A new piece of proposed legislation submitted for public review by the Chinese Ministry of Education has recently been making the rounds among China’s sizeable community of foreign teachers. In addition to new provisions regulating part-time work by teachers outside of their main place of employment, the most discussed issue was the proposed introduction of a disciplinary credit system for assessing the professional conduct of teachers working in the country’s many language schools and training centers. This new system would punish teachers for violations of employment regulations and academic misconduct, with more extreme cases such as sexual assault or abuse of minors even resulting in a complete prohibition of employment. While the changes suggested in the draft are rather standard and were largely welcomed, one long-standing issue obviously remains unaddressed – namely, that of discriminatory requirements for legal employment and eligibility criteria for work visas.
As China continues to affirm its status as the world’s largest market for ESL services, the demand for qualified teachers will almost certainly surpass supply – a process which has already largely happened. Similarly, not much foresight is required to see that this could potentially result in an influx of would-be teachers with subpar qualifications, prompting the need for government institutions to step in and introduce regulations to assuage student and employer concerns. However, whereas these developments might seem obvious, the criteria used to decide who can or cannot be granted legal employment as a foreign language teacher demonstrates a striking lack of insight into the realities of both the ESL sector and second-language acquisition in general.
The “native vs. non-native” debate is known to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of ESL circles. Ongoing for decades, the debate has been a great cause of division among language teachers, with compelling arguments brought by both sides. Teachers who are native speakers of the language being taught usually claim that only a native speaker can expose the students to the language as it is really spoken – i.e. taking into account things such as native accent, cultural knowledge, everyday slang and an intuitive grasp of how the language ought to be used. Non-native teachers, on the other hand, insist that they have a better idea of how second-language acquisition works because they were once in the same position as the students – at some point in their lives, they also had to learn it as non-native speakers and are thus more likely to know which areas might be more difficult or present a problem for the students. Broadly speaking, it could be said that native speakers tend to rely more on intuition gained through life-long exposure to the language, while non-natives usually refer to their knowledge of language as a system, i.e. their formal knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, context, etc. Both of these approaches have their merits and to deny the validity of either is to reject the reality of how language use and language learning actually work – after all, the issue is hardly a new one and we have decades of academic research to confirm this.
However, the problem at hand is not just that of scholarly linguistics – it is a practical issue which affects the lives of thousands of native and non-native language teachers around the world, both through employer preferences and government policy. An aspect which is often overlooked is the perception of what it means to be qualified for the job, and the way stereotypes and bias might affect this perception.
Speaking from a personal perspective, this means the frustration of being rejected or not even considered for a job which requires knowledge of English just because your passport or your skin are of the wrong color. Many people around the world have learned English at some point in their life and the fact that their proficiency would be questioned is not in itself an issue. Even most non-native speakers of English would agree that learning English for a few years in high school is hardly a decent qualification. But what if you have a university degree in English? What if you have proven professional experience in the field? What if you were brought up in an English-speaking environment or had received your formal education in English?
China’s visa policy for foreign language experts generally requires you to be engaged in a field directly related to your native language, which is essentially determined by your current passport. For example, a US or UK passport, evidence of no criminal record, an online TESOL certificate and a bachelor’s degree in literally any field are basically all that is required for a person to start teaching English in China.
Compared to my native Croatia, these requirements seem surprisingly lax. While work permit requirements for foreigners are much simpler and generally leave a great deal of the decision-making up to the company, employer preferences are reflective of a much more complex understanding of what it means to be qualified to teach. Even with no specific instructions from the Ministry of Education, teaching in language schools without a master’s degree in English specifically is usually entirely out of the question. TEFL/TESOL certifications might earn you some bonus points, but would in no way be enough to land you a teaching job on their own. In public schools, not even most English majors would be allowed to teach – unless you had a master’s degree in English teaching, you would be required to pass additional exams at the university on top of your standard English degree before even being considered for the position. The issue of native vs. non-native is usually not even brought into consideration, let alone specifically required as part of your eligibility criteria for a foreigner work permit. While some private language schools might be enticed by the marketing potential of having a native speaker as one of their teachers, this fact alone is generally not enough to automatically set you apart from other candidates with more experience or better credentials. Employers would also be more inclined to see the merits of a teacher who can speak the local language. This, however, does not mean that non-native speakers are immediately seen as preferred candidates – rather, it means that knowledge of the local language, coupled with professional credentials, trumps nationality as a criterion for employment. After all, their own teachers were most likely locals so there is no underlying assumption on the side of the employer that only a native speaker can be a good teacher.
