Why Native Speaker Teacher Programs Don’t Work

To put my last post about foreign teachers in perspective, I thought I’d repost one of my original posts about native speaker teacher programs and their efficacy.

Much of the recent discussion on my site has focused on the efficacy of native speaker English teachers as language instructors. A lot of this has been a defense of what has been interpreted as my attack on this efficacy. I feel much of this response comes from confusion between NSET working as teachers in the classroom and what I believe is the true villain; NSET acting as agents of national education policy.

What I Believe
I continue to believe that there is no place in the world with a high standard of English spoken as a foreign language where a large part of EFL instruction is conducted by NSET. However, I believe that many NSET are dedicated, professional, effective educators who make a true difference in the lives and futures of their students. I see no contradiction with this. By distinguishing between teachers as classroom instructors and as agents of policy, it is possible to see the different roles that teachers are involved in. In this post, I will try to outline the reasons why I feel this way.

Native Speaker Teachers Versus Native Speaker Teacher Programs
Native speaker English teachers (NSET) and native speaker teacher programs (NSETP) are not the same thing. NSET describes characteristics of the teacher. NSETP, on the other hand, describes the way in which a policy either deliberately or incidentally defines the role of these teachers.

The term “native speaker English teacher program” describes a policy decision made by central governments that results in the use of NSET as a major source of language instruction. Important examples of this are JET, EPIK, and programs modeled after these are now being run in Taiwan. In addition to government-sponsored programs, a great deal of private instruction in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan is conducted by NSET at commercial schools. This is also part of the NSETPs of the region. As I put it in a different post, in a NSETP, instruction from NSET is an alternative to public instruction conducted by local, certified teachers rather than merely a supplement.

There is a great deal of instruction provided by NSET that is effective. Why wouldn’t that be the case? In terms of factors that should influence educational outcomes, such as teacher language attainment and pedagogical knowledge, there are significant numbers of NSET who would be at the top of the world. Why would their individual classroom instruction be less effective?

My position concerning the effectiveness of education policies that rely on large numbers of NSET is not concerned with the performance of individual teachers in the classroom, but instead with NSETP. My position regarding the use of NSET is that there is no place in the world with a high standard of English spoken as a foreign language where a large part of EFL instruction is conducted by native English speaking teachers. In other words, NSETP are not effective policies.

Why Are There NSETP?
The emergence of NSETP deserves some explanation, particularly if, as I claim, they are not efficacious. The key point to my argument is that NSETP exist in only one place in the world – North-East Asia: Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. While there are other educational systems that use native speaker teachers for language instruction, none could be described as a NSETP, since the vast majority of instruction is still provided by local teachers certified to teach in state institutions. For example, in France, there are a large number of native speakers employed teaching English, but their numbers pale in comparison to the situation in Taiwan, where according to my estimates, over two-thirds of university students have been taught by a foreign teacher at one time. In Taiwan, NSET instruction is legally available as an alternative to the state’s school-based instruction that uses teachers who have meet a state-defined qualification.

The first large-scale NSET programs emerged in Japan following the Second World War. In many ways, these programs resembled efforts during the Meiji Restoration to import foreign expertise. The programs implemented following the Second World War evolved through a series of stages into an arm of public cultural and language education whose aim is to touch every Japanese school child. The JET Program and the local and regional efforts that copy its use of assistant and local teacher pairs has been adopted throughout the NE Asia region.

While I have focused on an historical description of NSETP, it is not uncommon to find descriptions that focus on classroom factors as reasons for this spread. One commonly heard explanation for NSETP concentrates on the inability of state schools to provide an adequate number of well-trained teachers. It is debatable what an ‘adequate’ number of teachers is, but my experience with high school English teachers in Taiwan is that the number of certified, highly competent teachers is enormous. One friend who is working as an English teacher in a Taipei County elementary school discouraged my wife from entering the public system by explaining to her that with the number of teachers being cranked out by the current system, it would not be possible for her to get a job in any but the most remote region.

