Always look on the bright side
Being a nonnative

Péter Medgyes


More than twenty years ago, I had a paper published in the ELT Journal (Medgyes, 1992), followed by a full-length book (Medgyes, 1994). As I was working on the two pieces, I had the gut feeling that I was going to open a can of worms. However, not in my wildest dream did I imagine that there were going to be so many worms in that can.

In those two studies I investigated the differences between native- and nonnative speaking teachers of English, for whom I used the acronyms NESTs and non-NESTs.

‘Differences? But aren’t we all equal?’ – I hear you ask. Of course there’re far more similarities than differences between the two groups. Some of those similarities are fairly visible too. Both NESTs and non-NESTs have two ears, two eyes and two noses. Sorry, one nose… We were born thirty, fifty, a hundred years ago, many of us are married with children and, sadly, all of us will die some day. In addition, we share the same ideas, problems and dreams. We often have similar teaching qualifications, length of experience and technical repertoire, too.

‘Why highlight the differences then?’ – you may ask. Because there are differences. And quite a few of them, too. For good or ill, we fall into two distinct groups: NESTs and non-NESTs.

The aims of my lecture then are to:

However, my primary goal for the next hour is to give your self-confidence a boost. I want you, dear non-NESTs, to take pride in being what you are: nonnative speaking teachers of English.

In order to clarify what I mean, I advance two sets of hypotheses. Let’s take a look at Set 1 first.

Set 1

The first assumption underlines that NESTs and non-NESTs differ in terms of their language proficiency, with the implication that NESTs are more proficient users of English than non-NESTs. This is pretty obvious since they are native speakers of English, which we are not.

Their superior command applies to all four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Let me justify this statement with reference to my own English-language competence. To save time, I’ll identify only two of my weak spots, namely listening skills and speaking skills.

Listening. I don’t understand the jokes of English-speaking stand-up comedians, for example. I’ve tried several times – in vain. Why? Because comedians say the punchline fast and under their breath. By the time I figure out the joke, the comedian is ten sentences ahead of me. I wish he’d slow down and repeat the punchline. Like this:

‘Have you heard the latest Hungarian joke?’

‘Careful, I come from Hungary.’

‘That’s all right. I shall tell it slowly then.’

Recently, I watched the American series running under the title ‘House of Cards’. Standard American English – yet I couldn’t understand a word of it. So after the first part I decided to watch it with English subtitles, because I wanted to enjoy the film.

Speaking. With due modesty, I claim to be a fairly fluent speaker of English. Even though I speak English with a Hunglish accent, I’m more fluent than most nonnatives. However, not half as fluent as any native speaker of English.

When my son was born, my friends often said: ‘You’re an English teacher, your wife likewise. How lucky your son is! He’ll learn English from the cradle!’ Nonsense! We kept talking to him in Hungarian. Why? Mainly because we don’t know babyspeak in English: ‘Nyuszi-muki! Kicsi boldogságom, angyalbögyörőm!’ Both my parents were Hungarian and I was 27 years old when I first visited an English-speaking country.

For me, speaking English is like wearing an uncomfortable costume. Too tight, a 100 percent polyester. It’s all sham and artificial. If scratched beneath the surface, my utterances are hollow, unsuitable for carrying personal messages. Well-practised holophrases tied together on a string. It’s not only that I’m less fluent than native speakers, but I’m less accurate, less appropriate and less colourful, too. Worse still, I’m unable to express my emotions. I can’t give vent to my anger in English, for example.

Let me illustrate what I mean with an anecdote. A few years ago I went to a shop in London to buy a shirt. The shop-assistant asked: ‘What size?’ ‘I don’t know exactly,’ I stammered. ‘Men of your age should know what size they are,’ he said, and turned his back on me. Gobsmacked, my subtle English-language competence evaporated without a trace. In Hungarian I would’ve known what to say: ‘A kurva anyád, te rohadt köcsög!’ Or something similar. (I hope none of you can understand Hungarian – you can guess the meaning though.)

