“You cannot teach me English because you are Asian!”

By Xiaoke Sun

Hey, everyone!

This post is a real story happened lately about myself being Asian and becoming an English teacher in Montreal Chinese heritage school. It happens to correspond with the topic of ethnicity and language learning that we have talked previously. I would like to share the story, and you are more than welcomed to help me to figure out my current puzzle.

For quite a long time, I have questioned what is the fundamental criteria to be an English teacher. There is no doubt that having an advanced language proficiency is necessary. Besides, English pronunciation, as mentioned by Yerim in the previous post, is also commonly judged by people as it demonstrates one’s capacity to express themselves and to be understood. Despite of other factors, such as the ability of curriculum design, assessment, and so on, can it be concluded that one’s ability to exercise a language equals to one’s qualification for being an English teacher? If not, what other factors could influence the way of learning and teaching?

“You cannot teach me English because you are an Asian!” A kid shouted at me while I was walking into the grade 5 ESL classroom as a replacement teacher. Firstly, I felt quite offended in front of the class. Then, I (kind of ) admired his straightforwardness. I tried to comfort the whole class by admitting that English is not my first language, but they could still learn the language from me. However, unfortunately, the whole class was not convinced at all. They tried to shout out every single word that did not correspond to what they have learned in a white teacher’s class to prove I am not able to teach.  For example, when I said “younger brother”, they argued “No, it’s little brother. You are wrong! ” Yet, the variety of language could not lead to the questioning of being linguistically right or wrong.

This story made me notice that language teaching is so closely related to ethnicity at school context, especially for students at young age, as they have not yet developed the understanding of learning, which in my opinion is an accumulation of knowledge, delivered by whoever is more advanced than the learners. In fact, students like to judge teacher’s appearance, age, and ethnicity. Being white, by their understanding, is significantly important for an English teacher.

Theoretically, Bourdieu (1991) argues that language has been more than an instrument of communication. It is also where power is formed and performed based on race, gender, sexuality, and social class identity. It is true that by the process of learning a language, people get empowered. However, oppositely, saying that speaking a language means one is empowered maybe not convince at all, because sexuality, gender, and social class may play crucial roles in forming the impression to someone or a certain group. We called it the stereotype or labeling.

Furthermore, students judge teachers by Ethnolinguistic Vitality (ELV).  Rubenfeld et al. (2006), defined that ELV is determined according to collective or structural characteristics of a group such as demographic representation, social status, and institutional support. Me, as a young, Asian, female, non-native speaker of either English or French is seen as a low-ELV individual. Students think white individuals, even if their first language is not English, hold more credibility than yellow, or black teachers because of their general high social status in western countries. However, it is far from drawing a conclusion that yellow or black people cannot teach properly.

As being mentioned by Ibrahim(1999), Being and Becoming are two distinguished terms related to identity and ethnicity. “The former is an accumulative memory, and experience, and a conception upon which individuals interact with the world around them, whereas Becoming is the process of building this conception”(p. 354).  For English non-native speakers, the Being is determined by born and the surrounding context as they grow up, however, the Becoming can be largely changed by their personal efforts and determination. For teachers candidates, as long as they acquired a high level of language, they are supposed to be able to teach regardless of their background. But at the same time, there are quite an amount of research arguing that non-native speakers could never attain the same language proficiency as native speakers because of Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) (Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam, 2008). Hence, theoretically, it rejects the previous idea that non-native speaker teachers could also teach the language excellently. This opinion also holds water because the pronunciation of a language speaker, as can be shown in this video, can hardly be changed after their critical period. Therefore, are people practically able to teach their second or third language?

My current exploration leads to an open conclusion. I’m still wondering and will keep exploring. Also, I’d like to leave the questions to the readers. What do you think about the issue of non-native speaker teachers? Do you think people are not qualified to teach if the target language is not their first language? I’m looking forward to hearing from you.



Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2008). The robustness of aptitude effects in near-native second language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 30, 481-509.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and symbolic power (G. Raymond & M. Adamson, Trans) Cambridge: Polity Press

Ibrahim, A. E. K. M. (1999). Becoming black: Rap and hip-hop, race, gender, identity, and the politics of ESL learning. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), 349-369

Rubenfeld, S., Clément, R., Lussier, D., Lebrun, M., & Auger, R. (2006). Second language learning and cultural representations: Beyond competence and identity. Language Learning, 56(4), 609-632.

