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Advantages and Disadvantages of

Native- and Nonnative-English-speaking

Teachers: Student Perceptions in
Hong Kong
Macquarie University
Sydney, Australia

The Native English Teachers (NETs) Scheme has been in place for
over 20 years in secondary schools in Hong Kong and yet how students
perceive these teachers is under-researched. This article reports a
study which analyses student perceptions of the advantage and disad-
vantages of learning English from NETs and their non-native counter-
parts, local English teachers (LETs). Data were collected through
semi-structured group interviews with 30 secondary students studying
in three different schools in Hong Kong. Content data analysis was
conducted, and main themes that emerged from interview transcripts
were categorised. Results show that the perceived advantages of LETs
include their proficiency in students L1, their knowledge of students
learning difficulties, the ease students experience in understanding
their teaching, and in communication. The perceived advantages of
NETs are their good English proficiency and ability to facilitate stu-
dent learning. The disadvantages of one category of teachers appear
to be the reverse of the advantages of another. Data also show that
some students experience anxiety when encountering NETs and tend
to prefer certain teaching styles. This study has significant implications
for classroom teaching practice and teacher professional development.
doi: 10.1002/tesq.21

A lthough there is a lack of substantial evidence to support the posi-

tion that native-English-speaking teachers (NESTs) are better
teachers, they enjoy a privileged and dominant position in English lan-
guage teaching (ELT; Canagarajah, 1999; Holliday, 2005; Jenkins,
2000; Pennycook, 1994, 1998; Phillipson, 1992). The native speaker
fallacy (Phillipson, 1992)the belief that native speakers are ideal
teachershas resulted in nonnative-English-speaking teachers
(NNESTs) being considered second-class citizens in the field of
TESOL (Ellis, 2002; Rajagopalan, 2005). Incidents of students having
concerns about being taught by a nonnative speaker are also evident

280 TESOL QUARTERLY Vol. 46, No. 2, June 2012

2012 TESOL International Association
(Braine, 1999a; Liu, 1999; Maum, 2003; Thomas, 1999). Some English
as a second language (ESL) students have challenged the credibility of
NNESTs as English teachers (Amin, 2001; I. Lee, 2000), and some
NNESTs have experienced disrespect from students (Amin, 1997).
More important, some NNESTs have been discriminated against in hir-
ing practices (Holliday, 2005; Jenkins, 2000; Kirkpatrick, 2006; Shin,
2008). One common reason provided for not employing NNESTs is
that ESL students prefer to be taught by NESTs (Braine, 1999b; Clark
& Paran, 2007), a preference that is also evident in some English as a
foreign language (EFL) contexts such as Hong Kong, China, Thailand,
and Japan (e.g., Boyle, 1997; Jin, 2005; Takada, 2000; Watson-Todd &
Pojanapunya, 2009). However, empirical studies have shown that some
students in fact appreciated the value of NNESTs and preferred them
for certain classroom tasks in ESL settings (e.g., Benke & Medgyes,
2005; Lasagabaster & Sierra, 2005; Moussu, 2006; Pacek, 2005) as well
as in EFL settings (e.g., Benke & Medgyes, 2005; Lasagabaster &
Sierra, 2005).
This article aims to examine the inconsistent findings of student
preferences for learning English from NESTs or NNESTs in previous
studies by exploring student perceptions of both groups of teachers in
the context of Hong Kong. This study can help acknowledge the
potential of NNESTs that has not been widely recognised by prospec-
tive employers. Examining students viewpoints is important because
their consumer views of what does and does not work for them are
useful for improving teaching effectiveness. Moreover, Hong Kong is
an appropriate research site for conducting studies regarding NESTs
and NNESTs. This is because although the dichotomised vision of
native speakernonnative speaker is not linguistically based (Moussu &
Llurda, 2008), it is socially present (Luk & Lin, 2007). The distinction
between who is native and who is not is often linked with speakers
appearance and accent. If speakers do not look like Caucasians or do
not speak with an established accent, they are often classified in the
nonnative category. In Hong Kong, English teachers are categorised as
NESTs or NNESTs. Under the Native English Teachers (NETs)
Scheme, NESTs are recruited from overseas to teach secondary school
students side by side with local English teachers (LETs) who consider
themselves NNESTs (Boyle, 1997). Because students have opportuni-
ties to observe both categories of teachers on the job in classrooms,
their comments on teachers performance are valuable.
Widdowson (1992) distinguishes between the role of instructor and
the role of informant in ELT and argues that although NESTs can be
reliable informants, NNESTs have advantages over NESTs in the role
of instructor. He further suggests that NESTs and NNESTs each have
their own strengths because of their different linguistic backgrounds:


For although native speakers obviously have the more extensive expe-
rience as English language users, the non-native speakers have had
experience as English language learners (p. 338, emphasis in original).
Widdowson concludes that linguistic knowledge of teachers should not
be more highly regarded than pedagogical expertise.



