Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Blog

Are Native Speakers Really Better?

The presence of foreign teachers is ubiquitous in the language classrooms of Asia and Taiwan. There are foreign teachers in cram schools. Foreign teachers in public schools. There are even foreign teachers in universities. The majority of university students in Taiwan have been taught by a foreign teacher at one time or another, and the majority of public school English teachers want foreign teachers teachers any better than local teachers?

And the real answer is — of course not. How could they be?

There are long and technical arguments dealing with language acquisition related to this, but in fact, you don’t need to know any of them to know that there’s no particular advantage to being taught by a foreign teacher. After all, there is no place in the world with a high standard of English as a foreign language where a majority, or even a lot, of the teaching is done by foreign teachers. That’s right, there is no place in the world with a high standard of English as a foreign language where a majority, or even a lot, of the teaching is done by foreign teachers.

Think of a few places you know where there’s a high standard of English? It should be easy because there are a lot of them: places like Holland, Belgium, The Philippines, Switzerland, Sweden, to name a few. Not a single one of these countries has a significant number of foreign teachers. Probably every single one of those European and South American businessmen you know who speak flawless English was taught by a local teacher. The Filipino, Indian, and Malaysian students at you school were all taught by local teachers.

I know, I know, Dutch is very similar to English, and in the Philippines and India, English is the language of the professional class. Things like this make it much, much easier to learn a language. But not only is this not particularly true in some of the places where English is best spoken, but it’s not even particularly important. What is important is that there are plenty of places where having been taught by a properly trained local teacher is not a significant handicap.

Let’s look at the flip-side of this problem. Have foreign teachers made a big impact in the places where they are widely used? In Japan, virtually every school in the country is provided by either the JET program or other locally developed programs with a foreign teacher. The next largest foreign teacher programs are Korea and Taiwan. All of these countries are notorious for the poor standard of their English compared with, for example, Scandinavian countries. In fact, if you look at it this way, it’s the countries with the worst record that have the most foreign teachers.

There are many excellent foreign teachers who have made a big difference to their students. But that’s not the point. My point is that there is no place on Earth where English is spoken widely as a foreign language where most, or even a lot, of the teaching is done by foreign teachers. Being taught by competent and skilled local teachers will never be a disadvantage to a learner.

June 25, 2007 | Permalink


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Is there evidence, complicated or not, that it is a drawback (being a native speaker  and that native speakers have to work even harder than local teacher to teach English well? I’ve been here 5 years now, and that is my current gut feeling. i.e. I seem to be valued more, but am less effective overall than my Taiwanese colleagues.

–Thomas Wall

Posted by: | June 25, 2007 at 12:32

Yes, “The majority of university students in Taiwan have been taught by a foreign teacher at one time or another . . .”

But you’re making no distinctions regarding 1. the quality of teaching 2. the overall language environment or 3. the overall guiding principles of how education is administered and valued.

Technical notes
© Copyright 2006 SASI Group (University of Sheffield) and Mark Newman (University of Michigan)
spending on primary education in 2001, per population of primary school age living there, in (PPP)US$*
6.United States

The countries you cite are among the highest per capita spenders on education in the world – not English education – but education as a whole.

The people being educated in these countries are being educated in a historical and present context of internationalism that values English highly in all aspects of daily, mercantile and academic life.

The SLA ‘fact’ “. . . that there’s no particular advantage to being taught by a foreign teacher. . .” doesn’t account for the differences between, for example, learning to be an English teacher in Taiwan’s placement-test-driven system and learning to be an English teacher in a social system in which English competency is a casual fact of daily life.

You are also going too far to suggest that South American, Filipino and people of other nationalities ‘YOU KNOW’ were “probably . . . taught by a local teacher”.

The people others ‘know’ from these countries are usually the top performers in either a test-driven system similar to Taiwan’s, and more likely in similarity, people who were educated extensively at top institutions in their own countries or abroad.

Yes, these countries have a low percentage of native speaking teachers, but all odds are on that the only native speaking teachers in those countries work at the best universities serving the people others around the world are likely to meet.

Your ‘flip side’ comments make the case most clearly – in countries where English ‘education’ is left to be parceled out by any given private company with a profit motive and is not part of an overriding commitment to excellence in education, students do not excel in English.

Finally, your, “Being taught by competent and skilled local teacher will never be a disadvantage to a learner . . .” suffers from asserting competence without defining competence.

In Taiwan, competence is commonly measured by performance on large-scale, standardized testing. This type of competence doesn’t translate to excellence in teaching any more than being a native speaker does.