A reason complementing this emergence of NSETP is that this large number of competent local teachers is a new phenomenon and as more such teachers are produced the number of NSET working as alternatives to the public system will decrease. The assumption is that once there are enough competent local teachers, NSET will disappear. I heard this argument in Japan in the early 1990’s, but nothing of the sort has happened in the more than 10 years since then. In fact, if anything, NSET are even more entrenched in education now than they were back then. Certainly the expansion of official NSETP, as found in JET, EPIK, and their Taiwan-based copied would indicate the increased entrenchment of this alternative.

Another reason for the emergence of NSETP in NE Asia could be the recent affluence of the region. With the rise in the standard of living in NE Asia, citizens are able to purchase commodities that they could not have bought before. Foreign language lessons may be one of these. This also fails to explain why this region is the only place in the world where NSET are used as an alternative to public education.

I have seen research suggesting that students in other regions of the world prefer to be taught by native speaker teachers. It could very well be that there is a universal preference for native speaker teachers, and that the NE Asian situation is only a local case of this preference. None of this goes very far though, since NE Asia is the only region in the world where so many NSET teach that their instruction offers an alternative to public school instruction and not merely a supplement.

My speculation about the attractiveness of NSETP is that this is based in cultural perceptions that are so deep they have become entrenched in public policy. This is certainly the impression left by the September 24 comment from Tivome, a local Taiwanese teacher of English, to the post that started this discussion, Who Really Wants a Foreign Teacher?. As he states, “The reason for preferring “native speakers” is a simple one: great majority of the parents (or adults) in Taiwan have a strong racial complex about westerners.”

Of course I have further opinions about this, but that will have to wait until another day. In the next section, I will conclude this point by discussing why NSETP not only do not work, but can not work.

Why NSETP Don’t Work
The fundamental reason why NSETP don’t work is that almost all teachers working in this system aren’t involved in teaching in any professional sense. The work that most NSET are employed doing much more closely resembles the kind of instruction that goes on in clubs and other non-school organizations than it does professionalized teaching activities. NSETP rely on the presence of NSET, but their instructional abilities, knowledge of language, and ability to guide students are reduced to insignificant aspects of the instruction. So severely are the key factors of educational outcomes hampered that they have no impact on educational outcomes.

The vast majority of the thousands of people employed as NSET work as instructors in commercial schools. They are subject to poor pay and other working conditions. They are provided with no job security. But most significantly, they are not in-charge of their student’s learning. Honestly, what can the teachers of commercial language schools do to students who disobey them? While it is probably preferable that teachers in this situation have little power over their students, this highlights the fact that the vast majority of NSET are comparable to swimming instructors rather than public school teachers.

Another large group of NSET working in NSETP are employed in public and private elementary and secondary schools as a member in so-called team teaching. Once again, the NSET in these schools are clearly not teachers in the sense used to describe members of a professionalized group. While some of these teachers may be highly skilled, their status is defined by law as an assistant teacher. The legal responsibility of student conduct inside the classroom does not fall on their shoulders. Instead, it continues with the local teachers who are public servants and members of local teacher’s organizations. For the vast majority of NSET working in team teaching situations, instructional skill and ability is irrelevant.

There are NSET who are legally and morally responsible for the students in their classes. For example, in the program where I teach at Ming Chuan University, we have legal control over our students and can do anything we want that is legal to facilitate their education. This group is a tiny fraction of those employed as NSET, representing perhaps a few hundred teachers. The vast majority of NSET work in conditions that are nothing like these.

So while it may be true that NSET can influence their student’s language ability this point is almost irrelevant to the effectiveness of NSET as a policy. The vast majority of NSET are not working under the conditions where their training, knowledge, or skill as speakers can have the kind of influence that research indicates these factors can have on educational outcomes. So why would anyone be surprised that educational policies relying on this stunted form of education are not effective policies?

