Is “native-speaker” of English…offensive?

Many professionals in the ESL world argue that the term “native-speaker” of English is offensive and inaccurate when used to discriminate against ESL teachers. They argue that it doesn’t gauge actual skills, and its inaccuracy is mired in colonialism to boot.

So, what exactly is the problem with job postings that ask for native speakers only?

Ignoring the benefit of bilingual students

The term “native speaker” labels people by what they don’t have rather than highlighting their additional knowledge.

Consider that it makes sense to value bilingual speakers highly, and supposed “non-native” speakers of English should garner higher wages, assuming their competency in English is truly fluent. In this way, non-native English teachers should be paid more, not less, than their “native” counterparts.

Two young Native English Speakers in front of a whiteboard and different country flags

A fluent teacher in English as their L2 language could be considered a huge asset. They could be labeled as a bilingual or polyglot speaker. They could be labeled by what they have, not what they don’t have: they have the knowledge of two languages, while supposed “native speakers” might only have one.

All of this “native speakerism” is dealt with at length in this great blog post hosted on TEFL Equity Advocates, which is a resource I suggest for every teacher.

Learning more about inclusivity and equity is crucial to being an excellent educator.

It is Lazy

Though the net result is racist or prejudiced, I actually think the motivation behind the “native speakerism” in the ESL field is primarily due to cost-cutting and laziness.

It is easier to mass hire people by looking at their passports than to test their competency in English. Often, especially for online ESL companies, the people doing the hiring aren’t fluent English speakers themselves. So, it is difficult for them to judge a teacher’s ability. It is easier to check that they hold an English language predominant passport.

It is Inaccurate

If you need more arguments for why the term “native-speaker” of English is offensive, then consider an even simpler issue: it’s just sloppy and inaccurate.

English is not only found in America, Canada, and the United Kingdom. English is also used in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and it is used as a lingua franca in the many former territories of the British EmpireLiberia, the Philippines, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, which were American territories. English is also the sole official language of the Commonwealth of Nations and of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). We could go on and on.

Then consider that many people are raised bilingually. Some were even raised speaking English and grew up in America, but may not have the citizenship or documents to prove that English is their native language. Other English teachers were raised in countries with a legacy of colonialism. English is one of their country’s primary languages, but foreigners may not associate English with their country.

It Ignores Colonialism

There are lots of English-speaking countries that are full of “non-native” speakers of English. How can this be, you might wonder.

Well, here is a list of some majority native English-speaking countries that ESL companies might not accept as “native speakers” though English might be the applicant’s primary language:

  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • The Bahamas
  • Barbados
  • Belize
  • Dominica
  • Grenada
  • Guyana
  • Jamaica
  • Malta
  • St Kitts and Nevis
  • St Lucia
  • St Vincent and the Grenadines
  • Trinidad and Tobago

The term “Native-speaker” of English is Offensive and Hurts Pay, Too.

Many ESL companies pay teachers less if they consider them “non-native speakers.”

Additionally, companies like itutorgroup will tie your hourly pay to the living wage of your country of residency, regardless of whether or not English is your native language. While a “native speaker” with a BA typically earns $15-20 an hour, a “non-native speaker” even with a BA, may earn $5 an hour. This is due to supply and demand: companies know many educated professionals can speak English fluently and teach it while living in a country with an exchange rate that favors the dollar.

In this respect, I think Cambly should be really appreciated. Cambly, though it pays relatively poorly at roughly $10/hour, pays South Africans the same as an American teacher living in New York City.

What do ESL companies mean by “native-speaker of English”?

Besides the fact that the term “native-speaker” of English is offensive to many, in the wider world, there is quite a lot of disagreement about what constitutes a “native speaker.” As you can imagine, “What does ‘native speaker’ mean?” is a politicized question mired in complex cultural and even socio-economic implications. If you are asking, “What does it mean to be a native-speaker of English?” then the answer is deceptively self-evident: a person whose first language- the primary language used by their family, school, and peers- is English.

Some companies qualify these many applicants as native speakers and others do not. Note that even the American Dialect Society says there is no agreed-upon definition of who can be considered a native speaker of English.

Is it appropriate to say native language?

It depends.

It is common and acceptable to use the term “native language” to refer to the language that a person has learned as their first language or the language they grew up speaking. People use this term in everyday conversation to distinguish the language that a person is most proficient in or has the strongest connection to from any second or foreign languages they may have learned later in life.

But, it’s essential to be sensitive to your audience. More progressive environments prefer terms like “first language” or “mother tongue” instead of “native language.”

What is the politically correct way to say native language?

if you want to be particularly sensitive to cultural and individual preferences, you can use a lot of other terms. Consider using alternative terms like:

  1. First Language: This term is often used interchangeably with “native language” and is generally considered more neutral.
  2. Mother Tongue: “Mother tongue” refers to the language a person learned as a child from their parents or primary caregivers and is another respectful way to describe one’s primary language.
  3. Primary Language: This is a neutral term that can also be used to refer to the language a person grew up speaking.
  4. Home Language: You can use this term to describe the language spoken in a person’s home during their upbringing.

Is the term native speaker problematic?

The term “native speaker” itself is not inherently problematic, but the way it is applied might be. (See above.) Like many terms related to language and identity, its use can sometimes raise concerns in certain contexts for several reasons. Some reasons are explained below.


The term “native speaker” can unintentionally suggest that native speakers are the standard of linguistic competence. This is the issue we discussed earlier in this post. When people use the term in this way, it can marginalize or devalue individuals who speak multiple languages fluently.


Labeling someone as a “native speaker” can perpetuate stereotypes or assumptions about their cultural background or linguistic abilities, which may not accurately represent their experiences or identity.

To address these concerns, some educators and linguists advocate for using more inclusive and descriptive terminology.

Instead of solely relying on “native speaker,” it can be helpful to specify the level of proficiency or describe someone’s linguistic background more precisely.

For example, you can use the terms below:

  • “Fluent Speaker of [Language]”
  • “First Language Speaker of [Language]”
  • “Proficient Speaker of [Language]”
  • “Heritage Speaker of [Language]”
  • “Mother Tongue [Language] Speaker”

These alternatives provide a clearer and more inclusive description of someone’s language skills without making assumptions about their background or proficiency level.



“The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” 

Martin Luther King Jr.
Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL
Ingrid Maria Pimsner, MA, BA, TEFL

Ingrid Maria Pimsner has been teaching for over a decade in various universities, nonprofits, and private academies. She has taught English as a Second Language for Lutheran Children & Family Service, Nationalities Service Center, Lernstudio Barbarossa Berlin-Tegel, and more. In addition to her Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) Certification, she holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a MA from Maryland Institute College of Art.