February 2017
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Keith M. Graham, New Taipei City, Taiwan

For the last two decades, there has been a discussion of the status of native-English-speaking teachers (NESTs) versus nonnative-English-speaking teachers (NNESTs) within the English teaching community, both within English-speaking countries such as the United States and internationally. The original purpose of this discussion was to highlight the inequity that NNESTs face with hopes of giving them equal recognition for the talents they bring to the field as well as equal access to teaching positions. However, researchers have recently questioned the dichotomy, challenging the usage of terms such as NEST and NNEST as too narrow and not representative of the diverse group of practitioners in the field. In this paper, I argue that the NNEST movement can still benefit from the usage of the terms and that the further expansion of identity profiles, while useful research, may not help advance the movement.

The Beginning of the NNEST Movement

Throughout the history of English language teaching, it was long maintained that English was best taught only in English and only by a native English speaker. As a result, a large population of teachers who were nonnative speakers but earned high proficiency in English were seen as second-rate and marginalized, receiving lower benefits if even able to secure a job at all. To fight this discriminatory tradition, the NNEST Caucus was created during the 1996 TESOL convention, thus beginning the NNEST movement for equality in English language teaching. The NNEST Caucus gave teachers who had been long marginalized a voice. With this voice, the caucus established four goals:

  1. to create a non-discriminatory professional environment for all TESOL members regardless of native language and place of birth;

  2. to encourage the formal and informal gatherings of non-native speakers at TESOL and affiliate conferences;

  3. to encourage research and publications on the role of non-native speaker teachers in ESL and EFL contexts; and

  4. to promote the role of non-native speaker members in TESOL and affiliate leadership positions. (Kamhi-Stein, 2016, p. 183)

With the exception of the first goal, the movement has been successful over the last two decades (Kamhi-Stein, 2016), and NNESTs have seen much improvement in their status. However, there is still much more work to be done.

Challenging NEST/NNEST Identification

In the September 2016 TESOL Quarterly, two authors, Aneja and Ellis, call to rethink or eliminate the usage of the terms NEST and NNEST for defining teacher identity. Aneja (2016) uses “narrative portraits” to show how terms such as NEST and NNEST do not always work to explain identity. In one such portrait, Mark, an African American, shares how even as a teacher born in the United States, he has faced challenges being accepted as not only a native English speaker but also as an English teacher due to the dialect used in his community. Aneja’s (2016) example shows that though Mark may fit the textbook definition of NEST, his reality is starkly different. Another example is the portrait of Neha, a woman raised in Mumbai. As a person who learned English growing up in a natural way, she defined herself as a NEST. However, when coming to the United States for graduate school, she realized that her accent made those around her classify her as an NNEST. These two portraits call into question the definition of an NNEST.

In a second argument against usage of the terms, Ellis (2016) attempts to move the conversation away from a native/nonnative identity and toward a focus on language learning experiences. Based on her previous research, Ellis (2016) suggests, “previous language learning experience of both NESTs and NNESTs was a much more useful and powerful contributor to teacher identity and professional beliefs than their native or nonnative status per se” (p. 598). Her current research documents her collection of linguistic biographies from teachers working in seven different countries and shows that despite having NEST status, which is often considered monolingual, many NESTs are plurilingual. From these findings, Ellis (2016) calls for the recognition of all plurilingual TESOL teachers, not just NNESTs, and the values that their linguistic achievements bring to the field.

NNEST as a Term for a Movement Is Still Relevant

Aneja (2016) and Ellis (2016) present convincing arguments of how TESOL practitioners are often not accurately represented by the classifications of NEST and NNEST. Both pieces of research are valuable contributions to the literature on English language teacher identity. However, their calls to throw out the term NNEST seem premature when considering the movement’s current standing.

