Is CELTA for 'non-native' English speakers?

FAQs about elt
Is CELTA for 'non-native' English speakers?
A common question from CELTA applicants: if 'English is not my first language- is this for me?'. This video aims to answer that question and give a bit more information about the relative merits of being a 'native' or 'non-native' English speaker when you are training to be an English teacher.
As an experienced CELTA tutor, I’m often asked this question – English is not my first language- can I take CELTA? The short answer to this is YES of course you can – but if you want a more detailed answer, keep watching…

I’m Jo Gakonga from ELT-Training and this is another video in my series on FAQs about ELT.

The first thing you should know is that about half of the people who take CELTA around the world every year are not first language speakers of English. You DO need to have to have a high level of language proficiency but being an English teacher is not just about your personal use of the language. Let’s look at your personal English first- You might be asking ‘how high is ‘high’?’ and Cambridge state that candidates need to have a level of C1+ to do the course. Some centres will ask you to have an IELTS score or a Cambridge Advanced certificate, but mostly, your spoken language will be assessed and you’ll have to do a written task that will assess your writing ability when you are interviewed - this happens to everyone, whatever their first language is - and the centre will tell you whether they feel your level is high enough. Let’s assume that you do have this level of English. How important is it that this is not your first language?

To answer the question, I want to use this really nice (short!) paper by Costas Gabrielatos that you can find online that talks about the shape of a language teacher. Now this doesn’t mean whether you can still get into your skinny jeans, but he says "An English teacher is a person who teaches English". So these are the three aspects of a good teacher. We have ...
  • The person;
  • The teaching methodology;
  • The language

Of course there is some overlap here- and all of these can be improved but it has to be said that some are easier to learn than others…., Gabrielatos says that the ideal is for these three to be balanced so maybe it’s helpful to consider which are your strengths and weaknesses.

If we look at these three things, we can see that whether English is your first language or not does not change your personality – your self awareness, your interpersonal skills, your perception of learning, your ability to think critically and use your experience, your attitude to change, development, diversity, authority…

How about teaching methodology? This is what CELTA will mainly focus on and it’s the area that you are going to keep refining as long as you teach – I’m still changing things about my practice and I’ve been in the classroom for over 30 years! Different ways of teaching will suit different teachers and learners and contexts but your first language won’t affect this. In fact, because you’ve learnt English yourself successfully in a classroom, you may have more ideas about what worked for you.

So now we come to the aspect that IS different depending on whether English is your first language or not – the language part. We can split this into two parts –Gabrialatos calls these your knowledge and your Skills and again, both of these are learnable.

In general, in my experience, first language speakers of English have an advantage in the skill of speaking English – they don’t usually make grammatical mistakes, they have an accent that might be considered ‘native’ (although there’s obviously a very wide range here) and they’ve got a good vocabulary and more of an innate ‘feel’ perhaps for what sounds right BUT They often have the problem that their own knowledge of how the language works isn’t so strong. (in a bubble) ‘I know that this is right, but I’m not sure why…’ what’s a preposition? What are phrasal verbs? Why are articles difficult?

If English is your second language, even if you have a high proficiency you probably have the opposite issue- maybe you make occasional slips in your grammar, maybe you feel insecure about your accent, maybe you’re not always sure about some vocabulary – but you’ve probably learnt the language in a way that means you DO understand the vagaries of the present perfect and you DO know what a defining relative clause is. You also have the advantage of knowing what the difficulties are for learners because you’ve walked this path yourself.. Finally, of course, if you are planning to teach in your own country, you have the enormous advantage that you speak the same language as your learners and you can use this to advantage, especially when you are teaching lower levels.

So whether or not you will be a good English teacher is definitely not all about whether you are a native speaker or not- it’s about the triangle of all three things- and both aspects of your language. I’ve had excellent CELTA trainees whose first language wasn’t English and also whose first language was – and I’ve known weak candidates in both categories, too.

So what about getting a job afterwards? The better, more reputable schools tend to understand what I’ve been talking about, but I’m afraid that there is still a lot of unfair discrimination in the industry with a bias towards ‘native speaker’ teachers. This does seem to be improving, and organisations like TEFL Advocates are helping. It also depends on where you want to teach- some countries are worse in this respect than others.

A final thought- remember that the VAST majority of English teachers worldwide are not ‘native speakers’ and if you want some inspiration, this IATEFL Plenary by Silvana Richardson makes the point very well and got her a standing ovation at IATEFL in 2016.
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