Posted by: uhgu | June 25, 2007 at 23:44

This is a great comment; I’m just not sure if you’re disagreeing with me or not. Most of the countries I cite are among the list of high spending countries you mention, but not all of them. The Philippines for example is certainly not. Many Commonwealth colonial countries have extremely high standards of English that is taught exclusively by local teachers. Admittedly there is higher motivation to learn English in these countries.

I’m not really certain how to proceed with my reply, so let me try another direction. Of course all education systems aren’t equal. That’s my point. It is widely believed in East Asia that foreign teachers have some quality that makes them distinctive from local teachers. In places like Japan, teaching is often stratified along ethnic lines with local teachers teaching linguistics and foreign teachers teaching communicative skills. In Taiwan, it is not uncommon to hear local commentators reflecting on poor local language skills by stating that more foreign teachers are needed. The belief that native speakers have some property that makes their instruction special and more effective is widespread, even among people who have had the experience to know better.

All of this is utter nonsense. All that’s needed is a proper system of schooling that reinforces appropriate goals. The current test-driven system does not do this. But in fact, there are many, many policy problems with the MOE in Taiwan.

Not surprisingly, I have written about this before. For more detail on the use of foreign teachers and at least one reason why it fails, see this post

Posted by: Scott Sommers | June 26, 2007 at 00:26

In all of the countries you cite, English is both:

1) Related to the native language
2) Used on a regular basis due to close proximity to English speaking countries

Neither is the case in Japan, Taiwan or Korea. I’m not saying your wrong, but that your “evidence” is correlation, not causation.

Posted by: Benjamin Thompson | June 26, 2007 at 11:13

I understand your point and I understand the skepticism it creates. But I do think it misunderstands my position slightly. The proximity factor explains why students are motivated to learn. It does not explain why successful teaching is possible in such situations with only local teachers.

Occasionally, it is suggested here that teachers are simply not that important and student motivation is enough to result in learning. That may be, but if it is then foreign teachers are not necessary. If teachers are necessary, then it appears local teachers can successfully run foreign language programs.

Does that make sense?

Posted by: Scott Sommers | June 26, 2007 at 19:08

You’re joking, right? Would you prefer to learn Mandarin Chinese from a native speaker or from a non-native speaker, all else being equal?

Posted by: | June 26, 2007 at 22:18

It may make sense, but my point is that you say …

“But the real question is — are foreign teachers any better than local teachers?

And the real answer is — of course not. How could they be?

There are long and technical arguments dealing with language acquisition related to this, but in fact, you don’t need to know any of them to know that there’s no particular advantage to being taught by a foreign teacher. After all, there is no place in the world with a high standard of English as a foreign language where a majority, or even a lot, of the teaching is done by foreign teachers. That’s right, there is no place in the world with a high standard of English as a foreign language where a majority, or even a lot, of the teaching is done by foreign teachers.”

There may very well be good “technical arguments dealing with language acquisition” that support your position. You know more about this than me, so I’m not going to dispute you. The problem is that you don’t cite those argument. Instead you cite a correlation without any evidence of causation, in effect sabotaging your own argument.

Like I said, I’m not at all debating your point. I don’t know enough to say conclusively one way or the other. However, I would be appreciate an argument based on theory or fact, not on a correlation that is easily explained away, and which, when used as a solitary supporting argument detracts from your argument.

I hope that I now make sense.

Posted by: Benjamin Thompson | June 26, 2007 at 22:38

As for me, I wish I used the preview button and thus avoided using the word “argument” 37* times in one post.
*slight exaggeration

Posted by: Benjamin Thompson | June 26, 2007 at 22:40

I think one of the problems is the “fetishization” of native English speakers, especially of white North Americans and Brits, over real teaching proficiency and pedagogical rigor.

Posted by: Lee-Sean | June 26, 2007 at 23:06

Yes, Benjamin, you make sense and you are not exaggerating. Sure, I can give you a logical argument, which I will, but then I will tell you why I don’t use this form of argument.

In Taiwan, what gets passed off as ‘teaching English’ is predominantly instruction in how to chat and sing. More specifically, it’s teaching children how to chat and sing. It less frequently includes some activities as reading, and only very rarely includes writing. It almost never includes aspects of English such as public speaking, telling jokes and stories, business English skills or other complex aspects of language usage. It is not at all clear to me that being what everyone calls a native speaker qualifies one as best at teaching these.

Teaching in its real sense includes a wide range of skills. This is particularly important when you’re teaching kids from other cultures where instruction more often than not is a negotiated process involving a bilingual local assistant teacher. When I think about the complexities this involves, I can’t understand at all the logic that someone would be a superior teacher only because of their superior language ability.