Given the function of NSET in NSETP, why would it surprise anyone that these programs don’t work? In fact, the most salient aspect of NSETP is that they eliminate most of the influence of the NSET turning them from teachers into merely an English fluent machine. I am certain that despite this, many NSET have a strong influence on their students because they are excellent teachers and models for them. But while this may be true in individual cases, it is very important to realize that there is no evidence whatsoever that NSETP are effective policies in addressing national deficiencies in English communicative ability.



July 16, 2005

Does Professor James A. Oladejo have personal website page to visit?

Best regards

Jenny Yu Chih Chang

I think some of the problems extend beyond English Education. I have noticed that there are many very talented faculty members teaching social science in Taiwan, but for the most part, the best social scientists in Taiwan continue to be trained abroad. The reason for this is that these talented teachers are only able to affect the quality of the courses they teach and have very little influence over educational policy at their university. The result is that there are some good courses in the social sciences, but not many schools with a good overall curriculum aimed at building the basic skills students need to function in the field. I see this as a result of the top-down approach to educational governance. Not to mention heavy teaching loads which leave little time for the faculty to put real effort into their administrative duties.

I think you are completely correct. One of the major problems is that the MOE determines promotions. They have established a criteria that by-passes departmental needs and focuses primarily on research output. Administrative work in departments is not rewarded. The development of innovative teaching systems is not rewarded. Teaching collaboration is not rewarded. Salaries are generally controlled, so schools have little internal mechanisms available to promote this kind of work.

I understand the historical need for this top-down control, but the price for it has been terrible. Taiwan is now in the position where it claims it wants to recruit huge numbers of foreign students. At the same time, a system persists that discourages this. It is all part of what a once called a system that was bound to fail.

I am a former participant of the JET Programme in Japan. While the majority of JET participants do teach ESL as their “jobs”, the programme is also about cultural exchange, thus the name “Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme.” In my 3 years on JET, I greatly improved my Japanese language skills and learned a lot about Japan. Maybe I got more out of the programme than my ESL students.

I’ve seen a lot of bad teachers, both foreign and local. I think that any programme that makes the nationality/ethnicity of a teacher its raison d’√™tre is doomed.

The best teachers are the ones that teach the best. The advantage of foreign speakers is they provide a ready pool of talent that ranges from lousy to excellent, with a lot of mediocre in the middle. Sometimes it’s not even possible to get a lousy Taiwanese English teacher – then a mediocre one from overseas starts to look pretty good. Throw in the cultural interest factor, and desiring a native speaker to teach you isn’t that far-fetched.

JET was designed to be a cultural exchange program. My guess is that almost none of the people involved in the program as students know this. The form of the cultural exchange is itself very interesting. Why have a cultural exchange that looks like an English teaching program? Almost certainly it’s because it’s easy to get large numbers of foreigners into Japan in this guise. After all, it is acceptable for English teachers to be foreigners and make lots of money. So while the goals of JET are clearly stated, its function as a NSETP should not be ignored.

Actually, I was wondering if there is something inherent to the Mandarin/English difference itself that handicaps native speakers of English. That is, is the difference between Mandarin and English radically different from the difference between Latin and English or Spanish and English, etc. such that a non-native speaker may be more effective?

Let me put it this way: Is it true or not true that Mandarin is a semantically driven language whereas English is a syntactically driven language; that I, as a native speaker of English, have simply internalized the primacy of syntax, whereas a non-native speaker can EXHIBIT that radical difference to students because he/she can SEE it more clearly, having had to overcome the difference him/herself?

-Thomas Wall

This is a very interesting way to put it. In some ways, this is similar to the the widespread belief among Asians that learning is best facilitated by some sort of intense cultural contact with speakers of the target language. Your point may be the sophisticated version of what they’re trying to express.