While there is certainly no guarantee that such an approach automatically excludes the possibility of bad teachers getting hired, this insistence on academic credentials and formal qualifications rather than nationality seems to be working: Croatia ranked 14th in the world among non-native countries based on data from the 2019 EF (Education First) English Proficiency Index, the world’s largest ranking of countries and regions in terms of English proficiency as determined by the EF Standard English Test. Croatia was placed in the top proficiency band (“Very High Proficiency”), along with countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway, and ahead of many wealthier EU states such as France, Spain or Italy – and also far ahead of the PRC and Japan, where “nativeness” is a highly-valued feature in foreign English teachers. Even if you choose to criticize the EF EPI for methodological flaws, the results of the state graduation exam consistently show that Croatian students have a good grasp of English by the time they finish high school. Finally, while largely anecdotal, even a cursory examination of expat websites confirms this, with many emphasizing the high English proficiency of the local population.
In China, on the other hand, your nationality outright makes it impossible for you to even be considered for teaching legally. Some employers take this even further and insist that you appear “native” (more often than not meaning “white”), basing this on the idea that their clients have a certain expectation of what an English teacher should look like. In other words, they try to justify discrimination as simply being a logical business response to the demands of the market. Ideally, in situations like this, the state should be the one to step in and encourage non-discriminatory employment practices through legislation and policy changes. Yet, precisely the opposite is true – based on current visa requirements, your nationality is what determines whether you are eligible for a work visa as a language teacher. In other words, you have to be a citizen of Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK or the USA to be able to legally teach English in China. Only then are your academic credentials and professional experience taken into account – and even these requirements remain relatively lax if you can surpass the first hurdle of nationality. This reluctance to tackle employment discrimination and insistence on language proficiency being exclusively tied to one’s passport often results in frustrating and downright bizarre situations.
When this topic is brought up, I often like to mention the story of a Croatian colleague in Beijing who was once asked by her American friend to step in as a substitute teacher while she was tending to urgent family business back in the US. My friend had a master’s degree in English, previous teaching experience in her country and as a private tutor in China, HSK4-level Chinese skills, was employed at a major international news outlet and had even translated a number of books from English to Croatian and vice versa – and yet despite all of this, the school ended up rejecting their American teacher’s, who had also vouched for her, suggestion that my friend step in and take over while she was away. While this might have been due to fear of government inspection or similar concerns, I still see it as an illustrative example of how your skills, knowledge and qualifications as a non-native English teacher are (unfairly) perceived as automatically inferior by employers. In comparison, her native-speaking friend’s main asset was just that – the fact that she was from a native-speaking country. And imagine how disheartening the situation would have been if you were a qualified native-speaking teacher who got rejected for having the “wrong” skin color!
Even if one is to set aside employer and consumer preference, the current Chinese legal framework does not even make it possible for more “open-minded” schools to hire qualified non-native teachers. To make things worse, China is not even alone in this – even in other Asian countries with a high demand for English teachers, e.g. Japan, non-native teachers are usually paid less and treated as inferior compared to their native-speaking counterparts. Furthermore, this practice often extends to other professions where English proficiency is required – getting a job as a non-native speaker in any English-speaking news outlet or language service company can be just as frustrating.
In China specifically, this combination of discriminatory social attitudes and a faulty legal framework has created a sort of underclass of underpaid and underemployed non-native English teachers (whose qualifications can be just as dubious, seeing that they are basically forced to work in semi-legal grey zones) on one hand and a whole cohort of barely qualified and oft disinterested native-speaking English teachers on the other, damaging the reputations and career prospects of genuine professional English teachers on both sides of the “native vs. non-native” debate in the process.
Until changes are made, qualified native-speaking teachers in China will have to keep defending their image and reputation from problematic individuals who wandered into the profession on a whim, seeking good money and exotic adventures, while non-native teachers will see their own position decline even further as this discriminatory practice becomes more entrenched in the attitudes of students, employers and policy-makers. With all this in mind, perhaps it is time for China – and other countries – to reconsider its stance on the issue and make professional credentials, knowledge and experience, rather than nationality, the primary criterion for allowing foreign language teachers to work in the country.