From Accomplices to Advocates: Discrimination against Non-native English Speakers in Mission Agencies

by Mary Shepard Wong and Dreah Jin Stratton

The authors discuss the prevalence, consequence, and contributing factors of discrimination against non-native speakers of English and provide insights to inform a biblically-based response to the issue.

A hot button issue in the field of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) is the use of “native speaker” as a requirement for employment of English teachers. This is relevant for Christians because many mission agencies that recruit and send people to teach English list “native speaker” as a qualification, thereby denying competent, experienced non-native speakers (NNS) from applying.

In this article, we describe how some mission agencies have unintentionally become accomplices of discrimination against NNS and suggests ways in which they can become their advocates.

We discuss the prevalence, consequences, and contributing factors of discrimination against NNS both generally and then within mission agencies and list justifications used to defend the native speaker qualification. We provide four insights to inform a biblically-based response to the issue and offer specific suggestions for mission agencies to rethink their position, revise their policies, and help reform practices of the educational institutions with whom they work.

The Prevalence of Discrimination against NNS
Perusing the online job advertisements for English teachers of a Christian sending agency’s website, I (Dreah) was excited since I thought I would be a perfect candidate with an MA in TESOL, years of teaching experience, high proficiency in English, and a strong commitment to Christ. But as I was about to click the application, my fingers stopped mid-air as I read, “Applicant must be a native English speaker.” I searched ads in other Christian organizations, only to find the same “qualification.”

As a non-native-speaking teacher of English, I had experienced this before. However, I had hoped that within Christian organizations I would find acceptance. This “qualification” had nothing to do with my academic credentials, language proficiency, or teaching experience. In all honesty, it made me feel like an outcast in the mission community.

The Consequence of Discrimination
John Liang (2009) discusses the consequence of this discrimination and states that a NNS teacher in the field of English language teaching may face many frustrations and challenges. He quotes Jacinta Thomas, who lists four types of challenges regarding NNS teachers’ professional credibility: (1) discrimination in the hiring process, (2) invisibility in the professional community, (3) student suspicion of NNS teachers’ capability, and (4) lack of self-confidence (Thomas 1999, 163). Liang agrees with Thomas: “These challenges are often disempowering, destroying a NNS teacher’s self-confidence, self-efficacy, and even self-worth” (Liang 2009, 163).

Liang’s description was similar to my (Dreah’s) experience as a NNS teacher. I came to the U.S. from China to pursue my MA in TESOL to strengthen my professionalism. Unfortunately, in spite of having this degree, I am still denied access to many positions, even in mission agencies. A native speaker qualification essentially means that NNS applicants will not be considered. George Braine calls this the “unwritten rule”: “No NNS need apply for English teaching positions” (Braine 2010, 10). If employers specified “male” or “Caucasian,” that would be considered discriminatory, so why would “native speaker” not be considered discriminatory as well? (Holliday and Aboshiha 2010).

Contributing Factors and Complicity in Discrimination
The most notable factor contributing to discrimination is the “native speaker fallacy,” which Robert Phillipson describes as the questionable assumption that the ideal teacher of English is a native speaker (1992). This fallacy supports the hiring of unqualified and inexperienced native speakers, while qualified and experienced NNS are not considered due to their status. When agencies recruit people on the basis of their “native-speaking status” alone, and do not require teaching experience or teaching qualifications, they not only discriminate against NNS, but undermine the educational process as well.

Justification of Discrimination

There are a number of reasons agencies use to justify wanting only native speakers.

Common practice. Some may justify the use of the native speaker qualification to recruit people to teach abroad because it is considered “common practice.” Indeed, it has been demonstrated that discrimination against NNS in the hiring process is ubiquitous (Braine 1999; 2010), but this does not justify the practice, especially as it erodes the self-worth of non-native speakers, the very people among whom the mission agencies are seeking to be a witness.  

