(Disclaimer: In this article I am not arguing that non-native Chinese teachers are better than natives. As you will see I believe that they both can be effective and successful. But I also believe that non-native teachers still face discrimination, have to struggle with misconceptions, and have their professionalism questioned more often than non-native teachers of European languages. I hope I can help change that.)
"Oh, you are a Chinese teacher? But you are not Chinese!" If I had a dollar every time I heard that, I would probably have enough money to go back to China for a visit. The misconception that only native Chinese speakers can teach -or even speak!- the language is still present, although it has been challenged by an increasing number of professionally trained non-native teachers who prove to be equally as effective and successful as educators compared to their native colleagues.
As a non-native Chinese teacher myself I have always been passionate about this issue. So much so that I devoted my MA thesis to this topic, conducting research among teachers in the U.S. Part of my research goals were to point out the ways non-native teachers can be beneficial for students. I found six important factors:
- Language awareness
As speakers of a second language, non-native teachers are usually highly sensitive about the complexity of a sentence or the difficulty level of a certain word or phrase, so when teaching they control their own usage of the language, making sure that the students can understand everything they say. They are also aware of the speed of their speech and able to slow down as much as the students need.
- Native language advantage
If the teacher shares the student's native language then it can be used as an effective tool in the classroom. Although I believe in the importance of using the target language as much as possible, sometimes using a word or two in the student's native language can save a lot of precious class time and also prevent confusion.
Maybe it's because they're making up for their less-than-native language level, or maybe it's because of the differing cultural backgrounds (including views on language teaching), but non-native Chinese teachers tend to be more willing to try new teaching methods and actively seek opportunities for professional growth. For example, most of the teachers using TPRS to teach Chinese are non-natives.
- Role model
Non-native teachers may not have the exact same fluency or pronunciation as natives, but they have something else to offer students that is absolutely important: a role model, an example. As (very) successful second language learners, they can show students an attainable goal and give them motivation: "If (s)he can do it, I can do it too."
- Personal learning experience
Since the teacher themselves went through the whole learning process, they can more easily anticipate, understand and solve students' problems.
- Communication advantage
If the teacher and the students are from the same language/cultural background, it's easier for them to communicate and understand each other.
Of course I'm not claiming that non-native teachers are better than natives; I argue that both groups have their own advantages, and they are both necessary. According to my research, at the end of the day, the native language of a teacher does not really matter. What really matters is if the teacher is knowledgable, professional, experienced and has the right personality -- if those are present, the teacher is going to be effective and successful, regardless of his/her native language.