Studyenglishwithme (2013, August 2). Funny Japanese teaching English. Retrieved October 25, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EnOfoxidK5Q



7 thoughts on ““You cannot teach me English because you are Asian!””

  1. Samuel (comment #6):
    Hi Shiaoke, great post! I like how you link ethnicity to your experience teaching English in a heritage school in Montreal. Personally, I think you are entitled to teach English because you know the language (grammatically), metalinguistically and you have some teaching experience.
    In my experience travelling the world, an overwhelming part of the world population believe in native speakerism, which entails partly stereotyping white people as part of anglo-saxon cultures. Your post reminded me of black teachers in Japan that are from the United-States and constantly have to face a similar challenge, even though they are in fact native speakers. Japanese students and teachers in schools could not believe that a black teacher could teach students English as a representative of American culture. But how wrong considering that this teacher grew up in the United-States. When I taught English in Japan, never did people question my teaching, and this is probably because I look Caucasian. But when you think about it, my ancestry is part Mik Ma’q and French (from Normandy in France), none of my ancestry to my knowledge is “English”. Growing up in Quebec speaking French, I am just as you are, not a native speaker of English teaching English, and no one had a problem with that in Japan (for superficial reasons).
    All this to say, that I believe ethnicity and “nativity” is irrelevant to what makes a good teacher. When I was taking Russian in university, my Russian professor always told us that his best professors were not of Russian origin but from other neighboring nations in Central Asia (Tadjikistan, Uzbekistan and other nations of Central Asia). I always thought this was an interesting statement because it meant that even in teaching in general, there were expectations that professors should be of a specific origin, in this case Russian. However, in my professor’s case, in turned out, that his best professors were not of Russian origin, and it had made a big impression on him.
    Also, interestingly, in Quebec, most English teachers are French speaking Quebecois which again shows that speaking the language as a second language should not be an issue. But how can we convince people that colors don’t matter is a good question! I don’t know!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Geraldine Gras (comment 1):

    Thank you for sharing Shiaoke. Your blog post made me think of an older teacher at my school who was recently “picked on” (to be nice) by parents because her Italian accent was “strong”. It was said by a parent that students from that class were bound to have issues with English pronunciation as their English teacher’s accent affected her pronunciation of the words, and could lead students to “learning words the wrong way”. In short, parents were saying that due to her Italian accent, her teaching of the English language would not up to part.

    In your case, the comment was made by a child. I think this makes it a lot more innocent than if it had been an adult. It would be interesting to know whether that child’s parents had previously vocalized his/her opinion regarding “non-native” speakers as teachers of English. It could even possibly be the students’ teacher that has contributed to the impression the students have of non-native speakers as teachers, and the credibility non-native (or non-white) have when they walk into that specific classroom.
    Incidents like these always make me giggle a little as I can’t help but wonder: What were you expecting in such a diverse (languages/cultures) city such as Montreal? I mean, were you expecting francophones from France and anglophones from the UK to be our language teachers here in Montreal?

    I’d have to agree with Samuel that ethnicity and nativity have no effect on whether you are a successful or unsuccessful teacher of the target language. In my opinion, any individual who has passed the language proficiency exams as well as the training necessary to teach that language can teach the target language they wish. I think it is very important for students to have teachers of a target language who aren’t native speakers of the language. I think every child needs to feel represented in his/her language classroom and being asian might be a positive factor (more so than “negative): “She’s asian like me. She speaks English so I can do it too”.

    Lastly, I applaud you for addressing the student’s comment before starting class. I think it is important we engage our learners in more conversations regarding language, culture and where they themselves fit into all of it. Conversation always gets the ball rolling!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Xiaoke,

    This is such a thought-provoking post. The case you mentioned is quite prevalent in almost everywhere. I’m sure you’ve read a lot of job posts of English educations institutes in China recruiting English teachers, and one of the most common requirements is being a native speaker. Some smaller institutes even do not require any certificates or teaching experience, but they do require the teacher to be white.

    Hereby, I want to mention some bright side of solving the problem. One reason why such phenomenon exists is that people used to be lacking knowledge in education, especially language teaching. With the help of constant criticism on native speakerism and people’s broadened horizon, pedagogy and hard skills are taking a greater part in evaluating a teacher. By the way, my French teacher is not a native speaker of French either. Her first language is Romanian and she’s teaching French and Spanish now. Based on her in-field classroom performance, double degrees in French and Spanish at McGill, teaching certificate as well as years of teaching experience, she is more than qualified to teach French and Spanish.