Let’s face it, in English I’m a boring person. (Maybe in Hungarian too, but that’s another matter.) But this applies to you too, dear friends. Nonnative speakers are dumb and we non-NESTs are the worst off! No offence meant.

In order to prove that this is more than the whimper of a pathetic non-NEST, I collected questionnaire and interview data from several hundred teachers (325, to be precise), a mixed bag of NESTs and non-NESTs. And, lo and behold, the overwhelming majority shared my queries and qualms! This being the case, non-NESTs had better accept with resignation that our English language competence is not on a par with any of our native peers.

Therefore, if native speakers tell you that your E is as good as theirs, don’t believe a word of what they’re saying. They’re either lying, or acting politically correctly, or comparing you to an uneducated native speaker. Such as an English football hooligan.

What I’ve said so far is not very uplifting, is it? Instead of succumbing to despair, however, remember that every cloud has a silver lining.

Time to examine the second assumption I put forward: NESTs and non-NESTs differ in terms of their teaching behaviour. On the basis of the collated data, I specified these differences in a tabular form. Here it is. You can’t see it? Not to worry! Take this pair of binoculars. These data prove that, indeed, NESTs and non-NESTs teach differently.

However, the first two hypotheses led me to a third one: The discrepancy in language proficiency accounts for most of the differences found in their teaching behaviour. After all, if NESTs and non-NESTs use the language differently, they teach it differently too. I considered this cause-and-effect relationship so evident that I didn’t even bother to seek empirical evidence to confirm it.

Fourthly, I claimed that NESTs and non-NESTs can be equally good teachers – but each on their own terms.

Before I let you know about my respondents’ answer, let me take a straw poll. Here’s a tricky quiz. Suppose you were the principal of a commercial language school here in Spain. If there were a vacancy for a teaching post, who would you prefer to employ?

  1. Only a NEST.
  2. Preferably a NEST.
  3. Makes no difference.
  4. Can’t tell.

Well, the respondents in my survey were rather divided on this issue. While nearly half of them agreed, the other half expressed their preference for either NESTs or non-NESTs. In roughly equal proportions.

At this point I couldn’t not help asking myself: How come that non-NESTs can be as good as NESTs despite their linguistic handicap? What gives us, non-NESTs, a competitive edge? Surely, this is only possible if we have certain attributes that NESTs are lacking. OK, but what exactly are these attributes?

Set 2

In order to be able to answer these questions (and cheer you up), I put forward a second set of hypotheses, which displays the bright side of being a non-NEST. This time, however, I dispensed with empirical research. Instead, I relied upon my personal experience and intuition, and picked the brains of a few fellow teachers. Now let me briefly elaborate on each of my assumptions.

My first claim is that non-NESTs can provide a better learner model than NESTs. We didn’t acquire the English language – like our NEST colleagues.

We learnt it at school – just like our students. Shedding tears of pain in the process. In a sense, NESTs are inimitable models – we are imitable (if there’s such an adjective, which there isn’t.) For non-NESTs, native speaker proficiency is a mirage. What we can set as a realistic goal is a high level of nonnative speaker proficiency.

At this point you may ask: ‘But is there a correlation between linguistic performance and teaching performance?’ My tentative answer is yes, but I’m also aware that success is a complex issue. There’s more to it than mere language proficiency. Teaching qualifications, experience, personal traits, motivation, love of children, and so on. What I’m suggesting is that a good command of English is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for successful teaching. If language proficiency were the only attribute that mattered, NESTs would be better teachers by definition – which they are not!

Now here is my second assumption: Non-NESTs can teach language learning strategies more effectively than NESTs.

We non-NESTs were language learners. And still are. Successful language learners, into the bargain. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have become language teachers, would we? We’re conscious of which learning strategies have worked for us and which ones haven’t. We know every nook and cranny of the road that leads to proficiency in English. NESTs have never gone down that road. Certainly not with respect to learning English. Given this, I claim that we are better at making our students’ learning process effective, fast and easy. Relatively easy, that is.