After nearly two decades of advocating, NNESTs still face discrimination in the English teaching job market. Mahboob and Golden (2013) found evidence of discrimination in hiring practices while surveying 77 advertisements from East Asia and the Middle East. Their findings indicate that 88% of the ads either required being a native speaker or a specific nationality. Ruecker and Ives (2015) found further evidence of discrimination toward NNESTs in their survey of 59 recruiting websites in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. The survey revealed that “the ideal candidate is overwhelmingly depicted as a young, White, enthusiastic native speaker of English from a stable list of inner-circle countries” (p. 733).

The above studies prove that despite the NNEST movement’s efforts, few gains have been made in terms of equal employment. Given that such blatant discrimination still exists, the NNEST movement still needs to remain unified in the fight. Part of this unification may mean using a consistent term—NNEST—to discuss the marginalized group as a whole, despite the term’s inconsistency to classify individuals within the group, as Aneja (2016) points out. However, rather than call for the discontinuance of the NNEST term, it may be better for the movement to call for an expansion of the term. Aneja’s (2016) research identifies two practitioners who consider themselves NESTs but are seen by others as NNESTs and, therefore, less valuable to the field. Further research should focus on the identities of professionals such as those profiled in Aneja’s (2016) work and call for the inclusion of them in the NNEST advocacy movement.

As for Ellis’s (2016) call to retire the NEST/NNEST terms and focus on NESTs and NNESTs being plurilingual, the call seems largely irrelevant in terms of the NNEST movement, and perhaps even counterproductive. The movement has never been about the qualified NEST who already enjoys unquestionable access to language teaching jobs around the world. Rather, the movement is about the disregarding of NNEST qualifications in favor of an unqualified or less qualified NEST. While Ellis (2016) is right in advocating for the recognition of plurilingual multicompetencies, and research in teacher identity should be continued, such research should be kept separate from the NNEST movement as the movement may be better served by first recognizing that country of origin should not be seen as a negative quality in English language teaching.


The NNEST movement has certainly come a long way in the two decades it has been active, yet the movement is not complete. NNESTs still face discrimination regularly within the field and are made to feel unworthy of the teaching positions they are seeking. While teacher identity research is important, it should be kept as a separate field in order to not diminish the efforts of the movement. The term NNEST has been found faulty in characterizing individuals. However, the term still holds value in representing and advocating for the large population of marginalized teachers it represents. Calls for disuse of the term should remain on hold until the movement achieves its goals of equity for all English language teachers.


Aneja, G. A. (2016). (Non)native speakered: Rethinking (non)nativeness and teacher identity in TESOL teacher education. TESOL Quarterly, 50, 527–596. doi: 10.1002/tesq.315

Ellis, E. M. (2016). “I may be a native speaker but I’m not monolingual”: Reimagining all teachers’ linguistic identities in TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 50, 597–630. doi: 10.1002/tesq.314

Kamhi-Stein, L. D. (2016). The non-native English speaker teachers in TESOL movement. ELT Journal, 70(2), 180–189. doi:10.1093/elt/ccv076

Mahboob, A., & Golden, R. (2013). Looking for native speakers of English: Discrimination in English language teaching job advertisements. Voices in Asia Journal, 1(1), 72–81.

Ruecker, T., & Ives, L. (2015). White Native English Speakers Needed: The Rhetorical Construction of Privilege in Online Teacher Recruitment Spaces. TESOL Quarterly, 49(4), 733-756. doi: 10.1002/tesq.195

Keith M. Graham is currently the professional development coordinator for a private bilingual school in New Taipei City, Taiwan. He holds a Master’s of Education in international literacy from Sam Houston State University. His interests include NEST/NNEST issues, educational technology, and EFL teacher training.

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What are your thoughts about the current status and usefulness of NEST and NNEST as labels for teachers' linguistic identities?
It is still a useful term and promotes the efforts of advocacy and professionalism.
It is no longer useful since it has an implied meaning of deficiency, promoting NS fallacy.
Changing labels will not diminish inequitable professional practices and deficit thinking.

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30 May 2017

February 2018 Issue
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