On top of this, it is not clear to me what the term ‘native speaker’ really refers to. The MOE in Taiwan has a legal definition based on passport, but we all know the problems this creates. Most of the time, when the term NS is used, it appears to mean a monolingual speaker of English. But I doubt you believe that a Canadian who speaks French and English is not a native speaker. A while back, the expert opinion among linguists was that ‘native speakerness’ was a property of language ability and detectable by others. This is no longer accepted for reasons like those I give in this post
But if you want more references, I’ll be happy to provide them.

The reason I use the correlation argument rather than the logical argument has more to do with the Taiwan situation. The argument for NSET I frequently get from Taiwanese is that they had a local teacher for years and still can’t speak English. This is often attributed to a supernatural force termed ‘foreign contact’, but is in fact the correlational argument turned on its head – local teachers taught me and I can’t speak English, therefore local teacher instruction doesn’t work. This argument is often repeated on websites frequented by foreign teachers such as

My response is that this is a very local situation almost exclusively reserved for the countries of East Asia. Local teachers have no trouble achieving high proficiency among their students in places such as Europe and South America. It is not really relevant that these are the best students from the best schools because in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan these students receive years of instruction in English and still can not speak English unless they have received supplementary instruction that is almost always conducted by foreign teachers.

My point is that if the best students can not speak English, it is not because they were taught exclusively by foreign teachers. The source of this problem has to be looked for in another place. In this case, it is clearly the form of instruction and evaluation that teachers are forced to use.

How’s that?

Posted by: Scott Sommers | June 27, 2007 at 10:40

proposed topic:

Are We Ronald McDonald?

Today was one of those days that my “Mcdonald’s urge” hit me and thus I found myself buying a number 4 meal, and, for lack of a China Post, sitting alone looking at a cutout of Ronald. It then dawned on me the scary possiblity that Ronald represents my (our) place in Taiwanese society.
Think about this: Ronald is white (as most of us are, though our colleges of other ethnicities are lumped in the same mould), happy all the time, loves children, is always ready to entertain. Foreign teachers are by and large portrayed and indeed expected to be happy all the time (ie, the common belief that we are generally happier than locals) always in the mood to entertain children, and be ready at any time to be someone’s “English answer machine”.
Ronald is also a clown. Foreigners are many times portrayed in the buffoon role, and many in fact readily accept this role on TV talk shows and commercials. Of course it is all in good fun, but one cannot help but wonder if we are playing into the hands of some sort of orchestrated social hierarchy( my tendency toward conspiracy theory tends to get me into trouble so i’ll stop now).
Perhaps in some broad cosmic way of looking at it, we serve a greater purpose, a bearer of others’ need for happiness.If so, I am glad to help someone. But what if…..
What if one does not wish to be Ronald Mc Donald today? What if today i do not feel like smiling? What if I’ve had a long day and do not wish to be asked questions pertaining to English? What if I actually have an opinion on a talk show, not the usual positive, happy-go-lucky “Taiwan is wonderful” answer? What if, instead of a happy clown who brings joy to others (a nobel role but…) I wish to actually be a PLAYER in Taiwan society? To be taken seriously and to make a serious contribution to my new adopted country?
What then? Of course there are many charity societies that one may be relegated to, all of which serve a great service to society, but then this brings us back to a point: are we expected to be “sacrificial lambs” for the benefit of Taiwan society? Have missionaries fostered this image? I am by the way, a person of faith and admire missionaries greatly.
Is our only capacity then forever that of Ronald Mcdonald, a bringer of happiness to others? Can we from the “culture industry” as Scott so elegantly stated before, ever be taken seriously?

Posted by: randy c | June 27, 2007 at 22:31

Again Scott, I’m not arguing your point, simply pointing out your argument is a poor one. The comment was much better.

Anyhow, by and large I agree with you with your main point, and that’s why I was suggesting you use a better argument.

Posted by: Benjamin Thompson | June 29, 2007 at 00:14

While of course I appreciate your comments, you have to take the post in its context. I don’t know how long you have lived in Banchiao, but the correlational argument is the main argument used by most local people and foreign teachers for why foreign teachers are needed. As I said, most local people and many teachers at commercial language schools state that no matter what the argument is from applied linguistics, the fact is that their students taught by foreign teachers (even if they’re untrained teachers and have no proper knowledge of education) speak English well and those taught by local teachers do not. Ip so facto, students here need foreign teachers. I can show you such arguments if you want. They are extremely common in Taiwan.

My point is that students taught by local teachers are not at a disadvantage anywhere except here.

