Relationships between Native and Non-native English-speakers for Missions

by Jan Edwards Dormer

Studying the value of NEST/NNEST relationships in schools that teach English as a foreign language.

In the field of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), a “Native English-Speaking Teacher” (NEST) is an English teacher whose first language is English—typically someone from a country whose national language is English. A “Non-Native English Speaking Teacher” (NNEST) is an English teacher who has learned English as a second or foreign language (i.e., a Brazilian who teaches English or an Indonesian who teaches English). I became interested in these teacher identities as I developed a language institute as part of our mission’s seminary in Brazil, and noticed the positive working relationships between the Brazilian English teachers and the native English-speaking short-termers on staff. I wondered to what extent these relationships were central to the school’s successful English program. I thus started on a path of research and discovery.

If you have never considered “native” and “non-native” English teacher identities before, you may be wondering why it is being discussed in a missions magazine. The secular English teaching world has been taking note of our missionary involvement in English teaching—and their perceptions have not generally been positive. A recent TESOL newsletter contains an article describing why local English teachers in various countries (non-native speakers) are having a hard time finding teaching jobs and feeding their families. Marica Fisk Ong states,

Some evangelists offer language lessons at no cost with the hope of gaining converts. They sometimes even disguise their actual missions. Some enter the field of English teaching with a certificate from a training course as short as three days. (Abelaira, Butzbach, et al. 2004)

This perception that missionaries are poorly trained and take jobs away from national English teachers is not isolated or rare. In fact, it seems to be the dominant opinion in many TEFL professional circles.

We can sit back and say it does not matter. We can count up the “converts” through English ministries and ignore those we may have turned off to Christianity in the process. However, even if we believe that we should not be concerned about world perception, we should first consider the fact that there may be some truth to this perception. An informal survey that I conducted in 2003 in one mission organization leads me to believe that we may indeed sometimes be part of the problem—or at least not actively part of the solution. This survey covered English programs on eight fields in the organization. In only one did missionaries work in partnership with local, trained English teachers. In view of the fact that all of these fields were crying out for TEFL-certified personnel, it is interesting that none were looking to nationals to fill that need. Most also felt that relationships should be improved between the Church and English ministries. Who better to help improve such relationships than national, Christian TEFL experts? The same survey revealed that less than half of the personnel who were significantly involved in English ministries had TEFL qualifications. And only one was utilizing TEFL-qualified local (nonnative) teachers to help train native-speaking short-termers who arrived on the scene with no qualifications.

There are wonderful mission-led English-teaching ministries around the world; however, I wonder if we may be missing key opportunities to accomplish more. We can develop vital relationships with local teachers, and see them develop into strong Christian educational leaders. We can bless our host countries with more, not fewer, jobs for local English teachers by partnering with them. We can develop our English ministries in such a way that we are not only teaching professionally, but are promoting professionalism in the local context. By valuing English ministries in our missions and viewing them as ministry in their own right rather than simply “creative accesses” or “places to put short-termers,” we may be surprised at how God will choose to work. So, what can a mission do?

I used a case study approach to investigate the relationships between NESTs and NNESTs in two ministry-based school sites: An English language institute in Brazil and a bilingual school in Indonesia. At each, NESTs (“short-termers”) and NNESTs (local hired teachers) shared their experiences and perspectives about native speaker/non-native speaker teacher interaction through interviews, questionnaires and focus group sessions. Further information about each school site was gathered through observation and school documents.

This study affirmed the value of native speaker/non-native speaker teacher relationships in schools that teach English as a foreign language. It brought to light cross-cultural issues that are faced in such relationships, but also the value that these relationships can bring to individual teachers, their students and the school environment. It showed that relationships between these two groups of teachers are enhanced when a school makes purposeful choices to allow for optimal integration of the two groups, just as relationships can be diminished when a school setting does not value and promote native speaker/non-native speaker interaction.

Below are three implications for personnel development.

