NESTs (Native English Speaking Teachers) & NNESTs (Non-Native English Speaking Teachers): Competence or Nativeness?

Heba Fathelbab

Canadian International College, Cairo



The controversy regarding whether NESTs are better ESL/EFL teachers than NNESTs has been debated in EFL research for the past two decades. Even with the large number of NNESTs teaching ESL/EFL, which has peaked to almost 80% of ESL/EFL teachers worldwide (Canagarajah, 1999), the NEST has always had a superior status. This notion was termed by Phillipson (1992) as “the native speaker fallacy” (p.185), which is the belief that the ideal teacher is a native speaker of English. Phillipson refuted the NS fallacy and believed that “teachers are made rather than born whether teachers are native or non native” (1992, p.194).

 Categorizing NESTs as competent and NNESTs as less competent represents an ethical problem, a problem that is illustrated in the fact that most EFL students see the NEST as a white monolingual teacher with a native English accent and believe that no other prototype exists (Filho, 2002). This belief is discriminatory and may be unfair to other qualified and competent NNESTs. As a result, NNESTs tend to have lower self-esteem than NESTs because they feel that their credibility is constantly being judged due to the superior status given to NESTs by the EFL community.  In addition, this inaccurate categorization can influence hiring practices in the EFL market, as it may cause a conflict between commercial realities and the equality principle between NESTs and NNESTs (Illés, 1991). Therefore, addressing this problem should minimize the differences between NESTs and NNESTs in terms of job opportunities, promotions and salaries (Canagarajah,1999; Mahboob, 2003). Moreover, it might provide NESTs and NNESTs with even opportunities and allow teachers to be judged according to their individual teaching capabilities and professional knowledge.

Researchers have investigated NESTs and NNESTs, and have all reached the conclusion that both categories of teachers have strengths and weaknesses. Medgyes (1992) argued that NNESTs should be given the same chance as NESTs to be successful EFL teachers. He also discussed the strengths and weaknesses of both categories in his study. He stated the main strengths of NESTs as having high language proficiency and communicative competence, and the main strength of NNESTs as being successful learner models and having knowledge of their students’ L1. As a result, research has altered its attempts to find the better EFL/ESL teacher into attempts to discover how NESTs and NNESTs might complement each other. In other words, it is not about “who is worth more” (Medgyes, 1992, p. 340), but about how they are “worth more together” (Gill & Rebrova, 2001, p. 1). This concept has been explored through NEST/NNEST team teaching, as well as other professional collaborations between NS and NNS.

Furthermore, research has explored how students perceive NESTs and NNESTs. Similar results were found, which show that students find that both NESTs and NNESTs have strengths and weaknesses. The main strengths of NESTs, as perceived by students, are that they have better speaking and communication skills, high language proficiency and are better informants of the target culture. Students perceive the main strengths of NNESTs to be better knowledge of grammar and knowledge the students’ first language (mainly in an EFL context).

Even though students seem to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of both NESTs and NNESTs, they tend to perceive the NEST as a more competent teacher. Moussu (2002) investigated students’ perceptions of NESTs and NNESTs, and his results showed that NNESTs who sounded and looked more like NSs were better appreciated by their students. Rubin’s (1992) study confirms the previous belief as the results showed that students associated a foreign accent with a poor teacher. In addition, most students assume that teachers that do not look English will not be able to teach English effectively, as it does not occur to these students that these non-English looking teachers might have lived their entire lives in an English-speaking country. Therefore, students seem to have stereotyped native speakers and tend to decide the nativeness of their teachers based on qualities such as physical appearance, accent and ethnicity (Filho, 2002; Rubin, 1992). This might be because they know no other NS except their stereotyped blonde, blue-eyed, American or English looking and sounding NS with English first names (Filho, 2002).  Hence, students view Center teachers and Periphery teachers differently. Center teachers are teachers from countries that speak English as a native language and are perceived as NSs by students (Phillipson, 1992), and Periphery teachers are teachers from underdeveloped countries that speak English as a foreign language and are perceived as NNSs by students (Phillipson, 1992). Students tend to view these teachers differently mainly due to the fact that periphery teachers do not look like NSs of English, even though they might actually be NSs. Therefore, students reject not only NNESTs, but also NESTs from countries they are not perceived as Center English-speaking countries (Inbar-Lourie, 2005). As a result, nativeness has become a socially constructed identity and not a linguistic one (Brutt-Griffler & Samimy, 2001).

