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Why People Prefer Native Speakers (or how to Climb the Racial Ladder)

“Dear sir or Madame, my name is Mohamed Oummih and I’m a native speaker of (American) English.”

For the first ten years of my career as a teacher of English as a foreign language, this is how I would start my cover letters and introductory emails. I wasn’t aware, at the time, of the racist undertones of this line, nor did anyone ever suggest that there was anything wrong with it. I thought I was simply responding to the dictates of the job market, and indeed, to a very large extent, I was.

But there was more to it than that. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was also reacting to the insidious logic of the victim of racism becoming the racist aggressor.

For most of those first ten years, I was living in Paris, France. I was young, enthusiastic, and resoundingly, phenomenally, naïve. I struggled during that time, professionally, and it wasn’t until the tail end of that period that I realized that, in spite of being a “native speaker,” I was myself the victim of discrimination on the job market.

One day, one of my employers quite directly asked me to introduce myself to clients as “Maurice.”

I refused.

And that’s when years of past innuendo came rushing back to mind, revealing a consistent pattern of profiling and discrimination. It’s also when my eyes opened to the fact that my “native speakerism” was an implicit recognition of the validity of the racial argument. I was acknowledging that I was lower on the social ladder, because of my family’s origins, and so I would take the native speaker card out of my pocket in order to grope for a couple of extra rungs up that ladder, without a thought for other, equally qualified teachers who didn’t have that card.

And this is the exact same phenomenon that I am currently observing in Morocco and across the wider world. Employers favor, either explicitly or implicitly, native speaker candidates over non-native speaker candidates, under the pretext that “this is what the market wants,” precisely the same justification I had used myself.

More insidious, though, is the attitude of consumers who have expressed a preference for native speakers (or the UK or a US accent, which is basically a less overt way of saying the same thing). And the underlying logic is the same: acknowledgment of the racial pyramid, with “native speakers” at the top, and non-native speakers below them—and, much more importantly, themselves at the bottom. It sometimes seems to me that, by hooking the native speakers up at the top, they can start to drag themselves up.

Their justifications are, of course, different from those of employers practicing the same sort of discrimination. They claim that native speakers have better accents, that they know the language better, and that they are more skilled at teaching, and to be fair, I blame them less than I blame employers, just because these beliefs are indicative of a lack of experience and/or a lack of knowledge related to the teaching and learning of English, and English’ real role in international communication.

Indeed, native speakers do have very good accents—just as the overwhelming majority of speakers of English with whom non-native speakers are likely to have conversations, who are themselves also non-native speakers. They may indeed speak the language with a slightly higher degree of accuracy and fluency (though this definitely isn’t always the case), but this in no way is indicative of their ability to clarify that language or manage a classroom in such a way that effective learning happens.

The fallacy of these justifications notwithstanding, the underlying mechanism among language learners and their parents is the same: being taught by a native speaker hoists the learner, and by extension, their parents, one rung higher on the racial ladder. But it also acknowledges and sanctifies the legitimacy of that ladder.

This is why, when I started English for Africa, I refused to bow to the “market’s” native speakerism dictates. We don’t go out of our way to employ native speakers, and we don’t promote any of our teachers—including myself—as native speakers. We actively denigrate the racial ladder.

And we actively train our teachers, regardless of geographic origin, so that effective learning does happen in our classrooms. But training teachers—and teaching students—isn’t, in fact, enough. Improving education in Morocco, as elsewhere, is also a matter of raising people’s awareness of what quality education is, and what it isn’t, so that they can make well-informed educational choices.

We want them to say yes to a student-centered classroom, with personalized tasks and a balance of individual, pair, and group activities, because this is what works. And we want them to resist the call of native speakerism, both because it saps our collective dignity, and because preferring native speakers, from a language learning perspective, simply doesn’t work.

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