Monthly Archives: March 2012

Nuria Villalobos-Ulate

NNEST of the Month

 April 2012

Nuria Villalobos holds a Master’s degree in Linguistics/TESL from Indiana State University, where she was an exchange student through ISEP. She has taught English for 10 years and is currently a professor at the Escuela de Literatura y Ciencias del Lenguaje, Universidad Nacional, Costa Rica. Her interests include L2 teacher education, global issues in language education, and non-native speaking teachers-related issues. Nuria has participated and presented in many national and international congresses, including TESOL. Her work has been published in Costa Rica, Brazil and Spain.


 NNEST April Interviewer: Ana Solano-Campos


 Can you tell us about yourself? When did you first become interested in learning and teaching languages? 


I am Costa Rican and, therefore, a native speaker of Spanish. I first learned English at the age of 13, when I started high school, since the teaching of English in Costa Rican public elementary schools was declared mandatory by the government in 1994. As a senior student in high school, I still did not know what I wanted to study at the university, but becoming a teacher was definitely not one of my options. It is interesting how things turn out because I am now a professor of English and I love it. Looking back, I realize how the desire of being an educator was probably hidden deep inside of me.

When I was little, to celebrate Children’s Day in our school every September 9th, one of the students in every group was chosen to be the teacher that day, so he or she would have to plan a class and actually teach it. I remember I played the role of the teacher more than once, and I enjoyed it so much! My mother is a retired Spanish teacher, so she would help me plan the class and prepare for it. One year, I read a story about a pine tree for my “students” and I had them make a drawing about it. To my surprise, one of the kids gave me his beautiful piece of art as a present and he wrote: “Para la Niña Nuria” (To Teacher Nuria). I felt so loved and I thought it was simply wonderful to be a teacher.


I think my love for languages was born as I grew up, since my mom’s passion for books and the Spanish language has always been present in my life. I recall how she would ask me, a little girl, to spell different words as we walked in the streets of my town. That is just one of the many examples through which I was taught the value of languages.


When did you first start working on NNEST/NEST issues? 


I became aware of the native/non-native speaking teachers issue while I was studying Portuguese in Costa Rica. All the teachers in this school were Brazilian, but just a few of them were certified teachers. Since I was already an English professor while studying Portuguese, I always paid attention to certain aspects of the class. As a student, I did not like to have a teacher whose main reason for coming to Costa Rica was to surf and who considered teaching Portuguese “an easy way” to earn money and have a living here. The fact that some teachers did not even know how to explain the language or could not manage the class made me feel impotent. I started thinking about the differences between a non-native language teacher who has actually prepared him or herself to teach, and a native teacher who stands in front of a class believing teaching his or her native language is a piece of cake.

Since I experienced this as a student myself, I linked it to my career and began doing research about NNEST/NEST issues. The more I read about it, the clearer I was of the need to demystify the native speaker fallacy, and of how important it is for non-native educators to be competent in the language being taught. One day I read an e-mail from Toni Hull in the NNEST IS e-list, asking for advice on how to help teachers in an EFL environment maintain or improve their listening and speaking skills. After I shared my thoughts on it, I was encouraged to write an article in the NNEST Newsletter. I also communicated with George Braine, who inspired me to do research on the NNEST/NEST issue.


You have been a language teaching professional for over a decade. What are the challenges that you have faced as a NNEST teaching EFL in Costa Rica? In what ways have you tried to raise awareness of NNEST/NEST issues in your classes? 


Non-native language teachers are sometimes not considered as good as native teachers, and this situation occurs in different countries, in a variety of languages. I experienced this discrimination at a language school in Costa Rica some years ago. I remember I called this place to request information about an English teaching position and the very first question they made was: “Are you a native speaker of English?” This surprised and frustrated me at the same time. Since my answer was no, they told me they only hired native speakers of English as teachers of this language. It is terrible to know that some people overlook a professional’s education and experience and gives importance to his or her native language only, like if that said everything about him or her.