My third argument is that non-NESTs can supply more information about the English language than NESTs.

As I’ve pointed out, we know less English than our native peers. On the other hand, we know more about English than they do. A lot more. We’ve amassed huge amounts of information about the English language during our own learning process. For instance, we’re aware how difficult it is for a foreigner to use the word enough:

My car is big enough.

Enough always comes after an adjective.

There are more than enough cars on the roads of Budapest.

Enough always comes before a noun.

My Volkswagen isn’t a big enough car for our family.

If there’s an adjective-noun combination, enough comes after the adjective but before the noun.

There are more than enough big cars on the roads of Budapest.

Oops! Enough preceding an adjective-noun compound? What now?
This should be explanation enough why the mayor of Budapest considers introducing a toll in the city centre.
Enough after a noun?! I’ve had enough! I give up…

Or here’s a typical Hunglish mistake:

Grenville: Did you know that Brad Pitt was 50 last year?

Peter: Wow! She looks much younger.

Grenville: She?! But Brad Pitt is a man!

In explanation, in Hungarian there’s only one personal pronoun to cover all three genders. Therefore, we constantly confuse he, she and it.

Grenville isn’t aware of this – I am. (Don’t get me wrong, please. Hungarians may be genderless but not sexless…)

This brings me on to my fourth point: Non-NESTs can anticipate and prevent difficulties more effectively than NESTs.

NESTs can better tell what is right or wrong in English – non-NESTs can better perceive what is easy or difficult. We’re equipped with special antennae, a kind of sixth sense. We can predict what’s likely to go wrong even before our students open their mouths. NESTs can’t. This is an asset, but a risk too. ‘Wrong! Wrong again! And again!’ Non-NESTs tend to overcorrect and penalise mistakes. Please don’t!

Fifthly, I argue that non-NESTs show more empathy to the needs and problems of students than NESTs.

This is not to say that non-NESTs were born to be more empathetic than NESTs. In the language classroom, however, we can automatically slip into our students’ shoes. Why? Because we come from the same linguistic, social, cultural and educational background as our students. We have a pretty clear picture of what they feel, talk, think and dream about. We can often understand each other with the wink of an eye. NESTs can’t, simply because they come from a different culture.

And finally, I assume that non-NESTs can benefit from the students’ native language.

For a long time, the monolingual principle was never challenged. The native language was all but expelled from the language classroom. However, it has made a comeback in recent years. This being the case, we have an enormous advantage over NESTs, provided that the group we are teaching is monolingual.

Let me now summarise the overall message of the six assumptions I’ve put forward. What it all boils down to is that our linguistic deficit is a blessing in disguise. It’s precisely this deficit that helps us develop capacities that NESTs can not even hope to possess. A strange paradox, isn’t it?

In the final analysis, NESTs and non-NESTs may turn out to be equally good teachers, because their respective strengths and weaknesses balance each other out. Since each group can offer competences of which the other group is in short supply, the ideal school is one in which there is a good mix of NESTs and non-NESTs, who work in close collaboration with one another. I’ll come back to this point at the end of my talk.


At the beginning of my lecture I referred to the can of worms. And indeed, after my first publications on the NEST/non-NEST issue, I was fiercely attacked from various quarters.

Linguists rejected the division of natives and nonnatives. ‘Can anyone define who is a native or a nonnative’, they asked. And their answer was a resounding no. A vehement opponent of the native/nonnative speaker separation, Paikeday (1985) went so far as to lend his book the title, ‘The native speaker is dead!’