Whether NNESTs or NESTs are better English teachers has been

widely discussed in the TESOL literature. Phillipson (1992) questions
whether the native speaker is intrinsically better qualified (p. 194)
than the nonnative speaker, and his view has been supported by Kra-
msch (1997) and Canagarajah (1999). Having linguistic competence
in a language does not automatically make one a good teacher.
In contrast, NNESTs experience of learning English as an addi-
tional language enables them to be good learner models (Cook, 2005;
Medgyes, 1992, 1994) and they can teach language learning strategies
more effectively (Medgyes, 1994). Their formal learning of knowledge
about English helps them develop language awareness (Murphy-
ODwyer, 1996) and enables them to provide adequate linguistic infor-
mation about the language to learners (Medgyes, 1994). They can be
more sensitive to students learning problems (Boyle, 1997; E. Lee &
Lew, 2001) and can anticipate their learning difficulties, especially
when sharing the same first language (L1) with learners (Medgyes,
1994; Phillipson, 1996). Moreover, they can be more empathetic to
learners needs (Lipovsky & Mahboob, 2010; Medgyes, 1994) and can
set realistic learning goals. Boyle (1997) adds that cultural affinity with
students also favours nonnative speaker teachers in an EFL context.
Despite having all these strengths, NNESTs are sometimes regarded as
less proficient users of English than NESTs and are seen as unable to
achieve native speaker competence (Medgyes, 1994), although in real-
ity some NNESTs have very high English proficiency levels (expert
users) and their English may be more appropriate linguistically for
learners because of their shared linguistic background.
NESTs gain a special status of being a linguistic model (Cook, 1999;
Luk & Lin, 2007), and their English knowledge, proficiency, or compe-
tence is regarded as a point of reference (Stern, 1983). However, the
validity of the native speaker as a linguistic model for foreign language
learning has been questioned (Andrews, 2007; Cook, 1999; Kirkpa-
trick, 2006). Additionally, NESTs may not have the necessary insights
into lesson preparation and delivery (Shaw, 1979). When teaching
grammar, they may have native intuition of what is grammatically


acceptable and what is not, but may not have the metalanguage for
explaining grammatical rules.



While most previous studies investigated the self-perceptions of

NNESTs (e.g., Llurda & Huguet, 2003; Samimy & Brutt-Griffler, 1999);
empirical research that examines student perceptions of NNESTs has a
younger history in the literature of NNEST studies (Braine, 1999b,
2010). Most existing studies were conducted with tertiary students (e.g.,
Cheung, 2002; Lasagabaster & Sierra, 2005; Mahboob, 2004), but it is
also important to include the voices of secondary students. Benke and
Medgyes (2005) conducted one of the few studies that examined the per-
ceptions of English learners at both secondary and university levels in
Hungary. NNESTs were perceived to adopt a more structured approach
to teaching grammar, to help students with grammatical difficulties, to
prepare students thoroughly for examinations, to promote learning
more effectively, and to supply L1 equivalents. Their disadvantages were
their incorrect pronunciation, excessive use of L1, and outdated lan-
guage use. NESTs were perceived to be good at teaching conversation
classes, providing perfect models, getting learners to speak, and being
friendly. However, some lower level learners found that they were diffi-
cult to understand and provided few grammatical explanations.
At the secondary level, Lipovsky and Mahboob (2010) conducted a
discourse analysis of written responses provided by Japanese students
enrolled in a study abroad program in the United States. The linguis-
tic competences, literacy skills, and teaching methodologies of NESTs
and NNESTs were analysed. Students did not show any preference for
either NESTs or NNESTs but valued a combination of their qualities.
The present study is different from this study in that it adopted a the-
matic rather than a linguistic data analysis.


G. Tang and Johnson (1993) found that students appreciated the
friendly and hard-working attitudes of their NETs1 and enjoyed their
In Hong Kong, NESTs who are employed under the Native English Teachers Scheme
are also known as Native English Teachers (NETs). Because the term NETs is widely
used by local educators and researchers, it is used in this article to refer to NESTs in
Hong Kong.


relaxed and lively classroom atmosphere (see also Poon & Higginbot-
tom, 2000). Students felt that NETs were more useful for their learn-
ing of oral and listening skills. However, some were skeptical of their
emphasis on communicative language activities rather than examina-
tion preparation. Law (1999) found that students appreciated NETs
accurate pronunciation, greater varieties in teaching materials, focus
on teaching pronunciation, relaxed classroom atmosphere, and their
own opportunities to listen to and use English. However, NETs were
criticised for not being examination-oriented in their teaching goal
(G. Tang & Johnson, 1993).
Luk (2001) found that some students had positive feelings towards
being taught by NETs (43.7%), whereas others had negative feelings
(21.7%). Students believed that their English proficiency would be
improved through the increased opportunities to use English with
NETs who speak more standard English (p. 32). However, some
revealed their anxiety over communication difficulties with the NETs,
who lacked sufficient proficiency in the students L1 (see also Luk &
Lin, 2007).
Whereas previous studies focused on investigating student percep-
tions of NETs, it is hoped that this article can add knowledge by exam-
ining how students perceive LETs. The current study aims to
investigate how secondary school students perceived NETs as well as
LETs. In an earlier study, Ma (2009) investigated student perceptions
of LETs and NETs through a questionnaire administered to 196 sec-
ondary students. Both the positive and negative aspects of learning
from these two categories of teachers were acknowledged. Using inter-
views as a research method, the present study is able to collect more
extended responses from participants. The current study addressed
two research questions:
1. What advantages and disadvantages do Hong Kong secondary stu-
dents perceive in being taught by LETs?
2. What advantages and disadvantages do Hong Kong secondary stu-
dents perceive in being taught by NETs?


Participants were 30 students (15 males and 15 females), between

13 and 17 years old, from three government-aided secondary
schools in Hong Kong. Six students were from a Year 9 (Secondary 3


in Hong Kong) class in a Band 2 (middle level) Chinese-medium
school.2 Twelve students were from two Year 8 classes, and the others
were from a Year 11 class. These 24 Years 8 and 11 students were from
Band 1 (top level) English-medium schools. The profiles of intervie-
wees can be found in Appendix A. These students were selected
because their classes were cotaught by a pair consisting of a NET and
a LET in oral lessons during which their classes were separated into
two smaller groups of approximately 20 students. All the interviewees
had opportunities to learn English from both categories of teachers in
the academic year during the time of data collection. The majority
(66.6%) had encountered three or four NETs, and almost all had had
NETs since primary school.