1. Missionaries need to understand TEFL. David, a short-termer teaching English, had just finished telling me how much he disliked teaching “ESL” (English as a Second Language) at the Christian elementary school where he was working. Since he loved sports, I asked him why he did not consider teaching English through sports. He replied, “I would love to do that. But that’s still not ESL. Here, ESL is grammar.” Despite David’s 6-week course in TEFL, taken in the US before he arrived on the field, he did not challenge the local opinion that “ESL is grammar.” Such notions put English teaching and learning in a very boring box.

In reality, professionals do not isolate TEFL as the teaching of grammar. In fact, any activity, including sports, cooking and crafts, can be used for an English class. These provide excellent forums for reading, writing, speaking and listening in English. This is the broader meaning of TEFL.
My research indicated that even taking a short certificate course in TEFL does not ensure that missionaries will have this broad view of teaching English. A mission should provide this level of understanding for those who will be involved in TEFL. It should also ensure that English ministries personnel understand the nature of language learning, have access to good, up-to-date materials for teaching and know how to use effective teaching techniques. These must be considered minimal preparatory standards for personnel on mission fields engaged in English ministries.

2. Missionaries need to understand and model TEFL as ministry. Shelly, another short-termer, had a hard time seeing her ESL teaching as ministry. I encouraged her to think about some ways in which perhaps she was having a spiritual impact on her English students. When I asked her if she hoped the students and teachers wanted to model her, she replied, “Yeah, but that’s a hard thing in ESL. I feel to really be yourself in the classroom is kind of difficult because they don’t really have the vocabulary.” Regarding her students, Shelly seems to equate ministry with the ability to share verbally in a “Christian” way. Her perception of Christian ministry through TEFL is limited. She sees it as verbally sharing her Christian faith and doing typical activities such as providing devotionals. She has not been encouraged to think of ministry as holistic and including demeanor, attitude, camaraderie with peers, mentorship, friendship, professional and effective work ethic, kindness and love.

Shelly has also not been challenged to think of her personal ministry as tied to the school’s goals. She therefore does not understand that providing a quality EFL class is a vital and effective ministry because it contributes significantly to the overarching ministry that a quality Christian school (or mission or agency) has. In contrast, when we work to continually promote the many rich and varied ways in which teaching English done by committed Christians is ministry, the outcome is quite different. Both native speaker short-term missionaries and local non-native English speaking teachers develop a heart for TEFL as ministry.
Nely, a Brazilian English teacher, shares how her views of teaching changed as a result of being on staff at such a school:

As a teacher, I didn’t know that I could use my knowledge and my job as a ministry. This was because I couldn’t do anything in the church. Before, I had this bad feeling. I could not sing. I’m not an evangelist. I was lost! But with teaching English as a ministry, I realize I can do something! It is wonderful!

Her perspective changed because, in her words, “This school is a ministry. I can see lives changing.” Both short-term missionaries and local teachers may need guidance in seeing the teaching of English in all of its potential for ministry. Resources such as Don Snow’s English Teaching as Christian Mission can help to provide this level of understanding.

3. Missionaries need skill in relating cross-culturally. This is obviously not a new concept. Cross-cultural awareness has always comprised a significant part of missionary training. However, perhaps we have neglected two areas of such training: (1) in-service training, in addition to pre-service training; that is, revisiting cultural issues when missionaries are on the field actually facing them and (2) training for peer relationships; that is, preparing missionaries to work side by side with those of different cultures, rather than above or below them.
If even short-term missionaries struggle as they work through cultural issues that they supposedly have been prepared to handle, how much more the local teachers with whom they work—people who likely have not had any cross-cultural orientation. The solution to the development of intercultural awareness in both groups of people is in-service training and mentorship at school sites which use both NESTs and NNESTs. Silvia, a Brazilian teacher, says, “You think people are the same, but when you work together and relate, then you see the differences in the way you think, the way you value things and the way both people prioritize things.” Effective partnership between native and non-native speaking teachers in English ministries requires intercultural understanding.