Lee-Sean, while the official position of MOFA and the MOE is that JET is a cultural exchange, I doubt that’s how many Japanese teachers and students view the program. It is true that the bureaucratic organization of the program clearly marks it as such, but few of the members involved act as though this is the goal. They may be mistaken, and this is important, but this error does not mean it is not a NSETP. It may be more, but at least some part of it functions as a NSETP.

“…there is no place in the world with a high standard of English spoken as a foreign language where a large part of EFL instruction is conducted by native English speaking teachers.”

Could it be that the reason for this is that a large part of EFL instruction is conducted by native English speaking teachers in countries where the level of English is poor because there aren’t sufficient locals to do the instruction – because the level of English there is so poor. That, rather than this being a cause of the low standard of English, it is merely a symptom of it?

This is a point that comes up all the time. In fact, there are a huge number of local teachers of English. Most of them are teaching in public school and university programs or in test preparation schools. They generally do not work as conversation teachers. In addition, the term ‘teacher’ is being used loosely. As I have pointed out, virtually none of these native speakers are teachers in any real legal or professional sense. Almost all of them are working under the close supervision of legal teachers or business managers. The demand for their services is not derived from the professional judgment for professional teachers with a high level of proficiency. Finally, the employment of foreign assistant teachers in schools only came about after the development of a huge private market that sold native speakers directly to customers, hence legitimizing their use among voters and parents.

To a certain extent this is an apples to oranges comparison. The vast majority of local teachers have some kind of training. The vast majority of incoming foreigners have none. Even when there is a language proficiency difference, the trained teachers will always have the advantage. To a point.

How far are you willing to run with this point? Are you saying that given equal training, native speakers will still be inferior to locals?

I’m also curious as to whether this is a phenomenon of racism, or whether it is simply a phase in the educational development of the nation. Was English teaching in countries like Sweden or Germany always carried on by trained professionals, or wasn’t there a phase, back in the 19th century, where native speaker governesses and the like were in demand.

Another reason the “racism” thing is overstated is because the native speakers are in demand for a particular deficiency in the system: conversation. Rarely are they sought as grammar teachers, for example. People go through the system K-12 and find that they can read but can’t speak, and think interaction with a native speaker is the answer.


Not to mention heavy teaching loads which leave little time for the faculty to put real effort into their administrative duties.

Ya had me until this last sentence, Kerim. Isn’t it better to say that the administrative load is gigantic? After all, you can hardly say that a person with a 9 hour teaching load is burdened. In fact I would say the most serious problem timewise is that the administrative load cuts into research time and sucks down energy and creativity.


Can I try this again? Because I’ve floated this notion many times here at my university and then with the occasional teacher, foreign and not, and have yet to get a response except m-m-m-m-m.

Prior to the alphabet soup of EFL TESOL JET MOE FDIC TGIF problems is it not possible that foreign teachers are ineffective here because they do no sufficiently understand, foreground, and then teach their students that English is fundamentally different in charcter from Mandarin, that English is sytactically driven while Mandarin is semantically driven, and that students must accept that as primary and must resist their their natural urge to force English into sematic units.

What do I mean?

I know that I can form a question in Chinese by adding ‘ma’ to the end of a sentence BUT I DO NOT KNOW THE GENERAL RULES FOR THE FORMATION OF A CHINESE SENTENCE. I have concluded that the very category of the sentence does not exist in Chinese, and there is nothing I can do about it. I cannot change the fundamental character of Chinese. I will learn Chinese by memorizing characters, pronouncing them accurately, and then amassing countless sematic situations in which I must say x or xyz or whatever. In short, I will never learn general rules. In chapter 26 of my latest Chinese grammar book I read that if I want to know how someone is feeling and if I want the person to answer honestly then I say x-y-z. That’s sematics, no?