Research Method and Procedures

Semistructured focus group interviews were conducted, and student
participants views were sought with regard to their English learning
experience with NETs and the advantages and disadvantages of learn-
ing English from LETs and NETs. A list of interview questions can be
found in Appendix B. Using semistructured interviews allows the flexi-
bility to explore unanticipated issues arising in the discussion
(Marshall & Rossman, 2006), and group interviews can create a more
natural and relaxed atmosphere for participants. Students from all
four classes were invited to sign up as volunteers. Thirty students were
selected from volunteers to keep a balanced representation of gender
and English proficiency levels. Because students were under 18 years
old, written parental consent was required. Interviews were arranged
through students main English teachers, audio-recorded, and con-
ducted in either English or Cantonese, depending on participant pref-

Data Analysis

All the interviews were fully transcribed, and interviews that were
conducted in Cantonese were translated into English by the
researcher. To ensure accuracy, 30% of the translated transcripts were

Secondary schools in Hong Kong are divided into three bands according to students
academic ability, with Band 1 as the highest level. With the enforcement of the mother
tongue education policy by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government
in 1997, all secondary schools have to teach in Cantonese, except for 114 schools that
obtained special approval to continue to use English as their medium of instruction
(Luk & Lin, 2007).


Perceived Advantages and Disadvantages of LETs

Reported by
Advantages Reported by groupsa Disadvantages groups
Use of students 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9,10 Inaccurate 1, 6, 9, 10
first language pronunciation
and grammar
Understanding of student 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 Teaching styles
difficulties/needs textbook bound 5
traditional teaching 5
Easy understanding 1, 2, 3,10 Less opportunity to 1, 8
of teachers practise English
Easy communication 7, 8
Teaching styles
more exercises 7
interesting games 9
Closer relationship with 5
Groups 1 and 2 were Year 9 students from a Band 2 Chinese-medium school. Groups 36
were Year 8 students from a Band 1 English-medium school. Groups 710 were Year 11 stu-
dents from a Band 1 English-medium school.

checked by an accredited professional translator. The interview tran-

scripts were analysed using NVivo. No a priori categories were used,
and themes emerged from the data. To ensure reliability, a research
assistant was hired to code a sample of 10% of the transcripts indepen-
dently. The coded items were compared and discrepancies were dis-
cussed by the researcher and the assistant. The intercoder agreement
percentage was 72.9%.


Advantages and Disadvantages of LETs

The perceived advantages and disadvantages of having LETs as

teachers are set out in Table 1.

Advantages of LETs. As shown in Table 1, several advantages of

LETs were acknowledged by interviewees.

Use of students L1. The most prominent merit cited by students was
LETs ability to use their L1. It was mentioned by all the groups except
Group 1. Participants suggested two main functions of L1 use. First, it
could enhance students understanding in lessons. The close association


between L1 use and students level of understanding was mentioned in
almost all the interviews. Sample extracts are shown below:3
Extract 1
Student 14 (S14): Its because if you dont understand, local teachers
can explain things to you in Cantonese. If you ask native speaker teach-
ers, they may try to explain but with difficult words, you still cant
understand. (Student Interview 5 [S. Int. 5])
Extract 2
S29: But if you sometimes you dont understand, local teacher may
speak Chinese to make you know what you are doing and what some
words meaning. (S. Int. 10)
These students appeared to depend on their L1 to follow their les-
sons and understand the meaning of difficult vocabulary. Some stu-
dents elaborated further how their understanding was enhanced
through LETs explanations and translation in Chinese:
Extract 3
S4: (. . .) if theres an English word we dont understand, the local tea-
cher can use Chinese to explain it to us. For some difficult words, its
hard to explain the meaning. (S. Int. 2)
Extract 4
S21: They [LETs] can translate the words to Chinese. (S. Int. 7)
Second, L1 use could facilitate communication between students and
teachers (see Extracts 5 and 6). For example, L1 use provided students
with a linguistic and pedagogical tool other than English for communi-
cation when raising questions about learning (see Extracts 5 and 7):
Extract 5
S5: If you learn English from a local teacher, you can ask questions in
Chinese when you dont understand. You can communicate in Chinese
because you know that he or she can speak Chinese. (S. Int. 2)
Extract 6
S28: Yes, because when we cannot explain something in English, we
can speak in Chinese. (S. Int. 10)
Extract 7
S10: Something not understand, you can ask her [a LET] in Chinese,
he or she can explain more to you. (S. Int. 4)
Some parts of the quotations cited in this study have been edited to avoid repetitions or
false starts. The edited part is marked with (. . .). To maintain authenticity, students
grammatical errors have not been corrected in the transcripts.


