My Experiences as a Non-Native Speaker Teacher in Japan

By Johan Saputra Muljadi

Who are non-native speakers?

According to the Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics (2010, p.397), a non-native speaker (NNS) is “a language user for whom a language is not their first language.” The Cambridge dictionary defines it as “someone who has learned a particular language as a child or adult rather than as a baby.” I was raised in Indonesia until I was 10, then moved to New Zealand for the next 10 years of my life. Am I a non-native speaker? Taken from the definitions above, the answer would be yes. But from my possibly prejudiced point of view, I consider myself a native speaker. Although I only spent the last three years of elementary school in New Zealand, I completed both secondary and tertiary education there. If a person such as myself who has spent most of his or her formative years in an English speaking country is still regarded as a NNS, it begs the question of whether the title Native Speaker matters in the classroom.

In an interview with Dr. DeKeyser (2016) on the topic of age and its effects, he put great emphasis on the importance of native speakers’ roles in teaching children.

“This is because, given that what children have to learn and can learn very well is pronunciation, that’s precisely the time you need a native speaker. Then, once people are really advanced and they learn more sophisticated aspects of grammar and pronunciation, you don’t need a native speaker; you need somebody who knows the language well and who knows how to teach it.”

I definitely agree with this statement. If I had not spent my childhood in New Zealand, my pronunciation would not be as clear as an Indonesian who had never lived in an English speaking country. However, there are millions of non-native speakers who can speak English just as well as I. One article I found, written by Wilson from, was about a Polish teacher whose colleagues were surprised at how proficient her English was and mistook her for being British. Even this blog post, which is very sympathetic to the plights of NNS teaching English, erroneously conflates fluency with nativeness. Where this teacher is from is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is that, “a good language teacher, by definition, will be proficient in the language they are teaching.” (Wilson, 2016).

My 8 years working experiences in Japan as a non-native speaker

My first employment was in 2009 as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) 3 days a week in a small town called Tokigawa, Saitama prefecture. I was there for one academic year through a dispatch company called Heart. ALT work is more lenient than eikaiwa (English conversation schools) and juku (cram schools) in their requirements: usually requiring a non-specific university degree, but no teaching experience. The catch is that prospective ALTs usually need to own a car. I accepted the position in order to change my student visa to a working one and bought myself a car. In 2010, I landed a full-time ALT job in Takasaki City in Gunma prefecture, this time through a different dispatch company called RCS. In 2011-2014, I worked as a full-time direct-hire ALT for Maebashi City before moving back to Takasaki City to work as a full-time direct-hire ALT for another year. One of the main differences between working for a dispatch and a direct hire is the workload. A direct-hire ALT communicates with all levels of municipal government and may have duties above and beyond that of a dispatch ALT. When I was a direct-hire ALT in a Junior High School in Maebashi City, I had such responsibilities as assisting with the annual English speech contest, assisting with the annual summer events and attending monthly confabulation meetings with other ALTs. Other benefits of being a direct-hired include higher salary, paid holidays, and being included in the insurance and pension systems. Susatyo (2015), who is also an Indonesian ALT, had written an inspiring message to NNS teachers, “If you’re thinking of pursuing a career in teaching English, just do it. I know it won’t be easy and will be challenging, but think about the impact you will make on others: your students and fellow educators.” This was taken from the TEFL equity advocates blog; a blog that focuses on creating equal employment opportunities for native and non-native English speakers in ELT. I truly recommend reading the “teachers’ success stories”, they are very motivational to remind ourselves to never give up.

The importance of having qualifications

Qualifications are one way to overcome the prejudice against non-native speakers. Fortunately, many programs like the Trinity College TESOL Certificate and Diploma are available in Japan through a various providers such as Shane English School in Tokyo. In my circumstance, finding quality work was very difficult. This was because job advertisements in Japan often use the terms “native speaker” or “native English speaker”. This requirement creates frustration to people like me whose first language is not English. The majority of private institutions such as eikawa or juku are usually very strict on their hiring policies. On the website (retrieved September 16, 2016), there are employers such as the Sakura English Conversation School in Hyogo Prefecture that use the phrase “teach American English”, GEM school in Kagawa Prefecture preferably requires a “North American” and Berlitz strictly desires a “native fluent English speaker.” The first two are specifically searching for teachers who are American or Canadian, and the third one could be interpreted as looking for a teacher in which English is his or her first language. After completing a bachelor’s program in TESOL, I was offered an interview with Shane English School as an eikaiwa teacher and the British Council Tokyo as an elementary school teacher. Surprisingly, for an NNS, both employers were happy with my performance in each interview. I chose the British Council Tokyo position because of better career prospects in the years ahead. This experience shows that while I do not have what my peers certainly have, an automatic recognition that my English is good enough, my qualifications somehow compensated for that.

