Return of the native

9th February 2007 at 00:00
Language teachers are no longer all home grown - there has been an influx of native speakers. Nick Morrison discovers there are advantages to both approaches

It may seem far-fetched now, but there was a time when few schools numbered a native speaker in the languages department. Those were the days when all modern foreign languages (MFL)teachers were home grown, and the only authentic French heard in school was on the tapes in the language department.

Now, many schools have at least one native speaking MFL teacher, and in some schools they make up a sizeable proportion of the department. But is this a sign of a more pluralist society, or that we cannot produce enough foreign language speakers? And who makes the best language teacher: a native speaker fluent in their own tongue, or a non-native speaker who realises how difficult it is to learn the language?

Maria Sharratt, director of languages at Litherland High School, a specialist language college in Sefton, Liverpool, is in no doubt that the influx of native speakers has been overwhelmingly positive.

"I can only see advantages in having native speakers," she says. "It can take a while to adjust to the different education system, but if a school invests in that time it is more than repaid."

Two members of the eight-strong MFL department at Litherland are native speakers, although this has been as high as four in the past, and the school offers placements to Spanish nationals on the postgraduate teaching course at Liverpool Hope University.

"The teachers speak Spanish between themselves, so the children can see the language in action, and it is a distinct advantage for me to work with native speakers - if I have got any subject knowledge doubt I can get the answer straight away," Maria adds.

Jim Donnelly, headteacher at Litherland, says there has been a noticeable increase in the number of native speakers applying to teach languages in recent years. "A native speaker has the advantage in terms of knowledge of the language and it means our pupils interact with native speakers all the time," he says.

But he says it is also important for the pupils to see that a native English speaker can become proficient in a foreign language. "One advantage of local teachers is they have gone to the same kind of school and they act as role models," he says. "A teacher from this country also has the advantage of having gone through our education system."

He believes the best combination is a mixture of native and non-native speakers. While native speakers have the advantage in terms of knowledge of the language, they may also be less used to managing challenging classroom behaviour. "In some ways, it is more difficult to manage students in this country than in other countries, that is to do with the culture rather than the individual children," he adds. "We are aware that a native speaker coming on teaching practice may need more time observing in the classroom."

The extension of compulsory languages to 16 under the national curriculum in England and Wales in 1988 created the initial teacher shortage, forcing schools to look further afield. The introduction of the Single Market in 1992 removed employment barriers between EU countries, providing a ready-made recruitment pool.

But while languages have not been compulsory for 14 to 16-year-olds in England since September 2004, there is still a shortage of qualified teachers coming though the UK education system.

"There are not as many people doing specialist degrees and the numbers of undergraduates going on to train as teachers have fallen," says Ruth Bailey, language teaching adviser for Cilt, the National Centre for Languages. "A lot of people are doing languages in conjunction with other subjects, which doesn't necessarily mean they would have the expertise required."

She says native speakers can be a good way to boost language teaching in a school. "They bring authentic language and up-to-date knowledge, and they can also bring authentic materials with them. There is also a sense of their being an example of living foreign culture in a school."

And if local teachers in the MFL department can demonstrate it is possible to learn a foreign language, native speakers can also be role models. "They are a foreign person successfully living abroad and that might light a spark in some pupils' minds," Ruth says. "They might be the only foreign person working in the school and they do bring something new."

But there can be some difficulties in adjusting to a different education system, which gives teachers a pastoral role often absent in continental schools, and where the teaching puts emphasis more on oral skills than grammar. Sara Sullivan, a lead practitioner in languages for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, says some native speakers can be put off by the amount of paperwork and the lack of flexibility. Classroom slang, idioms and accents can also prove a challenge.

"I have had native speakers working for me who have found it difficult,"

says Sara, an Advanced Skills Teacher and head of languages at Woodlands School in Basildon, Essex. "If you don't understand everything the children are saying you can feel quite isolated in the classroom, and if you don't pick up on the humour you might think they're being unkind when they're not."

She says foreign language teaching abroad is more likely to concentrate on grammatical correctness, leaving native speakers arriving to teach in England unused to the focus on oral ability and getting your message across, with some leeway for making mistakes.

And she says the jury is still out on whether native speakers make better language teachers. "They are coming at it from a different angle and they are saying: 'This is my language and I want to teach it', and it brings a different atmosphere. There are advantages but I would not take someone on just because they were a native speaker.

"They are enthusiastic about their subject, but a love of the subject is not the same as teaching in your own language. I don't think they are any better than my best non-native speakers," she says.

But in the end it won't be the teaching system, the pupils or the culture which determines whether native speakers decide to stay in the UK, says Ruth. "They still get promoted, they still become heads of department, there aren't any barriers to success," she says. "The biggest reason for retaining native speakers is having a relationship - that is the thing that will make them stay."


Ana Parra, 28, from Almeria in south-east Spain, took a postgraduate course at Liverpool John Moores University and has been teaching at Litherland High School in Liverpool for three years.

"I wanted to be a teacher but there are not enough jobs in Spain, and when I spoke to some people in Britain it sounded quite attractive.

"There are more resources than we have got in Spain and there are less formal evaluations - in Spain you assess the children every term and send a letter home to the parents.

"The children here ask you lots of questions, like what you did at school, and they are interested in how I learned English. They see you as a person who has learned a language and is using it.

"When I first arrived I couldn't understand the accent but you adapt. The children know I don't understand everything, and maybe at the beginning I didn't get the jokes straight away, but you find your own way to interact with them."

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