Although I readily admit that the native/nonnative dichotomy does not stand up to close scrutiny, the majority of us still fall into either this or that category. Who would query, for instance, that I am a nonnative speaker of English whereas Grenville is a native speaker? Mind you, there’re lots of other things in the universe which defy clearcut definitions. The philosopher Popper (1968) said, for example, that if physicists in the 19th century had been bogged down in the definitional problems of the phenomenon light, the electric bulb might never have been invented. As if to close the polemic, the famous linguist Halliday (quoted in Paikeday, 1985) quipped that the native speaker is a useful term, precisely because it cannot be closely defined.

Up rose the stalwarts of the P. C. movement, too. They objected to the prefix non in the term nonnative, stressing that it had a pejorative ring to it. ‘No human being is inferior to another. We’re all equal,’ they queried. But who said we aren’t equal? Different doesn’t imply better or worse – different simply means different, with no value judgment attached to it. All different – all equal.

Another band of critics consisted of teacher educators and their ilk. They complained that, while I scourged non-NESTs for their linguistic shortcomings, I gave short shrift to other attributes, such as teaching qualifications, length of experience, individual traits, level of motivation, love of students and many more. Let me make it clear: I set high store by these other attributes. I paid them little tribute merely for research purposes: the validity of a statement can be proven only if all variables are kept constant except for one variable. Which in this case was language proficiency. All I claimed was that all other things being equal, the better a non-NEST speaks English, the better teacher he or she is likely to be.

However, my vociferous opponents were non-NEST advocacy groups. They fumed that the separation of the two groups fuelled discriminatory practices against non-NESTs. And they were right, too! It’s a sorry fact that teaching applications from even highly qualified and experienced non-NESTs often get turned down in favour of NESTs with no comparable credentials. However, I doubt that this is an overriding concern in most parts of the world. The percentage of non-NESTs in search of a teaching job in English-speaking countries is relatively low, isn’t it? Non-NESTs typically work in EFL environments at home and not in ESL contexts abroad. Anyway, forcibly removing the label ’non-NEST’ is no more than window-dressing.

Like it or nor, NESTs and non-NESTs are different species of animals.

On the credit side

For all the backlash, I trust that my efforts paid off, because they launched an avalanche of research on this conundrum. Replicating my studies, many researchers confirmed or fine-tuned the conclusions I’d arrived at. Others, following different research agendas, provided new perspectives and generated novel ideas. In addition to scores of research papers published in professional journals, at least seven full-length books on this topic were published in the past 20 years. Be that as it may, the study of the NEST/non-NEST issue has come into its own.

Furthermore, non-NESTs, who had seldom made their voices heard in the past, were prompted to contribute to this line of research – and they did ever so eagerly. This was a niche which offered us plenty of opportunity for gaining recognition in the academic world. Braine is right in noting that this development is ‘an indication of the empowerment of [nonnative] researchers who are no longer hesitant to acknowledge themselves as [nonnative speakers], and venture into uncharted territory’ (Braine, 2010, p. 29).

Finally, and most importantly, I like to think that my studies, but especially this follow-up lecture I delivered in many parts of the world, succeeded in boosting non-NESTs’ self-confidence. The message that it’s not a shame to be a non-NEST seems to have gone down well. Non-NESTs would often come up to me after my lecture, saying that from now on they would take pride in who they were. And I received loads of emails, too, adorned with smileys.

Speaking of shame, here’s another straw poll I’d like to take. You’re still the principal of that commercial language school and you’ve finally decided to employ a non-NEST. She’s a near-native speaker of English. Before she went to teach her first class, what would you tell her to do?

  1. Pretend to be a native speaker of English.
  2. Reveal your non-native identity.
  3. Do as you please.

When NESTs reigned supreme

Let’s now take a look at what the ELT operation was like before the non-NESTs’ self-awakening process began. From time immemorial, native speakers were regarded as models of the proper use of English that every learner was expected to imitate. Needless to say, nonnative teachers were the worst off; after all for us an excellent command of English was – and still is – a good predictor of professional success. Since there’s no way we can emulate NESTs in terms of language proficiency, many of us have developed a more or less serious form of inferiority complex. This nasty feeling is well expressed in the title of a paper, ‘Children of a lesser English’ (Mahboob et al., 2004), which is a paraphrase of the American movie, ‘Children of a lesser God’.

