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January 28, 2006

Why is Job Discrimination Such an Important Issue in ESL?

"DISCRIMINATE, v.i. To note the particulars in which one person or thing is, if possible, more objectionable than another. " ~ Ambrose Bierce

Readers, if you've been to the ESL-Lesson-Plan blog recently, you've probably seen my lastest comments on the hot topic of unfair hiring practices and outright discrimination that hundreds of qualified, experiened ESL instructors must deal with on a daily basis. Have you, for instance, or someone you've known, faced discrimination in the ESL marketplace? Lately there's been plenty of buzz on the internet about various types of unfair hiring practices in the ESL industry. For example . . .

. . . over on ESL-Jobs-Forum, an entire area of the forum has been set aside to discuss the issue [HERE]. There are posts on examples of race, nationality, sex, gender, orientation, and even weight discrimination in ESL schools across the globe. Some people are even claiming that having a child hinders the hiring prospects for ESL teaching.

For example, in a thread entitled "Age Discrimination in Hiring?," a user named "ridgerunner6" wrote "I am a highly experienced ESL pro and am having problems finding work due to age discrimination." He is answered by a "canuckophile" that agrees "Yes, there is age discrimination in Korea." Consider the remarks of "susanmholman":

I was a single mom for many years. I decided that once both my kids were in college, I'd start my amazing career as an EFL teacher. Little did I know the descrimination [sic] I'd face. The school I chose said that it was easy for an American to get a job in Italy. American English, afterall [sic], is rapidly becoming the 'world' language. Wrong! You have to have EU working papers to be employed in the EU. The Catch-22 is that you have to be employed in the EU before you can get EU working papers. The other item no one ever happened to mention is the age factor. I'm continuously told that I don't look my age and I have my photo on my cv (but not my birthdate.) I've had several offers from schools around the world until they saw the date on my passport, never to be heard from again. I'm only 47, but you'd think I was 100. Whatever happened to wisdom that comes with experience.

Nationality can be an issue too when some school specifically request, for example, British citizens or American citizens over other nationalities. The discrimination is most evident, it seems, against non-native speakers who are quite often more qualified as ESL instructors than their native-speaking counterparts. In this thread entitled, "When the ad says "native" speakers only!" The opinions are all over the place on this one. One commenter said, "A native speaker will recognise another native speaker but no amount of qualifications will make a person into a native speaker." On the other side of the coin, poster "Liu_wan-shan" told readers, "I had been greatly discouraged upon seeing almost all ads with "native speakers only" and receiving no replies from my numerous applications. I was thinking that maybe ESL is really meant for those few races only."

With regards to race, a poll is currently being conducted on the issue in a separate thread called "Is the ESL / EFL Industry Racist?" In "Skin Color," user "praiz" was desperate enough to ask, "Will someone please tell me if there are any schools or private language institutes in Japan and Korea that will take native born speakers who do not have a pink or white complexion?"

But, it doesn't stop with age, race and nationality. Sex and gender play an important role for employers, apparently, in many parts of the world. In a thread called "Women teachers wanted in Asia?," user "mikara.travel" asks, "what is with the high number of Asia job givers asking for only women native speakers? " Poster "pauldadd999" confirms this notion with "Being a male teacher, I have seen this discrimination during the two years I was in Korea."

While we must admit that discrimination exists everywhere on the planet, even in Western countries, is this something that ESL teachers should stand for when they accept work in the "guiltiest" of countries? Is it a type of colonialism to force western ideas of "human rights" on countries who claim to be getting along just fine with these foreign "ideals?"

Some teachers are "fitting the bill," so to speak, but fall short of desirability when they show up with their children in tow. More and more, ESL job-seekers like "Max Gonzalez" are asking about "child friendly" employers and destinations in threads such as "Child Friendly Employers." In "Teaching Abroad with kids," ESL job applicants ask legitimate questions of their peers like, "I have a 3 year old daughter but I want to teach in latin america [sic] is it wise to bring her with me [?]"

In my own thread of discussion, "Discrimination in ESL of all types: Who is responsible?" I try to find out which element fuels the fire: is it the people themselves? Does the market itself determine what it wants from an ESL instructor? An excerpt:

There's been a lot of talk about the topic of racism in the ESL industry in [various threads]. Some other issues were brought up, such as chauvinism, sexism and ageism, as sources of discrimination . . . Take a look at the poll I added [HERE] . . . It's not uncommon that many of us (as evidenced in the [various threads]) have either witnessed or been victims of race discrimination in the ESL industry (especially in some parts of the world). But, how about age discrimination, sex discrimination (of either sex) and gender-preference/sexual-preference discrimination? What about other types of "appearance" based discrimination, "weight" issues, for example?

Many of the previous posts have been doing the finger-pointing at the ESL industry itself for being discriminatory. I've argued for the possibility that perhaps it is the market itself that is discriminatory; the industry, in many cases, just complies to that demand.

