May 2022
TESOL HOME Convention Jobs Book Store TESOL Community

Romaisha Rahman, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA


The term “native speaker fallacy”, coined by Phillipson (1992), is the existence of the false belief in the field of language education that only native speakers of English (NES) can be ideal teachers of the language. Phillipson refutes the idea of native speaker and notes that teachers “are made rather than born, many of them doubtless self-made, whether teachers are natives or non-natives” (pg. 194); meaning, language learning and teaching ability does not solely depend upon nativism. In fact, nonnative English-speaking (NNES) teachers may have a better understanding about second language teaching due to their own language learning experiences (Crusan et al., 2016). Even after rigorous discussions on the subject, native speaker fallacy still seems to prevail in the field of education.

Sadly, the projection of native speaker fallacy is not limited from NES students toward their NNES teachers or tutors; it is pervasive among students who speak English as their second, foreign, or additional language (Canagarajah,1999). Here, I present qualitative findings on international NNES students’ perceptions of international NNES writing tutors in U.S. institutions. I collected this data in 2017 as part of a larger IRB approved mixed-method study to examine whether international NNES students exhibit native speaker fallacy in writing center context.

Research Question:

Do international NNES students resist in working with international NNES peer tutors because they believe that the tutors’ nonnative English speaker status make them incompetent writing tutors?


Data Collection:

I collected a large portion of the qualitative data from the comment section of the survey that I sent out to self-identified international NNES students in five different Midwestern U.S. universities as part of the bigger research project. Among the 70 international NNES students (39 females, 31 males; 39 graduate, 31 undergraduate) who participated in the study, 17 filled out the qualitative portion of the survey and 3 of the 70, agreed for a one-on-one interview. The NNES students who participated in the study were predominantly from different Asian, African, and European countries. Among the three male interviewees, one was from China who spoke Chinese as their first language, one from Southern India who spoke Kannada as their first language, and one was from Northern India who spoke Hindi as their first language.

Data Analysis:

To analyze the qualitative data, I used the grounded theory methodology. Grounded theory is an inductive methodology in which a theory is constructed based on the systematic collection and analysis of data (Walsh et al., 2015). I looked for common themes in the data that showed either conscious or subconscious presence of native speaker fallacy at the participants’ ends. In this paper, I have analyzed, focused on, and presented the portions of the interview that: 1. showed a pattern on how NNES students perceive NNES tutors; 2: aided the study come to a conclusion. The analysis of the data has been done with the lens of language ideology that helped to decipher how monolingual ideology can give rise to native speaker fallacy.

Results and Discussion


While some of the comments gathered from the survey showed blatant presence of native speaker fallacy, some were obscure and needed more careful analysis to point out the native speaker fallacy exhibited. For instance, comments like “I am more willing to work with native English speakers . . . I think a Native English speaker can be more trusted . . .” and “ . . . being an international student I would be more comfortable to work with a native speaker” left by the survey respondents plainly read that they would choose a domestic peer tutor over an international one because of the international tutors’ NNES status. Also, phrases like “more trusted” and “more comfortable” used for NES goes to show how these students deem international NNES tutors as untrustworthy and incompetent writing tutors just because of their NNES status.

One the other hand, comments like “. . . a native English speaker who is a writing tutor and a freshman will be less helpful than a non-native graduate student” and “It depends on when did the non-native tutor first learned English, the earlier, the better” at first glance look like a positive comment, but when examined closely displays the clear presence of a native speaker fallacy; the first comment compares a graduate NNES tutor with a NES freshman. The problem with this comment is that the commenter is drawing a parallel between two tutors who are at very different educational levels—the NNES being at the higher end of the level. This comparison leads to the inference that a graduate NES tutor would be a better writing tutor than the graduate NNES tutor.

With the second comment, the student is suggesting that the competence of a NNES “depends” on when they started learning the language. While this comment is somewhat true and seems harmless, competence in a language does not necessarily fully depend on the time length; it also depends on factors like available resources, personal and professional motivation, exposure to the language, and the frequency of the usage of the language. One cannot simply decide an NNES’ incompetence based on when they started learning the language. This mindset in itself can give rise to native speaker fallacy.


There was consensus among all interviewees that they would choose a NES over a NNES when individually asked “Who would you prefer to work with during your visit to the writing center?” However, a rather unexpected phenomenon was discovered when the participants were asked the “why” part of the above question. The international students who took the interview showed two discrete kinds of reactions to NNES as well as international peer tutors, making them fall into two separate groups and giving native speaker fallacy two different meanings.