In fact, taking a stand on this “common practice” is a way Christians can be salt and light. A concern Don Snow notes is that “Christian English teachers may be too uncritical in accepting the advantages offered by the dominance of English, and too comfortable drawing on its power” (Snow 2009, 176). We suggest that confronting this common practice of discrimination and admitting one’s role in it is one way Western Christians can refrain from drawing on the power of the dominance of English and our power as educated, native English-speaking teachers.

Market demand. The policy to not send NNS is sometimes defended because of “market demand,” stating that stakeholders want only “native speakers.” While it may be true that school administrators request native speakers to boost their schools’ enrollment, and parents assume native-speaking teachers are superior (and even students have doubts about being taught by NNS), this does not justify discrimination against NNS.

As mentioned previously, choosing a native speaker over a NNS based only on “the native status” is compromising our witness and undermining the educational process. Moreover, the demand for “real English” is based on two incorrect assumptions: (1) “real English” can be taught only by a native speaker, and (2) most communication by NNS in English takes place with a native speaker. But because English is an international language, in reality most communication in English among NNS takes place with other NNS, so a more authentic model is another NNS, rather than a native speaker.

Viability. A final justification is viability. Mission agencies may find it less costly to rely on native speaker status when placing English teachers instead of requiring more substantial qualifications such as teaching credentials and experience. The cost in time and money to recruit qualified native-speaking teachers and highly proficient NNS teachers may be considered too high.

The director of one Christian organization claims, “We bring plumbers, carpenters, grandmothers, and dairy farmers—those kind of people—to teach English” (Tennant 2002, 34). This seems to be a short-sighted strategy, as surely recruiting experienced, qualified teachers and valuing all teachers regardless of native-speaking status would serve any teaching organization better in the long run. Even for the majority of mission agencies who have only a small number of workers who teach English, likely their donors would be more inclined to provide support knowing that the policies toward NNS were above reproach.

Insights from Scripture
Insights from scripture related to issues of favoritism, unity, humility, and witness can be drawn upon to provide a biblically-informed response to this issue.

Favoritism. Discrimination by definition makes a distinction in favor of or against someone. James 2:1-4 warns of treating groups of people differently based on their power and influence:

My brothers and sisters, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism….If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves…

Although James discusses favoritism toward rich, powerful people, the passage relates to how we treat native speakers and NNS in hiring practices as this also involves behavior of honoring those with more power and influence, while excluding those with less. Thus, the native speaker qualification might be considered a form of linguistic favoritism of native speakers.

Unity. Discrimination also breaks unity and causes separation. God has created us to be different and arranged us to work together as described in 1 Corinthians 12:18-20, which reads, “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.”

NNS are parts of the body, and so there should be no division. The chapter also says: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God…” (1 Cor. 12:4-6). This can be applied to native speakers and NNS who bring complementary skills to the task of English teaching.

Humility. Humility also helps shed light on this issue. Christ calls upon us to empty ourselves and serve one another, and to view others as more important than ourselves. One cannot act with humility without recognizing and relinquishing power. Drawing on scripture, Dana Ferris states that a failure to grapple with the power dynamics is “irresponsible” (Ferris 2009, 213).

In light of this, excluding NNS from joining mission teams based on their NNS status (instead of a standard that could be applied to all, such as a high level of proficiency in English) seems to be contrary to this biblical teaching of avoiding favoritism, maintaining unity, and responding in humility.

Witness to outsiders. Finally, Christians are commanded to be a witness to outsiders. First Thessalonians 4:12 says that we should live in a way that our “daily life may win the respect of outsiders.” Non-Christian educators in TESOL have noticed, documented, and published articles stating that several mission agencies use the native speaker qualification and do not require any teaching experience or teaching credentials (Pennycook and Coutand-Marin 2003; Mahboob 2009). This has caused resentment by “outsiders” because requiring experience and qualifications “levels the playing field,” providing NNS an equal opportunity.

Christian organizations need to realize that the fundamental goal for an English teacher is to help students with their English needs, and that many NNS are competent and qualified to do this. Moreover, NNS can offer insights that native speakers may lack such as knowledge about the host culture and first language(s). Thus, Christians and mission agencies must avoid discriminating against NNS so that we can “win the respect of non-believing outsiders.” This will happen when Christians understand that valuing NNS is part of their spiritual responsibility and mission agencies regard this as essential to their institutional integrity.