If you teach adults, go talk to some of your students about why they prefer to pay for a foreign teacher. If you teach kids, talk to their parents. The argument from linguistics may be what it takes to convince you, but I think you’ll find it falls on deaf ears elsewhere.

And once again, if you want some examples of the correlational argument FOR foreign teachers, I have plenty of examples.

Posted by: Scott Sommers | June 29, 2007 at 02:28

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 sincerity 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.)

Posted by: Thomas Wall | July 02, 2007 at 14:28

My answer to this post title would be a qualified “yes”.

Posted by: Mark | July 04, 2007 at 03:10

Surely the problem with those East Asian countries is the whole education system rather than the native speaker or non-native speaker teachers. I am guessing that the really knowledgeable, effective teacher who really makes a difference in Japan by fighting for a forwarding thinking education for their students would be the standard in Norway, Holland etc. In Spain, they are in the minority and the Spanish do have a much lower level of English than the Portuguese, French etc.

Posted by: Alex Case | August 05, 2007 at 17:16

May I respond to “Are We Ronald McDonald?”
I understand that “foreigners being portrayed in the buffoon role” dates back generations (maybe even centuries) and from my own experience, it very much continues into the present. I believe the main reason for this is the way the term “foreigner” is used in this region and what it means and represents to the local population.

Most people who did not grow up in East Asia do not realize that the word “foreigner,” is most often used in this region to refer more to a person’s race, rather than, and despite its more literal meaning of someone from another country. Perhaps, many so called “foreigners” do not realize this because the overwhelming majority of people in this region of non-Asian descent are from overseas countries, thus leading them to believe it is just a reference to their nationality.

I know of no other region on this Earth that refers to a portion of its population as being “foreigners.” Other regions speak of “foreign nationals” at worst, more often immigrants, ex-pats, or people born overseas. Also these terms are normally only used, throughout the world, in government population statistics reports. They are never used (at least in my experience) as a way of introducing someone, let alone as a term of address – as the term “foreigner” is often used in Taiwan.

I believe this usage of the term “foreigner” makes it easy for people in this country to forget that we are people and just jump to the conclusion that we are all buffoons as the old stereotype suggests. For this reason I ask friends and acquaintances to, please not address me or refer to me as “foreigner.” In response I am often told, “But you are!” And, in response to this I normally answer, “I know, but please don’t call me this. I live here now and have done for nearly ten years. Perhaps you can refer to me as a person.”

Most people who were born here and grew up here cannot see the point of not referring to me as a foreigner, but do oblige – even if to just say to others (I overhear them), “That’s the foreigner that does not like to be called foreigner,”(lol)! I do believe this does help to make a difference though – at least in the community where I am known.

Perhaps others can try this or make other suggestions regarding the Ron McDon Syndrome.

Posted by: matthew magill | November 20, 2007 at 03:30

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  1. Scott said, on July 10, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    I’m sure that if you took the average foreign TESOL teacher from Taiwan. E.g. 3 year degree in something irrelevant plus a one month TESOL course and not necessarily passionate about education as a career. Against a teacher from a northern European country. Already an excellent English speaker (still not native speaker level) but also a highly qualified teacher and able to understand the particular difficulties your students might have when studying this new language (as they were once your difficulties also). Then yes the non native teacher probably wins in terms of quality teaching. However you are comparing apples and oranges.

    The argument as to which is better Northern European (non native) teachers or the native English teachers in Taiwan. It is the native English speaking teachers in Taiwan against the local Taiwanese English teachers. In which case I would usually favor the native English speaker to be able to produce a student that can speak fluently. Why? Because the standard of English among Taiwanese English teachers isn’t very high. In class they focus on memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary for written tests with very little class time devoted to actually speaking and listening to actual English.

    In order for Taiwanese local teachers to be better at teaching English than foreign native speakers then they need to be very competent English speakers. This then involves the teachers being taught by competent speakers using sounds TESOL methods. After this they then need to implement these methods on their own students. But they aren’t.

    As for other causes of Taiwanese bad English scores in world rankings, here are some possible causes. Large linguistic differences between English and Chinese. A lack of interest in using English to travel and meet people from other cultures. English is not seen as an end in itself, A good high school score is a way to get into a good university and a good TOEIC score is a way to get a good job.Outdated and inefficient methods being used in the public school classrooms. Which I believe are largely made up of Taiwanese teachers, not foreigners. A general cultural ‘shyness’ and fear of embarrassment also play a part in Taiwanese missing out on opportunities to practice spoken English (be it with other Taiwanese or foreigners).

    It hardly seems that foreigners can be blamed here. I also think that a qualified native English speaker is better than a qualified local once a student is more advanced.

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