It's rare to find a language school that doesn't advertise the fact that their teachers are "native speakers". The question to ask ourselves though is does "native speaker" mean "better"? Not always.
I have always bean fascinated by languages. Ever since my first French lesson back in high school, I knew that languages would be an intrinsic part of my future. My teacher came from France but the majority of our other language teachers were British. Even at university, where I studied languages (obviously), the professors were a mix of native speakers and Brits. I never once thought to question if native speakers were better. My teachers were all highly qualified and excellent at their job.
It was only when I came to work in Italy that I started to hear talk about the native speaker as if it were some kind of language god. Everywhere I went, people told me about how they thought that having a native speaker teacher was the best way to learn. Language schools were constantly boasting about how all their teachers were mother-tongue, even if it wasn't true. I understood pretty quickly that for a lot of people, the only "qualification" a teacher needed was to be a native English speaker. Now that I run my own English-teaching business, many students ask me if I'm a native speaker (I am from Wales so the answer is yes, in case you were wondering). Not one of them asks me about my actual qualifications (degree in Modern Foreign languages and Trinity teaching certificate if you want to know). I usually answer that being a native speaker is not the most important thing for a language teacher and that surprises them. So why do I think that being a mother-tongue English speaker is not fundamental?
Language schools have very cleverly turned the idea of mother-tongue teachers into a marketing strategy. And it works very well, even too well. They have made people believe that in order to learn a foreign language, a student needs a teacher with a perfect accent. The only problem is the perfect accent doesn't exist. Correct pronunciation is important but your accent is part of you. Be proud of it!
So what qualifications does an English teacher need? For many schools, nothing other than being a native speaker. Many schools in Italy hire teachers without a degree and simply a teaching certificate they got from a 40-hour course on the Internet. These schools then make students pay full price for an unqualified teacher while paying the teacher less because they're unqualified. Sometimes these teachers don't even have a contract and if they do, it isn't usually permanent.
The Real Requirements
So what's the alternative? Firstly, students need to ask more than one question about their teacher. They need to ask about their qualifications (degree, training, experience) and their certificates but they also need to ask why the teacher became a teacher. One thing that all my teachers had in common - native speaker or not - was passion. Teachers have to instill their passion for learning and their subject in their students. English teachers who are teaching just because they want to live in Italy and don't know what else to do won't be able to do this.
Furthermore, students need to start taking responsibility for the own linguistic education. Many Italians are used to memorising what they have to learn from the book. This doesn't work with languages. There are thousands of free resources on the Internet. If students just took the time to look for them, they would be able to learn English even faster.
Language schools should stop advertising mother-tongue teachers as if it were the only thing that mattered. They also need to start investing in training and trusting non-native-speaker teachers. In the past I have worked with many teachers, both mother-tongue and not, qualified and unqualified. An advantage that non-native-speaker teachers have is that they have worked hard and studied a lot in order to learn the language. They didn't do it because it was the easy choice. They did it because they loved the language. I would choose working with a teacher who is trained but not mother-tongue over a teacher who is mother-tongue but untrained any day.
So why am I telling you this? Because if we continue to tell people this false myth about mother-tongue teachers being better than others, we are saying that Italian teachers of English will never be as good as Anglophones. Actually, we are punishing them for something that isn't their fault. We are blaming the failures of the Italian education system on a false idea that if all teachers in Italian schools were mother-tongue, all Italians would be magically able to speak English.
What do you think? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!