There are five implications for English program development as well.

1. Programs should have both NESTs and NNESTs on staff. There are three significant advantages to having both missionary and national teachers on staff in an English program. First, they learn language and culture from one another. In the Brazilian case, the short-termers were able to answer the Brazilian teachers’ questions about American culture and idioms, while the Brazilian teachers provided Portuguese classes for the short-termers. This exchange of culture and language fostered equality and significant friendships. Second, programs do not dissolve when key missionary personnel go on furlough. A fundamental goal of missions is equipping nationals to continue on with what has been developed. We sometimes excuse “English ministries” from this standard, perhaps believing that native English speakers are required for effective English programs.

In reality, non-native English teachers are often quite effective, and perhaps those who are not could become so if we sought to train national leaders in English teaching the way we do in church planting or evangelism.

The third advantage to having both native and non-native speaking teachers on staff is one that has sometimes not been understood by the native English-speaking community: English students benefit from the different strengths that native and non-native speaking teachers have. There has often been a perception that “native speakers are best.” We may believe this because students clamor for classes with native speakers; we never stop to consider whether or not this opinion is substantiated by hard data. In reality, it is not. Many studies are now showing that native speaker teachers are not always the best option. Although native speakers may have some advantages in terms of knowledge of vocabulary and pronunciation, non-native speaker teachers usually have the upper hand in areas such as contextualized explanations of grammar, understanding the English-learning process and providing the slow, clear speech that beginning English students can understand. As Laurie, a short-termer says, “Something that I couldn’t explain as a native English teacher, a Brazilian might be able to explain it in Portuguese, and make it clear to the student. I didn’t know the words that would help make the idea clear.”

2. Programs should ensure that staff are qualified in what they teach. It is also important to ensure that teachers in both groups are qualified to teach what they teach. In the Brazilian school, the Brazilians on staff were generally more qualified as English teachers than the short-term missionaries. They therefore taught the core classes while short-termers taught modules such as cooking, sports or crafts. This did not lessen the value of or need for the short-termers. In fact, their presence was usually what attracted students to the program. And short-termers generally felt relieved that there were positions for them which did not require that they engage in types of teaching for which they were not equipped, such as explaining grammar.

A caution is necessary here. A short course in TEFL does not necessarily ensure a person’s ability to teach all components of an English program well. Nor does the absence of TEFL certification necessarily imply an inability to teach English. People can and do learn content and teaching skill by methods other than formal education. This obviously hinders mission efforts at personnel assessment. Ultimately, qualified leadership—either local or foreign—is needed in determining what areas of English programs individual teachers are capable of teaching. When professional oversight is provided, teachers are placed in teaching situations where they will experience success. Teachers are content, students benefit from having teachers who are capable and the program moves forward, blessing all.

3. Programs should foster integration of NESTs and NNESTs on staff. At one school site, native and non-native speaking teachers had many opportunities to interact with one another: in the short-termers’ language learning program, in the mentorship of new teachers, by working on projects together and simply by being together in the teachers’ room. At another site, teachers had few such opportunities. In fact, teaching assignments there effectively hindered collaboration and integration as break times did not coincide. This, I believe, was the single greatest difference between the two schools where native/non-native speaker interaction was concerned. The teachers in each school were in many ways similar, but the teaching environments were not. So how can an English program foster integration? Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Provide a common work area—a “teachers’ room.”
  • Have the non-native speaker staff provide the language training for the native speakers who arrive to teach English.
  • Make sure that the two teacher groups work together on school events and projects.
  • Actively promote interaction outside of the school setting. The teachers who spoke of doing many things together outside of the school setting had the best relationships and carried these positive relationships back into the school setting.

