China should choose its English teachers based on skill, not country of origin

Andrew Sewell says the recent decision by China’s government to bar Filipino English teachers because they are not ‘native’ demonstrates the need to replace the unhelpful ‘native speaker’ label and focus on effective communication

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 November, 2017, 12:12pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 November, 2017, 7:20pm

The biblical story of the shibboleth tells of how the Gileadites identified the Ephraimites by the way they pronounced the word “shibboleth”. The unfortunate Ephraimites were then prevented from crossing the River Jordan.

The story finds resonance in China’s plan to bar would-be English teachers from the Philippines, because “the Chinese government does not consider Filipinos as native English speakers”.

The decision may make sense for economic and political reasons, but the claimed linguistic reason – that Filipinos are not “native English speakers” because of their birthplace – does not stand up to scrutiny. It’s time to consider the myth of the native English speaker.

First, it is not possible to assess English skills on the basis of birthplace or passport. Like many resources in today’s world, English is distributed unequally. An increasing number of Filipinos have excellent English skills and many receive higher education abroad. Among these are people who would make superb English teachers for Chinese students.

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Second, so-called “native speakers” from countries such as Britain and the US are also a very diverse group. Many possess excellent English skills, but many do not and some are poor communicators for other reasons. People involved with business communication often remark on how native speakers turn out to be the least effective communicators in international settings.

Increasingly, it is native speakers who need to adjust their language to different audiences

The reasons given include speaking too fast, employing culturally specific references or jokes, plus habits such as trailing off at the end of sentences and using vagueness to signal things to those “in the know”. Native speakers can be mediocre writers if they were not explicitly taught the grammar of their own language.

When overseas students go to the UK, they often comment on how hard it is to adjust to the local accents, after having spent most of their lives learning “proper” English. Many native speakers assume their English is correct and understandable because it is “their language”. But, increasingly, it is native speakers who need to be able to adjust their language to different audiences.

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That many Brits and Americans are effectively monolingual is a serious disadvantage. Learning another language makes it easier to empathise with multilingual colleagues whose first language is not English. It may also make for more effective communication in multilingual workplaces.

English is the lingua franca of international business and native speakers form a minority of its users. In the UK, the percentage of companies with a foreign-born chief executive officer has doubled to 40 per cent in the last decade, according to the executive search group Odgers Berndtson. This elite group of CEOs consists of 20 nationalities, and many would be considered “non-native speakers” under China’s policy.

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A new test of international English competence is needed. This would enable hiring decisions and immigration policies based on communicative effectiveness rather than birthplace. Existing tests such as IELTS are designed for people who intend to visit countries where English is the major language.

China may have justifiable reasons for barring Filipino workers, but linguistic reasons are not among them. There are reasons to bar the mythical term “native speaker” from discussions of language policy, however. As the language of international communication, English is nobody’s native tongue. Effective use needs to be learned, regardless of where one was born.

Andrew Sewell is an associate professor and head of the Department of English at Lingnan University