To most schools and language centre employers across the world, if you are a citizen of a country in which English is the first, or primary, language – namely the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and South Africa – then you are a ‘native speaker of English’. This is because, it is assumed, English language is your mother tongue and you have been immersed in the language since you were born and using it since not long after that.
A second assumption is that, because of this experience, ‘native speakers’ are likely to be extremely proficient at the English language, especially if they also have a TEFL certificate, and thus able to note and correct errors at a very high level. In job advertisements the term is used to attract qualified English teachers from the seven ‘native speaker’ countries listed above.
Employment rules pertaining to English language tuition differ from country to country and reflect the assumptions mentioned above. In certain countries, you can only work legally as an English language teacher if you are from one of the ‘native speaker’ countries listed and it would be impossible for your employer to obtain the necessary work visa for you unless you were from one of those seven nations.
But it is not always as straightforward as that. Some countries do not even include Ireland or South Africa on the list! In other countries, teachers of the ‘native speaker’ nationalities are preferred but rules can be adapted according to the level of demand. For example, English teachers from the Philippines can work legally in Indonesia yet those from Ireland, a ‘native speaker’ country, might have difficulty doing so.
ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) member countries are hoping to create something similar to the EU from 2015. This would allow workers from different countries a greater amount of freedom to move to, and work in, neighbouring countries. This is a strong indication that the opportunities for non-native speakers in South East Asia may be set to increase dramatically over the next few years. Perhaps this will lead to fewer cases of non-native speaker teachers earning lower salaries than their ‘native’ counterparts.
One of the clearest benefits of English language tuition from ‘non-native speakers’ is that students may well find it easier to learn grammatical rules effectively from a teacher who also had to learn them (as opposed to being ‘immersed’ in them since birth). This is an advantage which the non-native speaker holds over the native speaker – even if they were both on the same TEFL course!
Of course, there are many hundreds of thousands of English teachers across the world who are not from these few ‘native speaker’ countries listed above. Based on increasing migrations levels and co-operation between nations both regionally and globally, it seems likely that those non-native English teachers who have a TEFL qualification and some experience are going to see more and more opportunities both at home and abroad.