The curious case of native speakerism in Colombia

A lot has been written on the topic of native speakerism. In short, some people believe that a teacher’s passport is more important than their actual qualifications and experience. That kind of thinking obviously isn’t very enlightened, but it’s something non-native English speakers have to deal with if they decide to get involved in teaching.

Fortunately, there are people who fight against this type of prejudice. If you aren’t familiar with the work of Marek Kiczkowiak from TEFL Equity Advocates & Academy, you can watch him being interviewed on the subject of native speakerism in English and Spanish. I believe that he provides relevant arguments to support his point of view. Most of that is common sense, but convincing people to change their long-held beliefs is the tricky part. I think Hugh Dellar made some great points in his post The curse of native speakerism, which was published just a few days ago.

Dealing with native speakerism

My own experience with native speakerism has been rather peculiar. When I got my first teaching position in Colombia, another teacher and I delivered classes to professionals involved in tourism. Both of us were referred to as ‘nativos’, even though neither of us qualify as native English speakers and we wouldn’t be able to get a visa in some Asian countries. I just figured that it was probably a marketing ploy to promote Colombia Bilingüe, which is an ambitious programme run by the Ministry of Education. Our classes were free of charge, so I just let it go.

Fast forward a few months, and I started teaching in a private language institute. When I introduced myself to my students, I openly talked about my origins. I described some traditions from my country and taught a few Czech words to my students. After the course had finished, the students were asked to fill in a survey and evaluate my performance. To my surprise, quite a few of them said that it was great to be taught by a native English speaker. Hold on, that doesn’t make much sense…

Then I realised that it wasn’t just my students who thought that way. I had sent my CV to the language centre of a university, and its director decided to interview me via Skype. It was quite an ordinary conversation until the director said, ‘Our new teachers have to take a language proficiency exam, but since you are a native English speaker, you don’t need to do that.’ I didn’t want to take the job anyway, so I didn’t respond to that. I guess they didn’t even bother to properly read my CV.

It all got even stranger when I spoke to a teacher born and bred in the USA who told me that some Colombians didn’t believe that she was from her country of birth. Then I read Cristine Khan’s research paper that focused on the same issue, and it confirmed my suspicions that it’s not just about your passport or accent. I think it’s obvious why I am incorrectly considered to be from an English speaking country while genuine native English speakers have their identity questioned. In many people’s eyes, a ‘nativo’ is simply a white foreigner.

I think this misconception stems from the way stereotypes work. If you look like a native English speaker, then you must be a native English speaker. To be honest, it makes me feel quite uncomfortable at times. I often get asked by students or their parents for private classes because they want to be taught by a ‘nativo’. When I tell them that I am not a native English speaker, they can’t get their head around it. If I am too busy to offer private classes, I recommend that the students contact some of the local teachers who might be available. Of course, there are many amazing Colombian teachers here. Some of them actually grew up in the US and their accent is more “native-like” than mine. Sadly, my suggestion usually isn’t met with enthusiasm.

As you can see, we are dealing with something completely irrational. If you wish to get involved in TEFL in Colombia, you need to be ready for the fact the country is still a bit conservative in some respects. I have already mentioned that your CV should include a photo when applying for a job. It’s really strange to see that some irrelevant features can be so advantageous. I know these stereotypes won’t disappear in the near future, but I feel it’s important to share my thoughts. When someone brings up this subject, I always say that looking at someone’s passport and complexion is a pretty unreliable way of judging their ability to teach English. We need to move on from those unhelpful ideas and make sure that teachers are given equal opportunities to prove their worth.

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