Are native teachers necessarily the best?

Spanish schools are seeking increasing numbers of foreign language educators But experts stress the importance of classroom expertise over nationality

Classes in one of Spain's bilingual schools.
Classes in one of Spain's bilingual schools. ÓSCAR CORRAL (EL PAÍS)

Spain's public education system began getting serious about teaching in English almost two decades ago. The first 43 public bilingual centers opened in 1996 as a joint project of the Education Ministry and the British Council, a model that was later adopted and adapted by various regional governments. Students are no longer embarrassed to speak in English, and growing numbers of universities are now offering bilingual degrees.

In the midst of this race to get Spaniards speaking languages early in life, one particular region has reopened the debate on which is the best teaching method. Former Madrid Premier Esperanza Aguirre rebelled against the system in order to hire native speakers without going through public competitions first. By the time a legal change made it possible, Aguirre had already hired around 30 educators from Britain and Northern Ireland to teach physical education, technology and plastic arts in public schools. These teachers speak English, but no Spanish.

This choice - which other regions such as Andalusia want to imitate after establishing the necessary legislation - raises several questions. Is it better to be taught by a native speaker? What is the state of foreign language learning in Spain? What are the essential skills for a language teacher? While there is no one single right profile, all the experts consulted by this newspaper (and the representatives of the main parent associations) agree that the main thing is not so much for the educator to be a native speaker as for him or her to be a good teacher.

"The main thing is not to take an ideological stand," reflects Rot Pryde, director of the Spanish branch of the British Council - an institution that is over 75 years old and is currently training 750,000 English teachers in India. "The vast majority of the world's teachers are not native speakers, but citizens of the country," says Pryde, adding that the indispensable requirements for their teachers in Spain are for them to have good training, to be very familiar with English and Spanish, and to be up to speed with the latest in teaching methods.

The vast majority of the world's teachers are not native speakers"

A similar viewpoint is to be found at the Instituto Cervantes, the great ambassador of Spanish language and culture abroad. "We don't demand that our teachers be native speakers; we ask that they have a university degree, communication abilities, an understanding of learning processes and knowledge of the origin of words, grammar and vocabulary," explains Richard Bueno, deputy academic director of the Cervantes, which works with around 1,000 educators a year (of which around 97 percent are, in fact, native speakers even if it is not essential). Neither is it a requirement at the British Council, yet of its 750 English teachers in Spain, "the vast majority" are British, a spokeswoman confirmed.

Both institutions admit there are advantages to an educator who is teaching his or her native tongue. "The best thing to do is to consider what you need each profile for. The non-natives may fail when it comes to the contemporary culture of a country, but they are very knowledgeable about their students' language and familiar with the weak points or false friends," says Pryde in reference to terms that sound similar in both languages but mean very different things.

"Native speakers use very up-to-date language, but they don't always know how to analyze it. In nearly every case they are a great aid to conversation, but they are not necessarily good educators. I think the ideal teacher is a combination of both," adds Pryde.

"When you are teaching your first language you feel more secure about using prepositions, for instance, but that's something that can be studied. The main thing is to stress teacher training and the use of new technologies. Audio and video resources are endless, compared with pronunciation problems," says Bueno.

Natives use very up-to-date language, but don't always analyze it properly"

Language learning in Spain has improved, but it is still trailing other European countries. Around 46 percent of Spaniards claim to speak a second language (English in most cases) well enough to carry on a conversation, according to the latest Eurobarometer language survey, released in June. The percentage is two points higher than in 2005, when the previous survey was conducted, but it is still lower than the European average (54 percent). Only 15 percent of Spaniards feel they can read newspaper and magazine articles in English, 10 points lower than elsewhere in Europe.

Another European report, Key figures about language teaching in European schools, published last September, shows that Spain is the country with the highest number of foreign guest teachers who spend over a month in the classroom: 21.3 percent, three times over the EU average. There are no recent surveys about people's preferences, say the polling companies Metroscopia and TNS Demoscopia. A 1999 Demoscopia study showed that six out of every 10 Spaniards preferred a native teacher, compared with seven percent who favored a Spanish one.

The experts consulted by this newspaper believe that most people would still prefer a native speaker of English, although they say this is a prejudice. "Native from where? Britain, the US, Ireland? We work with stereotypes. What we really need to talk about is expertise - teachers with experience, because the "native" tag can let in anyone without specialized knowledge," says María Dolores Pérez Murillo, a professor at Complutense University and co-author of a report evaluating the joint bilingual education program of the Education Ministry and British Council.

"It is the myth of the marvelous pronunciation, of Valladolid Spanish or Harvard English. But 90 percent of Spanish speakers do not have a Valladolid accent because they are South American," says Antonio Ubach, a philologist and professor at Madrid's Complutense University who began his professional career as a native Spanish teacher, right after completing his Hispanic Language and Culture studies - "in theory the best of all possible trainings in this situation." One day, he had to explain the imperative in class. "Everything was going along smoothly until the smart-aleck in class - and there is always one - asked me how negative sentences were constructed." When he realized "with horror" that he could only think of examples in the subjunctive present, he said it was too complicated to explain in one day and left it for the following class. "How do you explain the subjunctive to someone in whose language this concept does not exist?"

Almost half of Spaniards say they can converse in a second language

"Perhaps the demand for native speakers is due to the fact that years ago there weren't enough properly trained teachers here," says Pilar Medrano, head of the bilingual program at the Education Ministry.