The common understanding of “native speaker fallacy” is that of the false belief that only NES are ideal teachers of the language due to them being native to it (Phillipson, 1992). While the Chinese student in this study seemed to fit into the category of the people who agreed with the already established definition, the other two international students who were from different parts of India exhibited a slightly different yet another fallacious belief. This fallacy is different than the traditional understanding of native speaker fallacy but is linked more to the cognition that the students have of their own linguistic ability. This cohort of students mentioned that they tend to resist working with international tutors due to their own “pride” or “ego”.

When the interviewees were asked to elaborate on what they meant by their “pride” or “ego” taking over, their answer was rather interesting. They reported that they resist working with international tutors not because they think that the NNES tutors are incompetent in English, but because they believe that even though they themselves are NES, they are proficient in the language in comparison to many other NNES. Hence, their “ego” takes over when they are asked to work with a tutor for whom English is not the first language.

This unanticipated reason of why these students choose not to work with NNES gave the study a new insight into native speaker fallacy. This information also gave the study a new understanding of the thought process that some international students maintain when they resist working with international peer tutors. To find out why this group of international students held such a belief, I went back to the survey to look for further evidence that could shed light on the data collected during the interviews. Upon going through the participants’ demographic information that I collected as part of the bigger study and matching them with the comments left by the participants in the qualitative section of the survey, I found that the students who had a strong belief that they were highly proficient in English language belonged to the countries that fell into the Outer Circle of Kachru’s (1991) Model of World Englishes.

This Circle is occupied by the countries that were once British colonies (Kachru, 1991). The role that English plays in these countries is remarkable. English is considered to be the language of prestige and students are officially introduced to the English language as soon as they enter school. Students are exposed to English from a very early age and are expected to become sequential bilinguals, with their native language being their first language and English mandatorily being one of their second languages. The people of these countries believe English to be the only effective lingua franca, and thus use English as a tool to establish authority in both national and international platforms.

The international students from these countries have known English all their lives and identify themselves as good English language users. They take an unspoken pride in being proficient in the language. Hence, their “ego” may be hurt in seeking English-language related help from other NNES. They subconsciously want to avoid appearing “weak” in front of other NNES. Thus, they prefer domestic tutors over international tutors, widening the scope of native speaker fallacy.


The findings of this study make room for expanding our understanding of native speaker fallacy. It is essential that we acknowledge this new finding because it can help us understand the divergent thought processes of the different international student groups in regard to language, language learning, and language teaching and tutoring. This understanding is important for two major reasons: first, it allows institutions to accordingly plan specific interventions needed to address and mitigate native speaker fallacy; second, it assists educators in applying specialized teaching strategies and taking targeted instructional approaches that can enhance the learning process of each of the groups.


Canagarajah, A. S. (1999). Interrogating the “native speaker fallacy”: non-linguistic roots, non-pedagogical results. In G. Braine (Ed.), Non-native educators in English language teaching (pp. 77-92). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Crusan, D., Plakans, L., & Gebril, A. (2016). Writing assessment literacy: Surveying second language teachers’ knowledge, beliefs, and practices. Assessing Writing, (28) 43-56. doi: 10.1016/j.asw.2016.03.001

Kachru, B. B. (1991). World Englishes and applied linguistics. In M. L. Tickoo (Ed), Languages & Standards: Issues, Attitudes, Case Studies. Anthology Series 26. Retrieved from

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic imperialism. Oxford [England] ; New York : Oxford University Press.

Walsh, I., Holton, J. A., Bailyn, L., Fernandez, W., Levina, N., & Glaser, B. (2015). “What grounded theory is… a critically reflective conversation among scholars,” Organizational Research Methods 18(4), Sept. 2015, pp. 620-628.

Romaisha Rahman is a doctoral candidate in Language, Literacy, and Sociocultural Studies in the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of New Mexico. She is a multilingual international student, educator, and journal editor in the U.S. who was formerly a writer, teacher, and journalist in Bangladesh.
« Previous Newsletter Home Print Article Next »
Post a CommentView Comments
 Rate This Article
Share LinkedIn Twitter Facebook
In This Issue
Search Back Issues
Forward to a Friend
Print Issue
RSS Feed