In his hotly debated book, Phillipson (1992) introduced the Centre/Periphery dichotomy. To the Centre belong powerful English-speaking countries in the West, while the Periphery mostly consists of underdeveloped countries, where English is a second or foreign language. Another construct, similar to Phillipson’s, is the BANA/TESEP distinction created by Holliday (1994). While BANA typically comprises private sector adult institutions in Britain, Australasia and North America, TESEP includes state education at tertiary, secondary and primary levels anywhere else in the world.

Both authors pointed out that since ELT was an extremely profitable business, organisations and individuals in the Centre/BANA had high stakes in maintaining its operation. NESTs and their accomplices considered themselves not only the sole repository of the English language but also the gatekeepers of ‘proper’ ELT methodology, even though their ideas had no roots in, and were often inimical to, the educational traditions of the Periphery/TESEP. We were inundated with flashy course materials, ‘wandering troubadours’ (to use Alan Maley’s term), jet-in/jet-out teacher trainers and backpack teachers. They all arrived from the ‘hub’, to act the smart alec. Regretfully, for a long time we accepted NEST superiority unconditionally, giving preference to import products over home-grown goods.

Paradise lost

How about today? Has anything changed since the first publications on the NEST/non-NEST issue were published in the early 1990s? My answer is a definite yes.

To begin with, today nonnative speakers of English far outnumber native speakers: according to rough estimates, only one out of four speakers of English is a native speaker. This being the case, the question of ownership inevitably arises: Can a minority group, that is native speakers of English, retain their hegemony and continue to arbitrate what is right and what is wrong in language usage?

Widdowson’s answer is unequivocal: Native speakers should no longer be considered the true custodians of the English language, which they can ‘lease out to others, while still retaining the freehold. Other people actually own it’ (1994, p. 385). By the way, as early as 1977, Povey reported on an illuminating example of disobedience: ‘An African student, after he was criticised by the native-speaking teacher for using a non-standard form, burst out like this: “It’s our language now and we can do what we like with it!”’ (1977, p. 28).

According to this line of reasoning, any nonnative speaker who engages in genuine communication in English with a native or nonnative partner is entitled to use it creatively. We have every right to mould the English language until it becomes an adequate tool of self-expression. Hundreds of studies support Widdowson’s doctrine against what Phillipson (1992) called the ‘native speaker fallacy’ – none states the opposite.

Graddol is even harsher in his judgment when he says: ‘[N]ative speakers may increasingly be identified as part of the problem rather than the source of a solution. They may be seen as bringing with them cultural baggage in which learners wanting to use English primarily as an international language are not interested’ (2006, p. 114). To cut a long story short, it seems that native speakers are rapidly losing the pride of place they once occupied.

English as a lingua franca

There are two areas which have generated a great deal of interest in recent years. One of them is English as a lingua franca (ELF) (Jenkins, 2000; Seidlhofer, 2011; Sowden, 2012). Scores of studies have attempted at disentangling the complexities of ELF, both as a social phenomenon and a language variant. However, while acknowledging the socio-educational value of such efforts, I have certain reservations about their legitimacy. Until I’ve seen ‘The Grammar of ELF’, I can’t give it full credit and, therefore, I’d ill-advise learners of English and their teachers to throw away the ‘good old grammar book’. There’s no better way, for the time being, than turn to the native speaker norm ‘as a benchmark against which to monitor output’ (Kirkpatrick, 2007, p. 191).

Young learners

The other area gaining momentum has to do with the recognition that learners of English are getting younger. In more and more countries, English is introduced as early as the lower primary school and even the kindergarten. It looks as if English is catching up with the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) as a basic skill, and thus becoming a second, rather than a foreign, language in the school curriculum.

