Marek Kiczkowiak interviews Péter Medgyes

1. TEFL Equity Advocates: Thanks a lot for agreeing to be interviewed, Péter. We’d like to start off our discussion by talking about the problem of discriminatory job ads. It seems that the majority of EFL posts advertised are for NESTs (Native English Speaker Teachers) only. Many language schools prefer hiring NESTs (despite the fact that in the EU it is illegal to do so) because of the supposed ‘market demand’, i.e. students want to have classes with native speakers. Do you think this market demand is real? If so, what caused it in the first place? If not, why do so many schools continue to advertise for native speakers only?

Marek, you lead in with „many language schools”. The question is how many – the majority? Anyway, which countries are we talking about? Poland, Brazil, Sri Lanka? Mind you, I’m aware that in a lot of countries posts are advertised for native speakers only. „Non-NESTs need not apply,” they say. There may be two reasons behind this policy. One is that NESTs are a scarcity article. Let me take my own country to explain what I mean. In Hungary most language schools employ just a couple of NESTs, if any at all. There may well be a market demand for more, but most language schools can’t afford to pay NEST salaries which are a lot higher than what local teachers get. Why? Because buying a wombat for the Budapest zoo costs more than snaring a fox – wombats have to be imported from Australia, foxes are indigenous. All I’m getting at is that unfair treatment is not necessarily a real issue and the situation worldwide is far more diverse and complicated than it appears to be. Our present knowledge is only skin-deep.

2. What can we do to change these perceptions? Could you indicate what, in your opinion, various stakeholders (NNESTs, NESTs and language schools/recruiters) should each do to fight discrimination? If possible, you might also tell us why, in your opinion, NESTs or recruiters should care… after all, it might be said they’re benefiting from the status quo.

Thanks for this question because this leads on to the second reason why schools tend to be so… how shall I put it… native-prone. They assume that someone who was „born” to be a native speaker of English should be more capable than another person who happened to be „born” into a different language community. Now this reasoning is obviously wrong! Today there’s ample empirical evidence that non-NESTs are not shoddy articles compared to NESTs. We know all too well that both groups have their strengths and weaknesses, and neither is better than the other.

OK, but how can we change this erroneous perception? To begin with, we all know that prejudices are notoriously difficult to change. What fills me with cautious optimism is that our main clients, the language learners, don’t necessarily share this prejudice. Many of them see quite clearly that both groups of teachers have their pros and cons and therefore learners are better off if they can have a taste of both this and that.

3. This brings me to the article you presented this year at IH DoS conference this January, which can be found in the Useful Documents section. Your second set of hypotheses assumes that nNESTs know the students’ L1, i.e. they’re a teacher in their home country. What happens if a nNEST teaches abroad (in a third country where they don’t know the language of their sts)? Do they lose half of the ‘advantages’ that you outline? What does that mean for the nNESTs who want to experience the same benefits their NEST colleagues have and enjoy-i.e. opportunities to travel etc.?

Non-NESTs obviously lose some of the advantages they had when they lived and taught in their home country. The biggest loss is that they can’t make use of the native language they shared with their students. But not all their assets are lost. Let me tell you a story from my own life. Many years ago, I was a Fulbright researcher at an American university. Short of enough American teachers, the department chair asked me to teach a group of South-East Asian students whose English-language competence was rather poor. I asked the professor in surprise how a non-NEST like me could teach language skills. Shrugging his shoulders, he said that I needn’t tell the group that I was a non-NEST if I didn’t want to. No way, I thought to myself. I’m not going to lie and give up my identity. So the first thing I told them was that I was a non-NEST, just like them. At first they were visibly disappointed but they gradually got used to the idea and we got along extremely well. When at the end of the course I asked them for feedback, they said that I succeeded in boosting their self-confidence. How come, I asked. Because if you could learn English so well, they said, then there’s hope for us too. The moral of the story is that a non-NEST can be a good learner model – abroad as well as in their home country.

By the way, isn’t it great that there are more and more non-NESTs teaching beyond their national borders? I have scores of Hungarian colleagues who have taken up a permanent or provisional job in some corners of the world. This is certainly a very welcome sign of globalisation.

4. I think it’s fantastic. Hopefully, we’re witnessing a fundamental change taking place right in front of our eyes. Coming back to your research, over the years you have argued that there is a fundamental difference between nNESTs and NESTs, but with no value judgement attached. Would you agree though that while the division exists, many people might continue perceiving the difference as that of superiority and inferiority? Do you think there is no need for a more inclusive approach, one in which the recruiters and students will view and judge teachers based primarily on their teaching skills and language abilities, and not on their ‘nativeness’ or lack thereof?

An inclusive approach is an absolute must, but it can come from nowhere else but the learners who consciously or less consciously experience that a combination of NESTs and non-NESTs is the best solution. What’s more, if the learner demands both types of animals, the school principal will go out of their way to supply them. But obviously this process is a very slow one.

5. Have you any thoughts on what is happening in your home country of Hungary right now? We refer to the fact that it will soon be possible for foreigners (natives) to teach in adult education with the CELTA- but Hungarians will need to have a teaching degree.

In Hungary you must have a university or college degree with teaching qualifications if you want to teach in public education. However, if you are seeking a job in a private language school, you’re not legally obliged to have any of those – even backpackers may be employed if the school principal is stupid enough to do so.