Understanding of students difficulties or needs. This was the sec-
ond most cited merit of LETs, acknowledged by five interview groups.
For example, S17 found that LETs could understand their learning
needs and focus on teaching the kind of English they need to use
more in Hong Kong (S. Int. 6). He seemed to suggest that students
learning needs were context specific. His view was echoed by S25.
Another student found that LETs were able to understand students
weaknesses and difficulties in learning and provide more exercises for
practising their basic language skills (S20, S. Int. 7). In the following
extract, S28 attributed LETs knowledge of students to their shared
Extract 8
S28: Maybe the local teacher will know more about what we need, what
we need coz we are in the same nationality, they will know more what
a Chinese needs in studying English. (S. Int. 10)

Easy understanding of teachers. Four interview groups suggested

that it was easy to understand what LETs teach in lessons. As mentioned
before, this might be attributed to LETs language ability in students
L1. Students noted that using their L1 to explain grammar rules and dif-
ficult English vocabulary resulted in their increased understanding of
lessons. Extract 9 illustrates a view shared by many students:
Extract 9
S28: For me, teaching by local teachers, we can more easily to know
the English grammar because sometimes, the NET teachers will
use () more difficult word to explain the English grammar. I think it
is () more difficult for a student who are not very good at English.
(S. Int. 10)

Easy communication. Another advantage of learning English from

LETs was easy communication between students and teachers,
although this was reported by only two groups. Some students found
that it was easier for LETs to understand the meaning of what they
expressed (S21, S. Int. 7; S22, S. Int. 8), but there was a communica-
tion gap between them and NETs. Their limited English might not be
understood by NETs, and they might not be able to comprehend
NETs English. As S22 pointed out, NETs use English to express that
but we cant understand (S. Int. 8).

Other advantages. Teaching styles and closer relationship with teach-

ers were two other advantages noted. LETs were found to give more
exercise and practice (S. Int. 7) and use some interesting games in


teaching (S. Int. 9). One student suggested that it was easier to develop
a closer relationship with LETs because we are both Chinese and we
[students] can treat them [LETs] as friends (S. Int. 5).

Disadvantages of LETs. As shown in Table 1, only three disadvan-

tages of LETs were suggested by students.

Inaccuracy in pronunciation and grammar. Inaccuracy in LETs pro-

nunciation and grammar was the main negative aspect of learning
English from LETs:
Extract 10
S30: Maybe some some pronunciation, they [LETs] will say say a
little bit wrong. We can know we can learn the wrong pronuncia-
tion. This may be a little disadvantage. (S. Int.10)
S30 showed concern about the adverse effects of LETs incorrect
pronunciation on students learning. In the following extract, S1
expresses the idea that LETs English was not orthodox because of
their inaccuracy in pronunciation and grammar:
Extract 11
Researcher (R): What do you mean by orthodox English, ortho-
S1: In terms of grammar, they [NETs] are better. When LETs teach
English, their English may not be all correct, that is, their English is
not really that English
R: Did you mean pronunciation or sentence structures?
S1: Both pronunciation and sentence structures. (S. Int. 1)
However, it should be noted that no examples of LETs inaccurate
pronunciation and grammar were provided by participants.

Traditional and textbook-bound teaching styles. Another disadvan-

tage of LETs was their traditional and textbook-bound teaching
styles, which some students considered very old-fashioned and inflex-
ible and resulted in less student participation in class (S14, S. Int.
5). However, S27 had a different view on LETs teaching styles and
found that they try to use some interesting games and their teach-
ing is quite funny and made her pay more attention in the class
(S. Int. 9).

Less opportunity to practise English. The last perceived disadvan-

tage of LETs was the limited opportunity for students to practise


English when learning from these teachers. Because students could
raise questions in Cantonese with LETs but not with NETs, they had
fewer chances to speak and practise English:
Extract 12
S23: Erm I think local teachers sometimes very kind erm for
example if Ms Cheung has a lesson, we may use the Chinese to ask the
teacher, what the word mean, then we may lose some use the English
chance. (S. Int. 8)

Advantages and Disadvantages of NETs.

The advantages of being taught by NETs as perceived by partici-

pants are classified into various categories as shown in Table 2.

Advantages of NETs. As shown in Table 2, three main categories

of advantages of NETs were acknowledged by participants.

Facilitating learning. NETs ability to facilitate learning English was

mentioned as an important advantage:
Extract 13
S19: I think for the NET teacher () the benefit is we can learn
some we can speak English more fluently because they are also
speak English as their mother tongue. (S. Int. 7)

Perceived Advantages and Disadvantages of NETs

Advantages Reported by groups Disadvantages by groups
Facilitating learning
in general 1, 2, 7 Difficulty in understanding 3, 4, 5, 7, 8
pronunciation 9, 10 Difficulty in communication 5, 9, 10
speaking skills 7, 9 Anxiety with NETs 5, 7, 8, 10
listening skills 1, 2, 6 Difficulty in developing 5, 7
culture 5 Teaching styles
Good English 1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 9, 10 not grammar focused 3
Teaching styles not exam oriented 7
relaxed classroom 3, 5, 7, 8, 10
activity approach 3, 5, 6
not textbook bound 3, 6


Extract 14
S2: () I think if you want to learn better English, you must learn
directly from NETs because their English is orthodox. Also, they kind
of force you to use English to answer and youll not use Cantonese
because he or she wont understand. You can learn more quickly .
Yes, you can learn more easily. (S. Int.1)
Extract 15
S5: But if you learn from a native speaker teacher, he or she speaks in
English and I must communicate with him or her in English. More
communication means more learning. (S. Int. 2)
In Extract 13, S19 attributed NETs ability to help students improve
English fluency to English being their L1. It appears that satisfying the
sole criterion of being a native speaker can achieve this pedagogical
competence. For S2 and S5, NETs could enable effective English learn-
ing because of their lack of proficiency in students L1. As a result, an
authentic English-speaking environment was created in and outside
classrooms, and students had no alternatives but were forced to com-
municate in English. Students felt that the more English was used, the
more effective and efficient learning was achieved.
Although these students were less specific in explaining how NETs
could facilitate learning effectively, others suggested that NETs could
improve, in particular, their pronunciation and speaking skills
because NETs are native English speakers and they lived and born
in a foreign country (S. Int. 9). A few other students acknowledged
that NETs could improve their listening skills (S. Int. 1) because stu-
dents have to listen to English all the time, so it forces you to lis-
ten and as a result the listening skills will be improved (S. Int. 2).
Apart from listening skills, the opportunity to listen to and become
familiar with different accents of English was also regarded as a merit
of NETs:
Extract 16
S17: The advantage is that when youre overseas4 youve already got
the opportunities to listen to different accents in the lessons. When
you go overseas, you dont have to learn again and get used to it [the
accent]. (S. Int. 6)

