedagogy. “If the approaches and activities that the teacher chooses are to be successfully implemented, the teacher must have a thorough grasp of the context, the situation, and the people involved” (Abbaspour, Nia, & Zare, 2012, p. 22). If a teacher’s knowledge of culture is completely one-sided, there is a greater chance for bias to occur. Peterson and Coltrane (2003) write that “cultural information should be presented in a nonjudgmental fashion” (p. 2), which may be difficult for a NST. Moreover, a teacher should present culture in a broad sense, rather than strictly teaching about his or her own countries’ culture. While studying Spanish as a second language in my American high school, I had a limited variety of teachers. One was a Mexican from Veracruz; the others were English-speaking teachers who learned their Spanish in Latin America. This showed me that a teacher’s isolated language background affects the student’s learning experience. For example, there is a third-person plural form of the word “you”, which is “vosotros” used in Spain. Since none of my teachers were Spanish speakers or learners from Spain, this aspect was completely omitted from the curriculum. This was an unfortunate occurrence, and I never had a chance to explore this dimension of language and culture from Spain as a young learner.

Language variances aside, I also did not learn about Spanish cultural phenomena like La Tomatina, Celebration of San Fermin (running of the bulls), and the festival Las Fallas until well after my high school studies. I did, however, become well-acquainted with the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) because of my Mexican teachers and my own experiences studying abroad in Mexico. Therefore, I was always partial to this holiday when teaching culture to my American students. Unsurprisingly, Lasagabaster and Sierra (2002) found that respondents of their questionnaire “showed a preference for NSTs in the area of […] culture and civilization” (p. 134). However, it should not be overlooked that students may be receiving biased input from the home culture of the NSTs, and not the language’s global culture. This could lead to generalizations and limit the understanding of the rich cultural diversity one language community (and all its countries) has to offer.

Through my varied experiences as a language student, a (Spanish) non-native speaker teacher, and (English) native-speaker teacher, I have seen the complexities of foreign language and culture integration firsthand. While there is considerable research about which teacher profile is most suitable to teach a language, there remains opportunity to explore the impact of teacher nationality on culture comprehension. The hypothesized instance of limited cultural experience represents one of many factors that may be studied in the future. Regardless of their individual background, teachers have an emerging responsibility to build their awareness about the complex and varied cultures surrounding a language. In regards to language specific factors, and as mentioned above, I believe that the needs of students are concurrent with the level of language desired; NSTs are more suitable for higher levels of acquisition, and NNSTs may be more beneficial for lower levels of language learning. Considering all these factors ensures that native and non-native speaker teachers can instruct to the best of their ability and therefore the students will reach the most success.

Abbaspour, E., Nia, M., & Zare, J. (2012). How to integrate culture in second language education. Journal of Education and Practice, 3(10), 20-24.
Florence, L. (2012). Advantages and Disadvantages of Native and Nonnative English Speaking Teachers: Student perceptions in Hong Kong. TESOL Quarterly, 46(2), 280-305
Lasagabaster, D. & J.M. Sierra. (2002). University students’ perceptions of native and non-native speaker teachers of English. Language Awareness. 11(2), 131- 142.
Medyes, P. (1992). Native or non-native: who’s worth more? ELT Journal, 46(4), 340-349.
Peterson, E., & Coltrane, B. (2003). Culture in Second Language Teaching. Center for Applied Linguistics Digest.
Phillipson, R. (1992) Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Spolsky, B. (2011). Does the United States Need a Language Policy? Center for Applied Linguistics Digest.
Thompson, A., & Fioramonte, A. (2013). Nonnative speaker teachers of Spanish: Insights from novice teachers. Foreign Language Annals, 45(4), 564-579.
Widdowson, H.G. (1992). ELT and EL teachers: Matters arising. ELT Journal, 46(4), 333-339.

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