EFL teachers face challenges all the time; from motivating students and providing them with opportunities to learn the language more naturally, to maintaining proficiency in the language and having credibility as professionals. Because the majority of teachers in EFL contexts are non-native, discrimination towards them would seem illogical. Nevertheless, it might occur, like it did to me. Every school has its own teaching policies, and there is also the wide belief that a native speaker of English would make a better teacher. That is why it is so important to bring awareness on this issue to academic coordinators, teachers and students. I think we as non-native teachers have all the potential to become excellent role models, but in order to do that we must first believe in ourselves, be proficient in the language and grow as professionals.

Having learned English as a Foreign Language from non-native teachers myself, just as my students, is a reflection of how it is possible to do so. In addition, since learning English in an EFL context is more challenging, it immediately gives the learner a great sense of satisfaction. Sharing my personal experiences with students makes them understand and value what it is to be a non-native English teacher. Moreover, by sharing my experiences presenting at conferences and writing articles, students realize how much we NNESTs can contribute to the ELT field.


In your article in the Bellaterra Journal of Teaching & Learning Language & Literature, you shared the results of a survey on ESOL/EFL teachers’ perspectives about NNEST/NEST issues. The teachers you surveyed came from various countries around the world. Can you tell us about your study? What are the implications of your findings?


The purpose of my article “Insights towards Native and Non-native ELT Educators” is to create awareness regarding this issue and to recognize the fact that both, native and non-native teachers, can be good educators because of the strengths that each one has. I was curious to know the opinion of English teachers, so I carried out an online survey to 113 teachers in ESL or EFL contexts, 65 of them were NESTs and 48 NNESTs. It was interesting to find out that the belief of a NEST being the best at teaching the oral part and the NNEST at teaching grammar and writing is a mere assumption. In my study, most participants believe this preference for teaching certain skills has nothing to do with their native status. In addition, the majority of participants believe students prefer a native speaker for an English teacher, which shows that the native speaker fallacy is still strong. In terms of discrimination, the percentages were quite similar, but represented the opposite. In the case of native teachers, the majority has not been discriminated against; however, for non-native teachers, most have. Regarding the influence of having an accent, most non-native teachers think it does not affect them negatively while most native teachers disagree. Interestingly, for most of the NNESTs surveyed, it is very or somewhat important for them to sound like native speakers.

A lot of research regarding the NNEST/NEST issues has been done in the last years, which seems to be helping create awareness in the language teaching field. Nevertheless, the native speaker fallacy notion appears to be still powerful, even among teachers. This makes me wonder if perhaps a change of mind is what is missing. I believe we can contribute to this by making non-native teachers reflect on their confidence, proficiency and preparation. Professional development is crucial for both, native and non-native language educators, and there are infinite ways how we can grow professionally.


You are not only a language educator, but also an avid language learner. In addition to English and Spanish you also speak Portuguese. You are also currently pursuing a Masters in Teaching Spanish as a Second Language. What drives your passion to learn and teach languages? Has being both a Non-Native English Speaking Teacher and a Native Spanish Speaking Teacher given you any particular insights into the complexities of the native speaker fallacy?

I love languages because they make me a more open-minded, tolerant and wise person.  Learning about cultures is another passion of mine. I am an eternal learner, and I know I will always learn something new about languages and cultures. Being an educator is not just teaching the different skills of a language, it is more than that. Education involves learning about everything and from everybody, it means giving the best of me to make others better, as well as myself. I love learning how languages are different, but most of all, similar. I believe it is essential for a language educator to be bilingual or even better, to know several languages. Experiencing the process of learning a second or foreign language is amazing, and it is important to have gone through it if we want to teach someone another language since we would understand that person better. Finally, by knowing different languages, and therefore cultures, we help to have a better world because as we learn another language, we have more tolerance and comprehension towards one another. Here is a nice quote that summarizes this: “Monolingualism is an illness, a disease which should be eradicated as soon as possible, because it is dangerous for world peace” (Skutnabb-Kangas & Phillipson 1989)