Good English proficiency. Having good proficiency in English,

mainly accurate pronunciation and accurate grammar (see also Extract

S17 did not define the term overseas. However, it probably refers to countries such as
the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia, where many Hong Kong students
go to further their studies at the tertiary level.


11), was acknowledged by seven interview groups as another NET
advantage, as demonstrated in this extract:
Extract 17
S27: Erm I think both of the teachers I like. Because for the NET tea-
cher, I think he knows our difficulty about the oral. He may teach us
or tell us the real pronunciation of the words because some of the
teachers even they dont know how to pronounce this or they dont
know the real meaning but erm the NET teacher can tell us or teach
us to have better English. (S. Int. 9)
In this extract, NETs pronunciation was described as real, and
they were regarded as having the knowledge of real meaning of Eng-
lish. A few other students also described NETs English as more pure
(S. Int. 2) and orthodox. When asked what orthodox English
meant, S1 explained that it referred to both accurate grammar and
pronunciation (see also Extracts 11 and 14).

Teaching styles. The teaching styles of NETs were characterised by

a relaxed classroom atmosphere, the use of an activity approach, and
not being textbook bound. The following extracts show students views
on classroom atmosphere:
Extract 18
S22: NET teachers, the classroom atmosphere is more relaxing. They
sometimes tell some jokes. (S. Int. 8)
Extract 19
S9: The native teachers always because they are from other coun-
tries, the other country more fun so they teach like their teachers.
(S. Int. 3)
Some students found that the relaxed and fun learning environ-
ment was created through storytelling, sharing of life experiences, or
making jokes in lessons (S. Int. 3, 5, 7, 8, and 10) although some
admitted that they had difficulty fully understanding the humour
involved in some jokes. NETs adoption of an activity approach in
teaching through using language games and activities was also appreci-
ated as one of their advantages. Their less textbook-bound teaching
style and their emphasis on learning through playing was contrasted
with LETs rote-learning approach:
Extract 20
S8: Firstly, they came from different countries, they erm sometimes
[they] can talk [to] me about their country or his own interesting
experience. Secondly, erm they erm in the overseas, the style of


teaching is erm more active. They wont use the textbook all the time
but in Hong Kong, most students would like to remember all the
things in the book. But in the other country, they would like to
learn in their own style. They they prefer to play when they were
studying. But [in] Hong Kong just say and you remember and you
learn. The next time you come back you have dictation. (S. Int. 3)
The view of S8 was echoed by many other students who found that
a heavily textbook-bound teaching style was boring and inflexible
(S. Int. 5, 6, and 8). The following extract best summarises the main
characteristics of NETs teaching styles:
Extract 21
S17: Usually native English teachers organise more activities, tell more
English jokes and dont just follow the textbook. (S. Int. 6)

Disadvantages of NETs. As shown in Table 2, five disadvantages of

learning English from NETs were noted by participants. It is noteworthy
that Groups 1, 2 (from a Band 2 Chinese-medium school), and 6 (from
a Band 1 English-medium school) did not list any disadvantages of

Difficulty in understanding. Students difficulty in understanding

the teaching of NETs was mentioned by five groups. The following
extract illustrates this:
Extract 22
S8: I want to share my bad experience when I was [in] P.6. There was
a native teacher I said before. Erm she taught us a passage and we
didnt understand some words and we asked them [her]. Because she
didnt know about Chinese er Cantonese, she used more and more dif-
ficult words to explain easier words, we become er more erm dont
understand. (S. Int. 3)
Although the experience of S8 occurred in primary rather than sec-
ondary school, a similar experience was reported by four other groups.
Some students found that NETs speak too fast (S. Int. 2, 3, 4, 5, and
8) and used more difficult vocabulary, compared with LETs. Surpris-
ingly, contrary to the general views, Group 2 students did not find
much difference in understanding their LET or NET. They reported
that they actually say the same thing and their NET drew pictures,
used actions, and elicited Chinese equivalents from advanced-level stu-
dents to help them better understand his lessons (S. Int. 2). Group 1,
from the same class as Group 2, also found that it was not difficult to
understand their NET, who they thought could adjust to their English


level and used simpler English than their LET. The reason provided
was he is a NET, he knows more vocabulary; therefore he can use sim-
pler English to teach us (S. Int. 1).