The NEST/NNEST dichotomy has repercussions that extend beyond the perception of nativeness, repercussions that affect teachers’ job opportunities and salaries in the EFL job market. Canagarajah (1999) discussed the political and economical consequences that stem from the NS/NNS dichotomy such as unequal job opportunities and unequal pay. Moussu (2002) stated that the dichotomy exists in hiring practices and that some teachers are not hired because they are not native speakers. Moreover, some online job advertisements for EFL teachers still specify being a native speaker as a qualification. In addition, schools are keen on hiring NESTs because advertising that their teachers are native speakers attracts parents and allows them to compete with other schools. Mahboob (2003) stated that 59.8% of administrators surveyed in his study think being a NS is an important criterion in the hiring process. Most administrators believe that students’ demand is for NESTs and that students expect NESTs, which is why administrators have reservations about hiring NNESTs.

TESOL published A Position Statement against Discrimination of Nonnative Speakers of English in the Field of TESOL (TESOL, 2006) which states that employment decisions based solely on native speaker criterion is discriminatory against well-qualified individuals. It also states that TESOL is against such discrimination and that employment should be based on language proficiency, as well as other criteria, without any reference to nativeness. This statement shows that TESOL is well aware of the existence of this problem in the EFL job market.

Therefore, this inaccurate perception of teacher competence needs to be amended so that perception of nativeness will not be exclusively associated with teacher competence. Employers should not be allowed to print “Native Speakers only” on their job ads, as teachers should be evaluated based on language and teaching competence. In addition, further research is needed to investigate the influence of teacher nativeness on hiring practices and explore if a bias towards NESTs exists in the EFL community. If it does exist, then to what extent? Implications of such research include increasing awareness of the inaccurate NEST/NNEST dichotomy, which consequently might encourage the EFL community to refrain from associating nativeness with competence. Finally, the equality principle among EFL teachers in hiring practices might be implemented more effectively, providing fair job opportunities for all EFL teachers.





Brutt-Griffler, J. & Samimy, K. (2001). Transcending the nativeness paradigm. World 
, 20(1), 99-106.


Canagarajah, A. S. (1999). Interrogating the ‘native speaker fallacy’: Non-linguistic roots, 
            non-pedagogical results. In G. Braine (Ed.), Non native educators in English 
            language teaching
(pp. 77-92). Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum.


Filho, R. E. (2002). Students’ perceptions of nonnative ESL teachers. Unpublished 
            master’s thesis, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, West Virginia University. 


Gill, S. & Rebrova, A. (2001). Native and non-native: together we’re worth more
            Retrieved March 11, 2009, from: 



Illes, E. (1991). Correspondence. ELT Journal, 45(1), 87.


Inbar-Lourie,O. (2005). Mind the gap: Self and perceived native speaker identities of EFL 
            teachers . In E. Llurda (Ed.), Non-Native Language Teachers: Perceptions, 
(265-282). New York: Springer.


Mahboob, A. (2003). Status of nonnative English-speaking teachers in the United 
. Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, Bloomington.


Medgyes, P. (1992). Native or non-native: who's worth more? ELT Journal, 46(4), 340-


Moussu, L. (2002). English as a second language students’ reactions to nonnative 
            English-speaking teachers
. Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University - Provo.


Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Rubin, D. L. (1992). Nonlanguage factors affecting undergraduates’ judgments of nonnative 
            English-speaking teaching assistants. Research in Higher Education, 33(4), 511-


Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (2006). Position statement 
            against discrimination of nonnative speakers of English in the field of TESOL

            Retrieved August 8, 2008, from



Heba Fathelbab received her Master degree in TEFL from AUC. She has been teaching EFL for almost 10 years in both Egypt and Canada. Her research interests include student perception of their EFL teachers.