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:
to create a non-discriminatory professional environment for
all TESOL members regardless of native language and place of
to encourage the formal and informal gatherings of non-native speakers at TESOL and affiliate conferences;
to encourage research and publications on the role of
non-native speaker teachers in ESL and EFL contexts; and
to promote the role of non-native speaker members in TESOL
and affiliate leadership positions. (Kamhi-Stein, 2016, p.
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
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
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:
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:
Kamhi-Stein, L. D. (2016). The non-native English speaker
teachers in TESOL movement. ELT Journal, 70(2),
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