One of the reasons why I decided to study the teaching of Spanish as a Second Language is to experience being a native speaking teacher, besides the fact that I love Spanish of course. It is now going to be the other side of the coin for me. Even if I speak Spanish as a native language, I do not know how to teach it. It might not be as difficult in terms of methodology since I am already an English teacher and so I know about pedagogy. However, teaching certain skills such as grammar, writing and pronunciation requires a deeper knowledge for which speaking the language is not enough. Logically, I feel more confident teaching English than Spanish, even if English is my second language. I believe it is critical for native speakers to actually learn the language they teach because that way, they will have more knowledge and confidence. As a matter of fact, having credentials to teach a language should be a must when hiring an educator, regardless of being a native or non-native speaker. This does not mean that the native speaker should be preferred over the non-native one because they are both capable of doing a good job. The native status must not determine hiring practices, especially if non-native speaking teachers (NNSTs) are academically prepared while the native speaking teachers (NSTs) are not. That action would represent nothing but discrimination.


Your most current research focuses on teachers, students, and program coordinators’ perceptions of Native and Non-Native speakers -not only of English, but of other languages like French, Portuguese and Italian- in Costa Rican language schools. You set out to investigate how or whether the native speaker fallacy applies to the learning and teaching of other languages. What were some of your findings? 


Since the research regarding the native speaker fallacy has been done mostly in ELT, I decided to investigate if the same occurs in other languages such as Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian. So, I chose several language schools in Costa Rica where these languages are taught. Most of them are well-known institutes around the country and the world: Intercultura, Centro Panamericano de Idiomas, INTENSA, Instituto San Joaquín de Flores, Alianza Francesa, Dante Alighieri and the Fundação de Cultura, Difusão e Estudos Brasileiros. I conducted a survey to the academic coordinators of the language programs in those seven schools, as well as by approximately 10 teachers and 30 students from each institute. In general, 7 coordinators, 58 teachers and 207 students completed the questionnaire, for a total of 272 people. Most teachers were native speakers with a language teaching degree or certification. The requirements for hiring language teachers vary a lot in these academies; in one of them it is an institutional policy to hire only native speakers, in another one the students are the ones who request native speakers as teachers, and another school requires having 50% of NSs and 50% of NNSs as teachers.

The findings of this study are very interesting. Most administrators, teachers and students believe it is very necessary for a language teacher to be a native speaker. Likewise, when asked what students prefer for a language teacher, the majority chose a native speaker. In these schools, nearly all teachers are native speakers of the languages they teach, so the participants were inquired if they agreed with this or not and why. Most administrators, teachers and students showed their favorable opinion towards this because they think it gives the schools more credibility, authenticity, a better quality and a status of serious institutions. Moreover, the opinions about having unqualified language teachers varied a lot. Most students and teachers agree with it while the majority of administrators disagree. Something surprising was that nearly all students would not mind having Costa Rican teachers. Besides, mostly all coordinators would choose a NNS with teaching certification and experience over a NS without any teaching certification or experience, if they were to hire a language teacher.

The results of this research reflect the existence of the native speaker fallacy in these language schools. Something important to highlight is that NNESTs seem to be more common in language schools due to the expansion of this foreign language and the need for more teachers specialized in this area. On the other hand, all Spanish teachers appear to be NSs, mostly Costa Rican, for obvious reasons. In the case of the other languages, NSs prevail, with a few exceptions. The reason for this could be that despite being foreign languages too, there are less certified teachers, at least in Portuguese and Italian. I believe this might promote the misconception that native speakers of those languages are the ideal teachers.



What is the current situation of the NNEST/NEST debate in contemporary English language teaching and learning in Costa Rica? 