    Why schools prefer to hire native speakers is that learners prefer to be taught by native speakers. Any other accents other than American accent and British accent spark students’ worry about catching the non-standard accent. Actually I’d be very exhilarated to know if one can change his or her accent that easily… In contrast, the company I worked for back in China intentionally add French, Italian, Indian and Thai accent into the design of multimedia lessons to improve students’ listening skills, because you can never guarantee that you do business, or something involves communication like that, only with native English speakers. As long as learners get to know this point, they would not be demanding their teachers to be native speakers or their multimedia lesson to be totally American-accent English. Schools will no longer have the particular rules about hiring accordingly. So raising learners’ and administrators’ awareness is of great necessity.

    Above all, I think non-native speaker teachers should not be restricted by their ethnicity from teaching. Their qualification is not decided by ethnicity either.



  4. Cheryl Lingjaun Yan (Comment#2)
    Hi Xiaoke, thank you sharing your story with us! I feel you because nativespeakerism is also what bothered me from time to time. I have not had a chance to teach an English-native speaker’s English. And I guess I am just not ready for that. Think about this, we started learning English since 8 or 9 years old. So if we decide whether a person is qualified to teach a language or not depending on how many years they have learnt it, then the time you spend in learning English is far more than the students you were teaching. However, if you are running for a position as an English teacher, people do not really take that into account. The first thing they would like to look at is whether you are a native speaker. You are Asian, not white, and your mother tongue is not English, so they think you are not qualified to teach English. No one wants to be judged. It’s totally understandable why you felt terrible about this. I agree with what Samuel and Geraldine said previously, these stuff cannot prove whether you are a good teacher or not. Or maybe you can think about this in a different way, thanks to these kids’ doubt on your English proficiency, you will work even harder to prove your English level is far higher than they thought. Then they will find that their previous assumption was wrong. And it’s always exciting to meet something challenging, isn’t it?


  5. Sihong Chen: Hi, Xiaoke, your story inspires me a lot. Actually, I think many of us SLE students may encounter such dilemma because we are not native speakers. It is hard for us to teach English to students whose first language is English. There has been some discussion or debate about whether native speaker is definitely better than non-native speakers. However, non-native speaker teachers still struggle with their non-native identity although some studies have shown that non-native speaker teachers are better. It is hard to eliminate people’s prejudice towards this issue but we need to be confident and optimistic. Just treat this as an motivation to improve our language ability.


  6. Hi Xiao,

    It’s such a touchy topic for me, as a non-native ESL teacher, that I just can’t sit on the fence, so I have to put my two cents in.
    First, to answer the question:”what do you think about non-native speaker teachers?” I should say that it’s absolutely inaccurate that non-native speakers of English can’t be good ESL teachers. That’s kind of a myth likewise the fallacy that men are superior and women are inferior.

    Second, for sure, if you’re not a native speaker of the language that you’re going to teach(let’s say English), you might face with all of the misconceptions and delusions that exist these days, but if you’re truly passionate about the subject you teach, then there’s no power on the earth that might prevent you from doing that.

    Third, to teach any language – first, second or foreign – you need education and skills, as well as your language proficiency should at the advanced level. Moreover, you shouldn’t forget that you will have to work hard on the reduction of your first language accent to improve your English pronunciation and keep on enriching your vocabulary thesaurus regularly.

    In sum, despite all these subtle obstacles, you are more than capable to teach the subject that you’re keen on.
    Good luck, dear colleague!

    Natalie L.


  7. Hi Xiaoke,

    Thank you for your post!

    I was a bit taken aback by the contents of your post. I couldn’t believe that a child would say such a thing, even though you were a substitute teacher!

    I started teaching English online today and my boss told me right before the lesson, “By the way, we have told our parents that English is your mother tongue, just so you know.” It made me feel somewhat uncomfortable – yes, I’ve been speaking and studying in English since I was four, but Japanese is my “mother tongue”. I could tell what was being implied behind her words – don’t tell the parents (who are Chinese) that you are from Japan, or that you speak Japanese!

    Attending McGill, I’ve noticed how many of my classmates are qualified to teach English, no matter where they are from, how they sound, or how they look. Unfortunately, the first thing that the employer (or in your case, the students) see is your outward appearance. It’s really sad that the kids had already made that stereotype up in their minds, that non-native teachers who aren’t white are “unqualified” to teach. Maybe as non-native and non-white students, we are also given the task of breaking that notion…?

    – hina


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