Employers’ preferences in Japan

Even in present-day Japan, non-native speakers are still treated as second-class citizens in English teaching. Holliday (cited in Houghton and Rivers) defines this trend saying

“in English language education, racism is revealed increasingly where the discrimination against “non-native speakers” is connected to skin colour. Hence, non-White teachers are taken for ‘non-native speakers’ even if they were born and brought up with English as a first or only language; and white teachers who do not have this background can pass easily as ‘native speakers’” (2013:20).

However, some jobs advertisements I found on the JALT website are more flexible and open. Rikkyo University for example, uses the phrase “applicants of any nationality are welcome to apply” (English Instructor – Rikkyo University, Tokyo, 2016) and Tokyo University of Science uses the phrase “native speaker proficiency preferred” (English Instructor, Tokyo University of Science, Kagurazaka Campus, Tokyo, 2016). Tamagawa Academy and University is also committed to provide equal opportunities to non-native English teachers according to the TEFL equity advocates. From these observations, such postings seem to be more common, and it is very relieving to see. Nevertheless, the frustration continues. Native speakers still have more choices compared to non-native speaker teachers. I find though, more companies are changing their recruiting requirements such as Shane English School Japan which used to recruit only speakers from Australia, Canada New Zealand, South Africa, UK or USA. Now, it only requires an honours degree taught in English from an accredited university. This shows that race is no longer the major issue that some teachers may perceive it to be. This is a great development because according to Wikipedia, only about 5.52% of the world’s population are native English speakers. Therefore, non-native speakers can fill gaps in the job market in Japan. I certainly hope that this trend will continue. Employers should realize that experience and professionalism are more important than the employee’s L1.

Future challenges for non-native speaker teachers

Regardless of whether a teacher is a native or non-native speaker, there are always challenges ahead. Perhaps we non-native speaker teachers have to take a step back and continue with the basics. Mastering a language is a lifelong journey and I always motivate myself with a quote from Harmer (2007, p.423), “one of the best ways of reflecting upon our teaching practice is to become learners ourselves again.” If you are a non-native speaker but you are confident in your English proficiency, I would strongly recommend studying towards a qualification. For example, a certificate, a diploma or even an MA in TESOL. Just because we are non-native speaker teachers, does not mean that we are incapable of matching our fellow native speaker teachers. Always remember to keep on developing; it is important to you as well as for your students.


Cambridge Dictionary. Non-native speaker. Retrieved September 22, 2016 from <;

Dunkley, D. (2016). Age Effects: An Interview With Robert DeKeyser, University of Maryland. The Language Teacher 40(3), p13-15

Harmer, J. (2007). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Fourth Edition. Edinburgh Gate: Pearson Education Limited.

Houghton, S. A. & Rivers, D. J. (2013). Native Speakerism in Japan: Intergroup Dynamics in Foreign Language Education. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

JALT. JALT Job Info Center. (2016, September 16). English Instructor – Rikkyo University, Tokyo. Retrieved September 22, 2016. <;

JALT. JALT Job Info Center. (2016, September 16). English Instructor, Tokyo University of Science, Kagurazaka Campus, Tokyo. Retrieved September 22, 2016 from <;

Ohayosensei. Current edition. Retrieved September 22, 2016 from <;

Richards, J. C. & Schmidt, R. (2010). Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Fourth Edition. Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited.

Susatyo, N. (2015, February 12). Teaching English in Japan as a NNEST. Retrieved October 16, 2016 from <;

Wikipedia: The free encyclopedia. (2016, October 8). List of Languages by number of native speakers. Retrieved October 10, 2016 from <;

Wilson, JJ. (2016, May 10). Native and Non-native Speaker Teachers: Prejudice, Privilege, and a Call to Action. ReallyEnglish blog. Retrieved September 22, 2016 from <;

Johan Saputra Muljadi is the lead teacher of English at a private elementary school in Yokohama organised by British Council Tokyo. His research interests include assessment, motivation and team-teaching in Japan. He holds a Diploma in TESOL and a MA in TESOL. He can be contacted at