    4. Programs should make NESTs and NNESTs as equal as possible. At one school, there were quite a few inequalities between the two teacher groups. The native speakers did not work as many hours at the school as the local teachers, and therefore were not required to attend teachers’ meetings or submit lesson plans. Teachers felt that these differences put them in separate categories within the school system, hindering an atmosphere of partnership and collaboration. Training in TEFL also can either promote equality or create further divisions. At one school site, none of the non-native speakers were trained in TEFL, while the native speakers were. The teachers at that school felt doubly inferior, being neither native speakers nor TEFL-qualified. The situation at the other school was reversed, with the local teachers having TEFL training and the short-termers not having it. This seemed to level the playing field where the teaching of English was concerned, overcoming the pervasive view that being a native speaker gives one an automatic advantage where language teaching is concerned. A key way to promote equality on staff is to ensure that everyone has some kind of TEFL education.

    A final way to make NESTs and NNESTs as equal as possible is to have near-equal numbers of each group on staff. All teachers spoke of equal numbers as contributing to a sense of equality and collaboration between the two groups. To repeat the words of Rosa, a Brazilian teacher, “The group is stronger when we have both.”

    5. Programs should ensure that all teachers develop intercultural awareness. The issue of intercultural awareness has already been discussed in the “Personnel Development” section above. However, it has implications for program development as well. Helmut Fennes and Karen Hapgood state, “Intercultural learning cannot be left to the initiative of individuals, but should be inherent to education and educational institutions” (1997, 49). In these case studies, this viewpoint seems relevant. There were indications in both sites that individual teachers lacked understanding on various cultural issues, and could have benefited by more direct teaching on the subject of culture.

    Certainly, an English program employing both NESTs and NNESTs and envisioning a collaborative working relationship between the two would do well to provide a course on intercultural awareness. Further, it would be beneficial to have an expert resource person on staff, one who could act as a mediator when cultural clashes arise.

    One unique aspect of intercultural awareness in mission contexts is the role of English internationally. This issue should be addressed in staff training for both native and non-native speakers. Bill Johnston has said, “Possibly the most significant development in the field of English language teaching in the 1990s was the acceptance of the idea that ELT [English Language Teaching] is and always has been a profoundly and unavoidably political undertaking” (2003, 50).

    Native speakers, especially, need to understand this political aspect of English teaching, as voiced by Robert Phillipson, Johnston and others. They need to understand, as much as it is possible to do so, how their local colleagues feel as non-native English speakers. They need to develop an understanding of and appreciation for the role of English in their host country, taking their cues from local teachers in order to understand the needs and realities in TEFL. As Mongi Bahloul has expressed, they do not need to come in with their own agendas, but rather with a collaborative spirit that seeks to learn (1994). Non-native teachers also, however, must increase their intercultural awareness. They need to be willing to learn about the realities of culture shock and the many daily struggles that are faced by new short-termers when they arrive on the field. Teacher interaction between the two groups is greatly enhanced if local non-native English speaking teachers can see themselves as cultural interpreters, and reach out to new short-term missionaries rather than waiting for the newcomers to make the first move.

    This study was limited to two countries and two schools, and other situations may be quite different. However, the native/non-native speaker debate in TEFL is not going away, and we in missions would do well to address the issues. We have everything to gain and nothing to lose by opening our English program doors more to non-native speaking English teachers and collaborating with them as full partners in English ministries.

    Abelaira, Teri, Gary Butzbach, Irma Ghosn, Marica Fisk Ong and Adelaide Parsons. 2004. “Responding to Job Competition from Native English Speakers.” EFLIS Newsletter. November 4(2). Accessed March 12, 2007 from

    Bahloul, Mongi. 1994. “The Need for a Cross-cultural Approach to Teaching EFL.” TESOLJournal. (3):4-6.

    Fennes, Helmut and Karen Hapgood. 1997. Intercultural Learning in the Classroom: Crossing Borders. London: Council of Europe.

    Johnston, Bill. 2003. Values in English Language Teaching. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

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

    Snow, Donald. 2001. English Teaching as Christian Mission. Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press.


    Jan Edwards Dormer has worked in English ministries in various countries for twenty years. This article is based on her doctoral research. She currently works in Southeast Asia in teacher development.

    Copyright © 2007 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