In any case, the regional governments of Madrid and Andalusia are seeking native speakers for their schools. In the first case, Madrid has already hired 28 educators without making them sit a public examination, a fact that caused a huge protest from the unions and the opposition, and threats to take the matter to court. A spokesman for the regional government explains that Madrid has 3,877 public servants with a high enough level (C1) and around 1,500 conversation tutors. The recent hirings that bypassed the public competitions were attributed to "the occasional problem at a few high schools" where the vacancy could not be filled with "an accredited public servant," even though Madrid does have educators with the right language levels on the substitute teacher list.

The Madrid education department claims these 28 outsiders were hired through agreements signed with British universities, although these have not been made public. The newly hired teachers have teaching qualifications that are accepted by the Spanish Education Ministry, including previous experience at public schools in their countries of origin. But knowledge of Spanish was not a requirement.

The government of Andalusia, for its part, included the possibility of hiring native teachers in its Education Law and in a later decree that has yet to be developed fully, and which supports selecting educators "through public recruitment drives by the corresponding education department."

Families call us to say they want to switch from a bilingual school"

Pilar Medrano provides two possible reasons for this type of recruitment. On one hand, she feels that "bilingual programs have grown so much that we need experts not just to teach English, but also specialists [in other fields] to teach courses in English. And that is where there is a shortage in Spain." Another reason is that public administrations "want to please the parents, who generally ask for this type of educator."

"Having a native speaker is important as long as he or she is also a teacher. An English person with no training in education is useless," notes Luis Carbonel, president of Concapa, the main confederation of parent associations at private schools that receive public subsidies. Beyond that, Carbonel demands "a good training in languages" from all Spanish teachers, no matter what subject they teach. Families with children attending public schools want any native teacher "to follow the same hiring procedures as the others, and of course for a good command of Spanish to be a requirement," says José Luis Pazos, of the confederation of associations of parents with children in public schools (CEAPA).

Pazos complains that the 28 teachers hired in Madrid cannot participate in school affairs because their lack of Spanish prevents them from speaking up at teacher meetings, evaluations and tutorials. And he adds another criticism to the public bilingual system: "Many families call us up saying they want to switch their kids from a bilingual elementary school to a regular school because they feel they're not learning as much as they should." Around 10 percent of students make such a change, according to the spokesperson for the education department, although it argues that the reasons for doing so are "infinite," including distance from home or the school's specialization in athletics or technology courses, for instance.

Crisis makes a dent in Cervantes' mission to spread the word


If a country's brand begins with its language, there's bad news (for the umpteenth time) for Spain. Instituto Cervantes, which was founded in 1991, has announced an historic retreat. Three centers will close down in 2013, and the survival of a fourth depends on cooperation from the local government, Cervantes director Víctor García de la Concha told the congressional committee on foreign affairs earlier this month. The Spanish equivalent of the British Council is also considering selling some real estate to cover the budget cuts.

The crisis is knocking on the Cervantes' door. Next year, it will receive 37 percent less money from the government than in 2012 (50 million euros compared with 80 million). The language and culture institution plans to make up for this difference by divesting itself of properties it owns in other parts of the world - Tel Aviv and Brussels are under consideration - as well as by cutting down its personnel by up to 17 percent, and cutting back on investments by 42 percent, which means putting building restoration projects on hold.

Even without the 13.9-percent reduction, the Cervantes' total budget of 83.7 million euros still seems tiny compared with the 814 million euros enjoyed by its counterpart, the British Council, in 2011.

The most dramatic cost-cutting measures will be in Brazil, where the Cervantes is planning to shut down its Recife and Curitiba centers "as part of a resizing plan," in the words of García de la Concha.

Instituto Cervantes has eight centers in Brazil, a country considered strategic for the dissemination of Spanish after the language was introduced into the school curriculum there, facilitating a potentially fuller integration of Iberoamerican states. "We have to encourage Spanish in Brazil," said the institute director just a few months ago. Despite the closure plans for Recife and Curitiba, the director said that Brazil continues to be a strategic country, and that the Cervantes may possibly go to other cities in partnership with universities.

The Cervantes is also pulling out of Damascus for reasons that have nothing to do with money. "It's about making the freeze on activities there official," explains García De la Concha. Since April, the civil war in Syria has forced the center to cease all activities.

There is one case still up in the air: the center in Sofia. The government of Bulgaria does not wish to see it shut down, as evidenced by the fact that the Bulgarian ambassador recently met with García de la Concha to talk about the institute's future.

"Really expensive rental contracts have been signed in the past which now weigh heavily on the Cervantes," said the director. Maintaining the Cervantes center in Sofia since it opened two years ago has cost around 2.5 million euros.

The Instituto is also considering sharing space with similar institutions such as the British Council or Goethe Institut in order to save money. Despite these measures, García de la Concha underscored that the Cervantes will grow in 2013. His plans are to reach deals with universities to keep expanding at a lower cost.

In the past, budget cuts tended to spare the great cultural institutions, but in 2013 there will be no exceptions. José María Lassalle, the secretary of state for culture, admitted before the congressional committee had sat that the government's contribution to the Prado Museum is being slashed by 31 percent and to the Reina Sofía by 25.5 percent. Yet despite these cuts, he claimed that in 2013 "culture will not be paralyzed."

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