From Accomplices to Advocates
Although missionaries are aware of the growth of the Church in the Majority World and the concern for a more inclusive, Majority World-dominant mission paradigm, they may be less aware of a similar trend in TESOL. It is estimated that eighty percent of English teachers in the world today are NNS (Braine 2010, x).

The TESOL literature describes the growing awareness of non-native-speaking teachers of their numbers, position, and status in the field (e.g., Holliday and Aboshiha 2010). In light of the phenomenal growth of the Majority World Church and the increase of NNS missionaries, as well as the preponderance of English teachers worldwide who are NNS, a native speaker qualification cannot be seriously considered as a culturally appropriate policy in missions in the twenty-first century.

We offer three suggestions for mission organizations: rethink their position on the native speaker qualification, revise their policies, and help reform educational practices of the institutions with whom they work.

Rethinking the position of native speaker qualification. Keiko Samimy and Janina Brutt-Griffler state that, “the construct of expertise diminishes undue prejudices and discriminations against nonnative speaker professionals and challenges the notion that the ideal teacher of English is a native speaker” (Samimy and Brutt-Griffler 1999, 142).

Specifically, researchers have documented that NNS teachers have unique strengths, including a robust and explicit knowledge of English grammar, an awareness of first and second language differences, and empathy toward their students’ background and needs and the difficulties their students may face. Moreover, NNS provide a rich source of motivation and a good role model.

Revising the policies of native speaker qualification. Removing the native speaker qualification from all websites and promotional materials is a simple fix, as one can simply replace “native speaker” with the phrase “a high level of language proficiency” and add “expertise” to the qualifications, with expertise defined by a certain number of years of teaching and appropriate professional preparation.

But also important is the more difficult work of addressing the deeply engrained notions of the native speaker fallacy. Mission organizations will need to address how they will deal with stakeholder demands, as well as the consequences that may result. In the short run, the organizations may lose teaching contracts with schools that discriminate against NNS. Recruiting may be more difficult as the pool of applicants narrows due to higher standards, but the pool will widen when proficient NNS can apply.

Mission organizations may need to raise awareness among native speakers of potential bias (see Wong 2009 for a discussion of three fictional scenarios of Christian English teachers). In addition, these organizations may need to strategize, such as sending teams of native speakers and NNS, until trust is established and educational institutions understand the value of the collaborative relationships that can form and how students will benefit. See Jan Dormer’s work (2007, 2010) for specific ways in which collaboration between NNS and native speakers can be enhanced, specifically through the interactional style of “shared competence.”

Reforming educational practices. Mission agencies are in a unique position to raise awareness among their partnering academic institutions, especially in Asia, where Braine and others have documented that discrimination is especially acute. Mission agencies can educate their constituents about discrimination against NNS and how it is regarded by professional TESOL/TEFL organizations. See the TESOL board’s Position Statement against Discrimination of Nonnative Speakers of English on its website ( 2006).

Mission agencies need to strategize how to overcome the challenges of the “market demand” of native speakers and to develop specific ways to respond to local institutions that insist on native speakers. As Kitty Purgason noted, “Most mission agencies welcome NNS, but the difficulty comes in placing them in English teaching positions” (personal communication).  

Having in place professional standards and proficiency requirements for all English teachers, as well as having a policy that teams will have both native speakers and NNS working together, is a start. Fostering collaboration with local NNS teachers is also important, ensuring that the mission team members and local NNS have equity, with shared common work spaces and projects, similar teaching conditions and salaries, and a collaborative atmosphere which makes the most of their unique strengths. Exploring how this type of collaboration might be enhanced in various contexts is a rich area of future research.

