While English may be the world’s lingua franca, it’s a lingua franca more often spoken by non-native speaker to non-native speaker.
There are more English language learners in China than there are native speakers of English in the whole world (400 million to 360 million, according to some estimates). Other figures say English is spoken by 2 billion people worldwide, and non-natives outnumber natives by three to one.
In EFL Magazine, astrophysicist-turned-English teacher, Graham Jones, refers to this as the Copernican Principle applied to English. No one is at the centre of the English-speaking universe, and in fact, native speakers are being pushed to its peripheries.
In a recent famous case, Korean Air were looking to buy flight simulators and training. They looked at two competing suppliers – one French, one British. The technology, service and pricing were virtually the same. The Koreans were convinced they would get great service and value from either the French or British potential suppliers.
There was one very clear and simple reason they chose who they did. They chose the French because their English was easier to understand.
Native English-speaking teachers may claim only they can teach the true nuance of the language. Perhaps more of them can understand those nuances, but how can you teach nuance to someone if they don’t yet have enough language to understand those nuances? Can you teach an appreciation of harmony to someone who is tone deaf?
In fact, international business English teachers are increasingly encouraged to teach Offshore English, a form of English that all, natives and non-natives alike, can clearly understand. Offshore English deliberately avoids nuance, idiom, slang and false friends. There is a growing consultancy business coaching native-English speaking business people in Offshore English.
Personally, everything I’ve paid to learn, I’ve learned from somebody who first learned it themselves, excelled and then paid to become qualified at teaching it. I did this, for example, when I paid to have driving lessons. My instructor often talked about when he was first learning to drive.
By definition, native speakers have not learned the language they are teaching as a foreign, second or additional language. They may well have learned a different second language, and some will have teaching qualifications and take part in professional development courses – but does this make them a better teacher than a non-native speaker? Does their superior knowledge of nuance give them an appreciation of struggling to understand the difference between the zero, definite and indefinite articles they use with abandon?
Surely a Japanese person who has learned English, tricky articles, nuance and all, is best-placed to teach others wanting to do the same? Second to this well-qualified teacher would be non-Japanese, non-native English speakers who have learned English and become qualified to teach it.
While there certainly remains some cachet in being a native English speaker, particularly in Japan, China and Korea, this is less and less true elsewhere in the world, and the supply of native English-speaking teachers is dwindling.
In Japan, with falling birth rates, competition for the business of caring for children, rising employment, increasing immigration, more and more non-native English speakers and teachers, parents choosing test preparation over English and seeing English only as a tool for communication with foreigners of any stripe, and technology a better determiner of what should be learned, perhaps the future role of native-speaking English teachers will only be as underpaid, over-feted circus monkeys.
We’ll be taking a break for Golden Week and returning in May.