In Costa Rica, English is learned and taught as a Foreign Language, which means that in all public and private institutions, nearly all teachers are non-native speakers of English. It is more common to find NESTs in private institutions than in public schools because in order to work for the government, teachers are required to have a teaching degree and go through a difficult selection process. The same goes for private language schools. Due to this fact, students are used to having Costa Rican English teachers. As everywhere, NNESTs are expected to be proficient in the language regardless of the place where they work.

Teaching hiring practices vary depending on the educational setting. In public elementary schools and high schools, it is rare to find NESTs, as mentioned above. At the university level, it is possible for NESTs to get a teaching job as long as they hold a teaching degree,  since only a certification is not enough. This might vary in private universities though. In general terms, discrimination towards NNESTs might occur only in private language schools, as I described before, but fortunately it is not quite often. After doing my most current research and presenting the results at an international congress, I realized that conversations about NNEST/NEST issues are not as common in Costa Rica as it should be. It seems that many accept the native speaker fallacyand take it for granted because of the lack of proficiency, confidence, and self-awareness. English teachers in Costa Rica should make an effort to be more critical towards the NNEST/NEST debate because we are all part of the ELT profession.


You are also a contributor for How does your work in PocketCultures complement your interests in issues of linguistic hegemony?


PocketCultures is a website with more than 30 contributors around the world who write posts about their own cultures, or the countries they are living in. Being the contributor of Costa Rica for PocketCultures has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to let people know about my country and its culture, and to learn about many others. Moreover, reading and writing posts gives me the exposure to the English language needed for any foreign language teacher. Since there are contributors from different countries such as the United States, India, Canada, England, New Zealand, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Romania, Japan, among others, I keep learning not only about their cultures, but also about their use of the language.

At the same time, it has been a great teaching tool for me as an educator. Every time I publish a post, I share it with friends, colleagues and students in different parts of the world. This represents good practice for learners of English and a nice way of promoting the use of English among NNESTs. I have asked students to access the site, read a post they find interesting and talk about it in class. In addition, in a culture course I taught last year, my students watched the video “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Adichie. After discussing it, they wrote their own single stories. They were so nice I had to share them! So, I thought a good way to do that was to publish them in PocketCultures. A culture video about Colombia and Costa Rica, created by some students, was also published in the site in order to promote students’ creativity and culture awareness. These are some of the reasons why being a PocketCultures contributor has enriched my life as a person and as a language professional.


What are your future research, professional, and personal plans?


I am a very ambitious person with a great deal of personal and professional plans. I believe we should make the best out of our lives to accomplish everything we dream of. In the professional field, I would like to graduate as a Masters in the Teaching of Spanish as a Second Language. When I do, I would like to teach English and Spanish abroad so I can have the experience of working in different countries and with different people. I would certainly enjoy this because I would be in contact with various cultures and lifestyles. After getting some more experience, I would like to pursue a Ph.D. overseas.

I hope I can continue doing research on the NNSTs/NSTs issues, hopefully comparing teachers’ and students’ opinions in different contexts. I am also interested in critical pedagogy and language teaching in general, for English, Spanish and Portuguese. Among my personal plans, I would love to do some volunteering, learn many more languages and live in different cultures.

Thank you Nuria!




Villalobos Ulate, N. (2011)  Notions of non-native teachers in Costa Rican language schools.

Memoria del III Congreso Internacional de Lingüística Aplicada, Heredia, Costa Rica:  

Universidad Nacional, 334-351.

Villalobos Ulate, N. (2011). Insights towards native and non-native ELT educators. Bellaterra

Journal of Teaching & Learning Language & Literature, 4 (1), 56-79.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. & Phillipson, R. (1989). ‘Mother tongue’: the theoretical and

sociopolitical construction of a concept. In Status and function of languages and language

varieties, Ulrich Ammon (ed), Berlin: de Gruyter, 450-477.