Finally, seeking out and providing highly proficient NNS should be a priority for all agencies as this will challenge the native speaker fallacy. As Dormer comments,

In contexts in which the proficiency levels of local NNS are low, missions can perhaps best be involved in English ministry by helping to raise the proficiency levels of local English teachers—and all the better if the teacher trainer sent abroad to engage in this activity is a non-native English-speaking teacher. (personal communication)

It seems evident that mission boards need to rethink their position on the native speaker qualification, revise their policies, and help reform educational practices. This would enable mission agencies to distance themselves from accusations of being accomplices of discrimination to becoming NNS’ advocates and supporters.

Braine, George, ed. 1999. Non-native Educators in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
_____. 2010. Nonnative Speaker English Teachers: Research, Pedagogy, and Professional Growth. New York: Routledge.

Dormer, Jan E. 2007. “Relationships between Native and Non-native English Speakers for Missions.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 43(4):458-465.

_____. 2010. “Strength through Difference: Optimizing NEST/NNEST Relationships on a School Staff.” In The NNEST Lens: Nonnative English Speakers in TESOL. Ed. Ahmar Mahboob, 285-304. Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Ferris, Dana. 2009. “Power and Change in ELT: Thoughts from a Fellow Traveler.” In Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue: Pedagogical and Ethical Dilemmas. Eds. Mary S. Wong and A. Suresh Canagarajah, 205-214. New York: Routledge.

Holliday, Adrain and Pamela Aboshiha. 2010. “The Denial of Ideology in Perspectives of ‘Nonnative’ Speaker Teachers.” TESOL Quarterly 43(4):669-689.

Liang, John. 2009. “The Courage to Teach as a Nonnative English Teacher: The Confessions of a Christian Teacher.” In Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue: Pedagogical and Ethical Dilemmas. Eds. Mary S. Wong and A. Suresh Canagarajah, 163-172. New York: Routledge.

Mahboob, Ahmar. 2009. “Additive Perspective on Religion or Growing Hearts with Wisdom.” In Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue: Pedagogical and Ethical Dilemmas. Eds. Mary S. Wong and A. Suresh Canagarajah, 272-279. New York: Routledge.

Pennycook, Alastair and Sophie Coutand-Marin. 2003. “Teaching English as a Missionary Language (TEML).” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 24(3):337-353.

Phillipson, Robert. 1992. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Samimy, Keiko K. and Janina Brutt-Griffler. 1999. “To Be a Native or Non-native Speaker: Perceptions of “Non-native” Students in a Graduate TESOL Program.” In Non-native Educators in English Language Teaching. Ed. George Braine, 127–144. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Snow, Don. 2009. “English Teaching, Language Learning, and the Issue of Power.” In Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue: Pedagogical and Ethical Dilemmas. Eds. Mary S. Wong and A. S. Canagarajah, 173-184. New York: Routledge.

Tennant, Agnieszka. 2002. “The Ultimate Language Lesson.” Christianity Today. Accessed April 15, 2011 from

TESOL Board, Actions. 2006. “Position Statement against Discrimination of Nonnative Speakers of English in the Field of TESOL.” TESOL, Inc. Accessed April 15, 2011 from

Thomas, Jacinta. 1999. “Voices from the Periphery: Non-native Teachers and Issues of Credibility.” In Non-native Educators in English Language Teaching. Ed. George Braine, 5-14. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Wong, Mary S. 2009. “Deconstruction/Reconstructing the Missionary English Teacher Identity.” In Christian and Critical English Language Educators in Dialogue: Pedagogical and Ethical Dilemmas. Eds. Mary S. Wong and A. Suresh Canagarajah, 91-105. New York: Routledge.


Dr. Mary Shepard Wong is a professor at Azusa Pacific University, where she directs the online and field-based TESOL programs. Her research and publications focus on teacher identity, Christianity, and English language teaching.

Dreah Jin Stratton teaches at ELS Language Centers in San Diego. Previously, she taught English in China and Thailand. She focuses her research on effective and appropriate teaching methods.

The authors thank Richard Slimbach, Richard Robison, Kitty Purgason, Don Snow, Jan Dormer, Carolyn Kristjansson, and Frances Wu for providing insights to this article.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 440-446. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events