Difficulty in communication. Two students found that it was com-

paratively more difficult to communicate with NETs than LETs
because my English is not so good (S26, S. Int. 9) and they [NETs]
may not understand what I say (S29, S. Int. 10). Their views were con-
sistent with the opinions expressed by S21 and S22 that it was compar-
atively easier to communicate with LETs.
Anxiety with NETs. Four students reported that they experi-
enced anxiety when encountering NETs. One of them, a low-level
student, reported that she was frightened to ask her NET any
questions even when she could not understand (S30, S. Int. 10).
Similarly, another student, a high level one, expressed her anxi-
ety at making errors when speaking English with NETs (S20, S.
Int. 7):
Extract 23
S20: I think the students is more concentrate in the local teachers les-
sons because they [students] are confident to speak to speak Eng-
lish because the the teacher, maybe Ms Cheung [S20s LET] will
correct your mistakes but for the NET teachers, we are afraid to speak
English before [in front of] him because we are afraid we may be
totally wrong in our speech. (S. Int. 7)
Two other students expressed similar feelings. One of them felt
scared or shy to communicate with native English teachers (S14, S.
Int. 5), and the other reported that NETs make me feel nervous to
speak English (S24, S. Int. 8), but no explanations for the reasons of
having such feelings were provided.
In contrast, S7 reported that she felt less embarrassed when she
could not understand what her native teachers said because they did
not just like to listen to your grammar, unlike what LETs did (S.
Int. 3). Whereas S20 felt worried about speaking English with NETs,
S22 felt that NETs will not discriminate you just because your English
is poor and they will not laugh at you because your English is poor,
although both S20 and S22 were from the same class. The view of S22
was shared by two other students (S. Int. 8).

Difficulty in developing relationship. Some students expressed diffi-

culties in establishing a close relationship with NETs and suggested


that it might be attributed to the teaching duties assigned to NETs,
who taught only once per week in the oral lessons.
Extract 24
S20: Erm, because we only have one NET in this school, maybe we only
can see him once a week and and I think that teachers and students
need to have a relationship, a close relationship and we can learn
much more successfully. I think that the NET teacher and us cant
build this relationship, maybe we cannot learn so so well as as
compare with a [LET]. (S. Int. 7)
S20 suggested that not being able to establish a close relationship
with teachers might hinder their learning. One student reported her
reluctance to seek assistance from her NET even when failing to
understand because of her unfamiliarity with the teacher. Although
some students reported difficulty in relationship building, Group 1
suggested that they maintained a harmonious relationship with their
Extract 25
S2: He quickly mingles with us. This makes our lessons smoother. He
really explains things clearly and his lessons are interesting. Perhaps he
is a foreign teacher, we all care for him. Sometimes, he asks us things
about Chinese. This increases our harmony. (S. Int. 1)

Teaching styles. The final disadvantage of NETs cited was their

non-examination-oriented teaching styles. This was cited by one Year
11 student because we have to face the exam, which was the School
Certificate Examinations for all secondary school leavers (S. Int. 7).
Another student suggested that NETs dont care the grammar and
resulted in youll get all wrong (S. Int. 3). However, negative com-
ments on NETs teaching styles were not common in the data.


This study investigated secondary student perceptions of the advanta-

ges and disadvantages of learning English from NESTs (NETs) and
NNESTs (LETs) who worked in Hong Kong. The four main advantages
of LETs perceived by students were their ability to use students L1, their
understanding of student learning difficulties, the ease for students in
understanding their teaching, and effective communication between
students and teachers. The use of the L1 as a perceived advantage con-
firms one of the six hypotheses suggested by Medgyes (1994) regarding


the positive aspects of being an NNEST: making use of the learners
mother tongue. This finding was also in agreement with previous empir-
ical studies conducted in EFL contexts (Cheung & Braine, 2007; Lasaga-
baster & Sierra, 2005; Ma, 2009) but not those conducted in ESL
contexts (Mahboob, 2004; Pacek, 2005). This is probably because
NNESTs and their learners in EFL contexts are usually from the same
linguistic background, but this may not be the case in ESL contexts.
In this study, it was reported that LETs made use of the L1 to
explain difficult vocabulary items and grammar rules. Both tacit use
and overt use of the L15 (Ellis, 2002) may be involved because
teachers may draw on their L1 knowledge to identify grammar items
that are difficult for students (tacit use), or they may codeswitch to
Cantonese to provide L1 equivalents or grammar explanations (overt
use). However, it is a surprising finding that L1 use was acknowledged
as an advantage of LETs by students because it has long been the pol-
icy of the Hong Kong Education Bureau that English should be taught
through English only. Codeswitching in classroom instruction is not
preferred, although it is a common and natural form of expression in
multilingual speech communities such as Hong Kong (Li, 2008).
Because 80% of the participants in this study were from EMI (English
as the medium of instruction) schools, their English lessons were sup-
posed to be taught all in English. Yet some Chinese was used in
English lessons even in Band 1 EMI schools. It was reported that on
average the L1 was used for less than 10% of a lesson (S. Int. Group
5, from an EMI school). However, very little L1 was used by the LET
who taught Group 5 in the three lessons observed by the researcher in
this study. It is unclear whether the less frequent use of the L1 in les-
son observation than in students report was due to observers effect
(Labov, 1972).
LETs ability to anticipate learners learning problems or needs sup-
ports two other positive aspects of NNESTs hypothesised by Medgyes
(1994): anticipate and prevent language difficulties better and be
more empathetic to the needs and problems of learners (p. 51). This
result also strongly corroborates the findings in previous empirical
studies (Cheung, 2002; Lasagabaster & Sierra, 2005; Lipovsky &
Mahboob, 2010; Ma, 2009; Mahboob, 2004; Medgyes, 1992; Pacek,
2005). Such ability may be due to LETs tacit use of the L1 as well as