Obviously, the job of teaching the young poses new challenges, which the ELT profession cannot yet meet. This concerns both teacher supply and methodological expertise. Today we need a lot more teachers who are intimately familiar with the local educational environment than ever before. And let me reiterate that NESTs are less capable of coming up to these expectations than their nonnative peers.

Suffice it to say, the traditional EFL model is in decline (Graddol, 2006), and NESTs, the last bulwarks of native speaker supremacy (Braine, 1999), are losing ground at an ever faster speed. Please note that, according to current estimates, out of 12 million non-NESTs 97 percent of the ELT profession consists of non-NESTs. Hurray!


What is to be done then? With a new paradigm looming large, I believe that a fundamental rethink of steps to be taken in language policy and practice is required. Teacher trainers, in particular, bear an increased responsibility for preparing prospective teachers how to adapt to the rapid transformation of education.

It is with these caveats in mind that I propose a nine-point action plan. Whereas some of these points have been touched upon in this talk, others are waiting to be put on the agenda of ELT experts and decision-makers.

  1. An adequate teacher supply to satisfy the exponential growth of demand for English should be ensured.
  2. Work on establishing norms of English as a lingua franca use should be intensified.
  3. More heed should be paid to the special needs of young learners.
  4. The scope for content and language integrated learning in schools should be broadened.
  5. Information and communication technology should be factored into the curriculum of teacher education.
  6. The integration of classroom and out-of-school learning opportunities should be reinforced.
  7. Language improvement courses for non-NESTs should constitute a fundamental component of teacher education curricula.
  8. NEST job applicants prepared to stay for an extended period of time in the foreign country should be prioritised.
  9. Enhanced opportunities for NEST/non-NEST cooperation should be created.

I’m pleased to say that the self-awakening process of non-NESTs is well underway. Native speakers are no longer in a position of unchallenged authority. They’re no longer regarded as custodians of the ‘proper’ use of English and the gatekeepers of ‘proper’ ELT methodology. Today, NESTs and non-NESTs own this language in equal measure. Both can use it creatively and teach English at their discretion.

Puppet: Beautiful words, Peter. You’ve nearly made me cry. However, you haven’t answered the crucial question: Who’s worth more, the NEST or the non-NEST?

Peter: Come on, this is an absurd question!

Puppet: OK, let me put it this way. Who is the ideal NEST and who is the ideal non-NEST?

Peter: Well, the ideal teacher is one who is well-qualified and experienced.

Puppet: Don’t waffle, Peter. These are the similarities. What are the distinguishing features?

Peter: OK then. The ideal NEST is a professional who speaks the local language and is familiar with the local culture. In this regard, Sylvia Richardson quoted LoBianco in her plenary at the most recent IATEFL conference: ‘Beware! There are two disadvantages in global arrangements: (1) not knowing English, and (2) knowing only English.

Puppet: And who’s the ideal non-NEST?

Peter: The ideal non-NEST is one whose command of English is at near-native level. Let’s not delude ourselves: a high level of language proficiency remains a make-or-break requirement.

Puppet: You said that the good NEST should be familiar with the local culture. How about the good non-NEST?

Peter: She should be well-versed in the culture, or rather cultures (in the plural), of English-speaking countries.

Puppet: Britain, USA, Australia…

Peter: And the whole world. Don’t forget that English has become the universal lingua franca. The ideal teacher is multilingual and multicultural. In this sense, too, the ideal NEST and non-NEST stand quite close to each other, even though they arrive from different directions.

Puppet: Do we need both species then?

Peter: By all means! NESTs and non-NESTs serve equally useful purposes, but each in their own ways. Let’s not blur those differences.

Puppet: Time for the punchline.

Peter: OK. In an ideal school, there should be a good mix of NESTs and non-NESTs, who complement each other in their strengths and weaknesses. Each group should contribute with competences of which the other group is in short supply.

Puppet: Sitting in opposite trenches?

Peter: Oh no! NESTs and non-NESTs must collaborate. As closely as possible. At the end of the day, we are all friends.


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