Now, when I teach Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced writing I begin by telling my students that they will learn English through style and style through syntax and syantax through a relatively few basic grammar tools. The basic categories are: word, phrase, clause; from there to sentence and sentence style; and then from there to the paragraph or the conversation. I tell them that the rules are vacuous, and that they won’t like learning them, and that they will at first think they are not learning anything at all, and that yes, they will prefer professor Y who teaches them “Christmas English” (semantics). On the other hand, these rules, once they have been internalised, can be used in any semantic situation at all because all meaning in English is created from them just as all words are created from the alphabet.

Once the rules are learned, then we can look at semantic situations and look at English speakers of all kinds and see how they (syntactically) express this or that meaning. AND THEN the students can begin to appreciate how, in English, the meaning is–how to say this?–“lost” in the syntax, “inherent” to the syntax, sometimes almost seems to disappear in the syntax; or that English syntax (and Engish in general) functions to “lead one” to meaning or “point” to meaning leaving behind, like it or not, a minimal gap. That gap then drives English: a question, a clarification, a re-phrasing, more questions, etc. etc.

Thus, when a students asks me in all sincereity what the author means by this or that sentence, or what her foreign boyfriend meant when he said blah blah blah, I can say “I don’t know. He could mean this, or that, or that, possibly this, my best guess is…”. And yes this frustrates the student but that’s the whole challenge of teaching.

I try to make it a game; I try to make it fun; I try everything I can think of to orient the student toward a primacy of syntax. I reward students who do foreground syntax even at the expense of clarity. (Of course, I try to show where clarity was lost but I say, yes, that’s the idea; keep experimenting with syntax, listen to syntax, read and imitate this or that writer’s syntax. Sure, you’ll get beat up along the way–maybe somebody thinks your syntactical style is fustian and doesn’t want to read you or talk to you anymore–but that’s the breaks, that’s part of the game. We native speakers have all been through it and still go through it no matter how many books we have written. (I know that some readers of this post are saying to themselves that Thomas Wall is long-winded.)

In conclusion: Is it possible that foreign teachers here fail because they do not foreground syntax or, sooner or later (because it’s easier after all), cave in to the more familiar forcing of English into semantic units and thus robbing students of the fundamental experience of the character of the English language and misleading the students into thinking that English is semantically driven but has a bewildering array of meaningless grammar rules which do nothing but interfere with what they want to say.

(As always, I am open to any response. I’m trying to be a good teacher; that’s all.)

You’re looking for a comment, Thomas, so here’s mine. I like what what you’ve written here; I feel it raises fundamental questions well worth raising about teaching English to native speakers of Chinese dialects. (Fundamental, that is, if we presume to go beyond the local education system’s insistence that English is a test subject first and a living language only [a distant] second.) I recall learning long ago in a university linguistics class that native Chinese speakers process language through “chunking” — breaking down utterances into pieces of speech –, which I assume is exactly what you mean with your use of the phrase “semantic units.” I think you are right to see the difference between this approach and Chomskian syntax-generated language as hugely significant for teaching approaches. And I think the consequences of this difference, as you touch on slightly in your post, extend way beyond matters merely related to language learning and instruction. If grammar is generative, language is not an impediment to the formation of very new ideas. But when utterances are constructed semantic units… I often get the feeling my students and indeed nearly all Taiwanese are viewing life as a series of event-units drawn from a pre-ordained assemblage of event-units which while vast, is not at all deemed limitless and is thought of as mostly forever defined.

So you take a building-blocks-from-scratch approach; I am highly curious as to how you are faring with that. I take the opposite approach when I teach writing here: unyielding insistence (through many drafts)on topic sentences, sufficient support, unity, transitions, and concreteness. I give tortured syntax and most transference a pass until several drafts in, when dealing with such problems really can’t be avoided anymore. My idea has always been “go macro” and stress overall structure; I’ve always intuitively felt that this would be the best solvent for ingrained chunking approaches to writing and thinking. Indeed, I still feel it is the best approach if the learner has a relatively analytical mind, because it seems such learners slowly drop chunking reflexes on their own as they labor through the drafts. But maybe your way is better for most learners — and even for those with more analytical minds. Or maybe a combination approach would work best for most learners and particularly for those with analytical minds.