Ellis (2002) distinguishes two types of L1 use: tacit use and overt use (p. 82). Tacit
use of the L1 involves a teacher drawing on his or her knowledge of the L1 without the
actual verbalising or writing of the language. It refers to a teachers ability to predict lan-
guage learner difficulties such as the negative transfer of rules and patterns from the L1
or speech sounds that exist in the target language but not in the L1 system. Overt use of
the L1 involves a direct use: actual speaking, writing, or listening either in or out of


their previous English learning experiences (Cook, 2005; I. Lee,
2000). LETs have experienced similar language learning processes and
education system as their students, whereas most NETs acquired
English as their L1 and were educated outside Hong Kong.
Two other advantages of LETs reported in this study were that stu-
dents found it easier to understand and communicate with them.
These two strengths were closely associated with L1 use and might be
its by-products for two reasons. First, the positive effect of the L1 in
enhancing understanding in lessons delivered by LETs was a recurrent
theme in this study. Second, using the L1 was reported to facilitate
communication between students and LETs because students could
codeswitch to Cantonese if communication in English failed. However,
these two strengths have not been widely reported in the literature,
and there may be two reasons for this. First, L1 use was not itself a
commonly cited advantage of NNESTs in previous studies conducted
in ESL contexts. Second, previous studies were mainly conducted at
the tertiary level, where participants were at a relatively more advanced
English proficiency level than the participants in this study, who were
mainly preintermediate- or intermediate-level secondary students. With
a relatively lower English proficiency level, the latter may find it more
challenging to understand lessons delivered completely in English or
to communicate effectively with their limited English.
An interesting finding was that the strength of NNESTs in teaching
grammar suggested in some previous studies (Cheung & Braine, 2007;
Lipovsky & Mahboob, 2010; Mahboob, 2004; Pacek, 2005) was not
noted in this study. There may be two possible reasons. First, the gram-
mar teaching of LETs and NETs is not comparable because NETs are
usually assigned to teach oral skills rather than grammar. Second,
some participants did not regard teaching grammar as an advantage of
LETs because they may not particularly enjoy learning it, especially
through mechanical drills and exercises. To some, learning grammar
is a necessary evil. For example, one student preferred LETs as his
English teachers because they prepared more grammar exercises,
which he considered important but not enjoyable (S. Int. 7).
The main disadvantages of LETs were their inaccurate pronuncia-
tion and grammar, their traditional and textbook-bound teaching
styles, and the fewer opportunities they created for practising Eng-
lish. Nonstandard and nonnative pronunciation has always been
students main criticism of NNESTs in the literature (Lasagabaster &
Sierra, 2005; Mahboob, 2004; Pacek, 2005). In this study, it was again
pinpointed as a major disadvantage of LETs. Some students showed
concern about the negative impact of teachers pronunciation prob-
lems on their learning, as was found by Lasagabaster and Sierra
(2005). Therefore, more research is needed to identify specific pro-


nunciation problems facing LETs in Hong Kong and the type of
training that can be offered to help them improve pronunciation
accuracy. Similar to LETs in this study, NNESTs have previously been
criticised for their lack of proficiency in English (I. Lee, 2003; Ma,
2009; Medgyes, 1994; Pacek, 2005; Seidlhofer, 1999; C. Tang, 1997).
In this study, the usual criticisms were their lack of fluency and accu-
racy. It is therefore recommended that more emphasis be placed on
assisting NNEST trainees to become highly proficient users of Eng-
lish. This can help them gain students confidence in their linguistic
ability and in teaching.
Another disadvantage of LETs suggested in this study was the rela-
tively limited opportunity for students to practise English because stu-
dents were not forced to communicate in English. Students lack of
motivation in speaking English with LETs and an overreliance on the
L1 were the main culprits. This is an interesting finding that has
mostly been unreported in the literature, except in Lasagabaster and
Sierras (2005) study, which, like the present study, was also contextua-
lised in an EFL context. The opportunity to practise English is particu-
larly important and valuable for students in EFL contexts such as
Hong Kong, where English is not a language for daily communication
in society. Students tend to need ample opportunities to practise in
the classroom, which is probably the main domain of English use.
Because English is not a language for daily communication, it is quite
unnatural for students or even LETs to speak English outside class-
rooms where Cantonese is the norm. A surprising finding was that the
teaching styles of LETs were perceived as both an advantage and a dis-
advantage. It appears that certain characteristics of LETs teaching
styles were preferred by some students but not others. The data from
this study show that students preferred interesting games and activi-
ties over textbook-bound and traditional teaching approaches.
Because it is possible that LETs and NETs have different teaching
styles, future research might focus on examining whether these two
categories of teachers exhibit different characteristics in teaching.
The advantages of learning English from NETs identified by students
in the current study include NETs ability to facilitate student learning,
good English proficiency, and preferred teaching styles. The findings
from this study are consistent with previous studies reporting that NESTs
were perceived as helping learners improve pronunciation skills (Barratt
& Kontra, 2000; Lasagabaster & Sierra, 2005; Mahboob, 2004) and listen-
ing skills (Lasagabaster & Sierra, 2005), although little has been reported
on the general upgrading of learners English standards, except for Luk
and Lins (2007) study, which was also conducted in Hong Kong. NETs
perceived good English language proficiency, especially their accurate
pronunciation, concurs with the results reported in a number of other


