The Native vs Non-Native English teacher debate has been done to death. “The native has a better accent” “but the non-native might understand the learning process better”, blah blah.

We know that. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but still, discrimination against non-native English teachers is rife. It may be unfair from a teacher point of view, but from a marketing point of view, it’s necessary. Discrimination against non-natives is not an issue of competence; it is an issue of marketing and here’s why:

In the TEFL market the product you are selling is your teachers. If you want to be profitable, you have to have a product that people want to buy. You also have to be able to market that product well because, as we all know, the TEFL industry is booming and competition is hotter than ever.

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Imagine that your native teacher is your brand-name toothpaste. Something that everyone trusts. Your non-native teacher is a toothpaste that most people haven’t heard of. Now, the unknown toothpaste might be better than the brand-name (just like the non-native might be better than the native), but the problem is not the product, it’s how the customer perceives the product.

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The brand-name toothpaste dominates the market. So how do you market the unknown (or lesser-known/lesser-respected) toothpaste against the brand-name version? Can you market them to the same type of customer? Can you sell them at the same price? How could you convince someone who likes brand-names to try, even just once, the other toothpaste?

It’s a difficult task. Just as it is difficult to market an unknown brand of toothpaste in a market dominated by Colgate, it is difficult to market a teacher from Nachod, Czech Republic in a market full of teachers from London.

Who would want to try Nachod when you can have London?

Possibly even more importantly: Who would sell Nachod, when you could sell London?

They might be the same quality, but London is infinitely easier to sell.

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One of the key concepts you’ll hear in Marketing 101 classes is that “the customer is always right, even if they are wrong”. And this is especially true in the TEFL industry because it is a customer-based market. This means that if a customer doesn’t like your product, they’ll simply buy a different product instead. The customer has the control.

So if the customer thinks that the native-teacher is best, then they are right (even if they are wrong). And I, as a language school, need to keep that customer happy or they will go elsewhere.

This ‘keep the customer happy by giving them what they want’ approach goes even as far as appearance. You’ll see many adverts for TEFL teachers, especially in the Far-East, which not only ask for a native-speaker, but also for “Western Appearance”.

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Is this racism? Yes. Can it be justified? From a purely marketing stand-point it can (Morally, and legally – absolutely not- but let’s think about the Marketing).

Many industries do discriminate against looks, purely because they need to sell a certain product and that certain product needs to look a certain way. I applied to be an extra on Game of Thrones last year (they were filming near me in Spain) and I was rejected because I wasn’t dark enough (they needed extras who were olive-skinned because these scenes were in Dorne). I was discriminated against for my appearance.

But can you really make a comparison for teachers? The quality of a teacher comes from within, not what they look like. But the customer is always right. Even when that customer is an idiot. 

One of my students did his speaking exam last week and told me in shock that his examiner was Chinese. “How can a Chinese person assess my English?” he complained. Upon investigation I discovered that his examiner was Kevin. And Kevin is Canadian, of Vietnamese decent and has never been to Asia in his life.

This student was not happy with being examined by Kevin. It didn’t matter that Kevin was a qualified, native-speaker with over 20 years’ experience in examining student. He looked Chinese.

Discrimination is a terrible thing, in any industry. But if you look at it purely from a marketing point of view, you can understand why it exists.

It is easier, and more profitable to sell native teachers than non-native teachers. The customer gets what the customer wants, and if that customer believes that the native is better, then that is what schools will try to sell. If the school doesn’t, they’ll lose that customer. And TEFL is a business. Businesses don’t like to lose.

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Obviously, this doesn’t make discrimination okay: just because something is easier, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Non-natives are not discriminated against because they are inferior, but because they are perceived to be inferior. The only way to stop discrimination against non-native teachers is to change the mind-set of the customer.

But how can we do that?