My solution for myself to such vexing questions has been to stop teaching writing. Meaning I don’t care much about applying answers anymore, but I’m still very interested in the question(s). I admire your efforts with your students and your combination of speculative and careful thinking. Thanks for the post.

Scott, I think you’re overlooking the failures many other places in Asia that don’t have native speaking teachers, and underestimating the success of many places in Europe in which native speaking teachers are common.

Consider China. Every student must take English classes from elementary school on, and very few have native teachers, except in tier 1 cities. As a whole, Taiwanese students far out-perform their mainland counterparts in English acquisition. Why is that? Before leaping to the easy answer, economic development, consider that mainland students perform very well by international standards in a variety of other subjects. I suspect that the fact that Taiwan has been so much more open to foreigners for so long (and still has far more foreign English teachers per capita) is a large part of the reason for the gap in achievement.

On the other hand, there are other places, such as Switzerland and Quebec, which have a very high number of native teachers, and far more success with their English educational systems than China has with its.

At the end of the day, this issue isn’t that complicated. If you wanted to learn Russian, would you rather learn from a Canadian guy who studied Russian in school, or would you rather learn from a Russian? I expect you would choose the Russian… unless, of course, he had no training and couldn’t even communicate with you in your own language. In that case, you’d be better off with the Canadian guy, even if his Russian skills weren’t quite up to snuff.

Vin Velour, many thanks for your response. I’ve been bringing this up for 2 or 3 years and you’re the first to offer a critique of my observations and speculations.

It is hard to ‘measure’ how I have fared. Language acquisiton is a long-term and ultimately unpredictable process simply because the effects of language in general on anyone are long term and unpredictable.

My students consider me very likeable (I won the NTUT Outstanding Teacher Award last year) but soooooo strict. That is unfortunate since I am trying to get them to allow some basic grammar rules to as it were guide them (and not incessantly correct them) in the generation of both speech and writing. Certainly, when I learned German, I found myself being ‘guided’ by something inherent to the character of the German language itself. I thus felt I was ‘in’ German not laborously mentally translating thoughts.

By year 3 I have my students read whatever–Narnia, Mickey Spillane, that novel Perfume, whatever, it doesn’t matter–and ask them to tell me about syntactical style of the prose. It’s like pulling teeth but slowly I can show them that, for example, Mickey Spillane loves sentences with one subject and 3, 4, or 5 action verbs. CS Lewis loves subordination and coodination to an extreme, and so on. I then give the students an assignment and require them to develop their own styntactical motifs and style. I tell them the sky’s the limit; if English grammar allows it, you can say it.

Your remarks about “chunking” and the relation between how one processes language on the one hand and thought on the other is provocative. I suppose since Taiwan is a traditional society, that means that learning is based on knowledge, not on how to discover knowledge. (Chinese landscape painters do not paint what they actually see in this or that village, they paint what they know about the village.)

Anyways, my results are encouraging in the short term in the sense that I see what I want; I simply need to solidify, streamline and do more of it. But more to the point, am I having a long term effect? That is, did it sink in? I’m going to say probably not because it is at odds with a general philosophical orientation toward learning that is thousands of years old, and that leaves me in an ethical bind. I’ll just keeping talking about the issue, observing, and thinking things through.

There is a special issue of Commonwealth (Tianxia) on the state of English teaching in Taiwan available in 711 and bookstores. This would probably be an interesting read since Commonwealth caters to the educated general reader in Taiwan (not academic) and is very influential in terms of forming opinion.

There’s lots of stuff about the ideal age to start learning English according to the latest Taiwanese research (not too early), adult learning, and the role of the educational system.

of Commonwealth (Tianxia)


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