studies (A rva & Medgyes, 2000; Cheung, 2002; Lasagabaster & Sierra,
2005; Law, 1999; Ma, 2009). The use of real, more pure, and ortho-
dox in describing NETs English by some students in this study suggests
traces of their beliefs in the native speaker as a linguistic model,6 the
native speaker fallacy (Phillipson, 1992), and native speakerism
(Holliday, 2005). To some students, LETs pronunciation was perceived
as fake, unreal, and untrustworthy. Similar results were found in
Mahboobs (2004) study, in which students used the term truth pronun-
ciation to describe their preferred pronunciation (p. 141), and in Luk
and Lins study (2007), in which students described NETs English as
more standard (p. 32). It is clear that students hope to imitate the
native speaker model, which they perceive as the standard, whereas other
varieties are substandard. However, if the learning goal of these learn-
ers is to use English as a lingua franca, that is, to function internationally
through this means of communication with other multilingual second
or third language speakers of English, then the native models exhibited
by NETs become irrelevant (Andrews, 2007; Graddol, 2006; Kirkpatrick,
2006). This is because effective communication depends not on con-
forming to the native norm but on speakers intelligibility.
One of the perceived disadvantages of NETs was the anxiety students
experienced in encountering NETs. It was evident that some students in
this study felt anxious when encountering NETs, as was found by Luk
and Lin (2007). Little opportunity to interact with foreigners might be
a possible contributing factor. Relatively fewer contact hours could also
be another important factor because students who showed signs of anxi-
ety were all from schools where NETs were not the main teachers but
taught oral lessons only. More research that investigates the reasons for
students anxiety and how NETs can establish a close relationship with
students is needed. It is interesting to note that some of the disadvan-
tages of NETs are a reverse of the advantages of LETs. For example, stu-
dents difficulties in understanding NETs teaching was regarded as a
disadvantage of NETs, but their ease in understanding LETs was consid-
ered an advantage of LETs. Similarly, students problem in communicat-
ing with NETs was perceived as a disadvantage of NETs, but their ease
in communicating with LETs was regarded as an advantage of LETs.
A new finding of this study was that having difficulty understanding
NETs was perceived as their disadvantage. This finding does not agree
with previous findings, and this again may be attributed to the less
advanced English level of the participants in this study. The main rea-
sons for difficulties in understanding suggested by participants were

Speaking English clearly and fluently with native speakerlike pronunciation was the
most frequently mentioned quality of a good English teacher by students from two uni-
versities in Thailand (Mullock, 2010).


NETs rapid speech and their use of difficult vocabulary. If these sec-
ondary students had difficulty, it is logical to speculate that primary
pupils in Hong Kong, who also learn English from NETs under the
Primary NET Scheme introduced in 2002, may face a more serious
problem. This finding has significant implications for classroom prac-
tice, and more research into how to help students improve under-
standing is an area worthy of further investigation. Based on this
finding, it is recommended that NETs should make adjustments of
their speech rate and choice of vocabulary in teaching to accommo-
date students levels. They may also consider improving students
understanding through eliciting L1 equivalents from more advanced
students when explaining difficult concepts.
A limitation of this study is its sampling of schools. Only Bands 1
and 2 schools were represented, and no representative samples were
collected from any Band 3 schools, which make up about one third of
the total student population in Hong Kong. The difficulty in getting
permission for conducting research in schools was the main reason for
this omission. Future research that includes a wider representation will
yield results that can be generalised to the total population of all sec-
ondary students, teachers, and schools in Hong Kong. The present
study shows that students were able to provide a balanced evaluation
of their LETs and NETs. Although they appreciated the value of LETs
and NETs as English teachers, they also pointed out their limitations.
Having opportunities to learn English from both categories of teachers
appears to be beneficial to student learning. It is hoped that this study
can provide some insight into how to better prepare these two catego-
ries of teachers for their future professional life.

This research was supported by the Macquarie University Research Excellence
Scholarship and the Macquarie University Linguistics Department Research
Enhancement Fund. I wish to thank Stephen Moore and Denise Murray for their
invaluable feedback on an earlier version of this article. I would also like to thank
the two anonymous TESOL Quarterly reviewers for their insightful comments and
Diane Belcher for her editorial suggestions. All errors are, of course, my own.


Lai Ping Florence Ma is a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics at

Macquarie University, Sydney. She has more than 20 years of English teaching
experience in Hong Kong and Australia. Her research interests include the issues
of nonnative-English-speaking teachers, adult migrant English learning, bilingual-
ism, and teacher education.



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Schoolsa Duration Language

(Band, MOI, Student English No. of NETs of used in
Year) Group (S) Sex level encountered interview interview
A (Band 2, Group S1 M Not 2 10min Cantonese
CMI, Year 9) 1 S2 M provided 3 20s
S3 M 2
Group S4 F 2 9min Cantonese
2 S5 F 2 00s
S6 F 2
B (Band Group S7 F Low 4 18min English
1, EMI, 3 S8 F Average 4 45s
Year 8) S9 M Low 4
Group S10 F High 5 11min English
4 S11 M High 3 37s
S12 M Average 6
Group S13 F High 5 11min Cantonese
5 S14 F Average 14 00s
S15 M Low 4
Group S16 M High 4 14min Cantonese
6 S17 M Average 4 17s
S18 F Low 3
C (Band 1, Group S19 M High 4 15min English
EMI, Year 11) 7 S20 F High 3 59s
S21 M Average 3
Group S22 F Average 2 16min English
8 S23 M Low 3 10s
S24 F Low 4
Group S25 M High 4 18min English
9 S26 F High 3 59s
S27 F Average 3
Group S28 M Average 3 14min English
10 S29 M Low 4 12s
S30 F Low 3

Note. MOI = Medium of instruction; CMI = Chinese medium of instruction; EMI = Eng-
lish medium of instruction.




A. Learning experience with NETs

1. How many native speaker English teachers have you ever had?
2. How long have you been learning English with NETs?

B. Perceptions of LETs and NETs

1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being taught by

local-speaking English teachers?
2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being taught by
native-speaking English teachers?