But what about this other factor? What if the nation itself sets up the discriminatory "rules"? Who is to blame then?

Maybe I'm way off base here, so please feel free to correct my perspective if you see a logical flaw. Sure, a country is free to stipulate any kind of rules it wants for foreign workers. But does this mean we can say they don't discriminate?

The industry, the population, or the government? Who is to blame folks? And why?

Patricia Dean, on ESL-School, asks "What Influences ESL Students in their Choice of School?" Could it be the "authenticity" of a school's native-speakers that attract the most students? Allowing for exceptions, are ESL students, on the whole, more compelled to take lessons from teachers of a certain age, a certain skin color? What's your experience been?

Perhaps questions such as these will never be answered but at least they can be properly addressed. There's more opinions out there than there is space on this server to re-print them all.

Over on the English-blog, one researcher has asked me for specific information regarding the issue of discrimination in ESL venues. Jeremy Lignelli, a MA TESOL graduate student, left me comment HERE asking for "information, statistics, web pages, personal accounts, etc." for research on his Ph.D. dissertation on Discrimination in ESL. When the publications become commonplace, and the issue is out in the forefront, will the industry finally do something about it?

If you've joined the discussion from a link over on ESL-Lesson-Plan, welcome. Please offer your own remarks on this highly controversial matter in the comment box below. Why are representatives of certain nations who do not openly and publicly espouse hiring discrimination as a just practice freely accepting work (and pay) in countries that do? Is this a kind of reverse, or backwards diplomacy? What kind of mixed-messages are "politically correct" (sarcasm) Western native speakers, for example, sending the world if they can also be perceived as only reinforcing certain stereotypes?

Posted by lhobbs at January 28, 2006 02:59 PM

Readers' Comments:


Don't think ESOL discrimination is limited to other countries! I know of a certain individual who was a super ESL teacher, but he was not rehired at a school because the principal said he wanted to hire someone with "culture and language." What the heck does that mean?

This certain teacher had all that and more. But it seems that he was nearing retirement - oh, no!

Are we looking at ethnic AND age discrimination? Sad, but true, I do believe it occurs more frequently than we may think.

Dr. Vye

Posted by: Dr. Vye at February 4, 2006 06:26 PM


This is an interesting topic. I work at a wonderful school in Russia, although I am fairly certain that they have never employed a black teacher. (This might very well be because no African-Americans have applied; Russia is known for being very racist against people of color.) When I applied to work in Korea (my previous ESL job), I was required to submit a photograph. I thought that was kind of silly, but I did it anyway. It was only later that I learned that the photograph was to determine whether or not I was white! I have a good friend who owns an ESL school in Korea (I start work there in August, actually...), and she and I have discussed the standard Korean policies of hiring foreigners at ESL schools. Often Americans of Korean heritage look into teaching ESL in Korea as a way to learn more about their roots. Unfortunately, it's standard policy not to hire Americans of Korean (or other Asian) ancestry, unless they can speak Korean! Additionally, a current co-worker of mine is very interested in moving to Japan to teach ESL, and has complained of the number of positions requiring that applicants be women. Of course, if you're interested in working in the Middle East, which oddly enough, I am, you'll find that most positions require that you be male...


Posted by: Jane Keeler at February 5, 2006 08:45 AM


I`ve noticed a fair amount of age discrimination here in Japan with one recent job description (at a rather famous university no less) stating "40 years or younger preferred." That, and susan`s anecdote above, really got me riled up. As she said - whatever happened to wisdom that comes with experience?

There also seems to be the issue of PhD vs MA, with PhD`s being elevated to "know everything status", and MA`s being viewed as "standard teachers", especially with foreign teachers.

In terms of racial discrimination, some Japanese universities have been getting rid of foreign teachers (even tenured teachers) altogether with the intent of giving those jobs to Japanese teachers.

It`s a scary time in Japan where recognition of actual skills and abilities seems to have taken a backseat to societal norms and with a declining student population resulting in fewer jobs available, preference being given not to native speakers, but to Japanese citizens.


Posted by: Marlen at February 6, 2006 12:34 AM

I've been teaching ESL/EFL around Asia for quite a time. My observation is that the market itself (in most countries in Asia) is discriminatory when it comes to hiring ESL/EFL teachers.
Many schools including (international schools) hire native speakers because that is what the students and their parents want.They have this generalization about "native speakers" of any of the English speaking countries regardless of skin color.However,there are also schools that hire English teachers because they have the qualifications, expertise and experience. And that teacher should prove to the world what he or she is capable of--that she/he is an effective teacher.The point is one has to cross that boundary that it's not only the native speakers who can teach English.Others--can,too.Hiring "native speakers" is a reality and one has to deal with that. Who's to blame? Well, the other side of the school is that it is also business. It has to give what the market wants.

Posted by: Eona at March 9, 2006 06:43 AM

Who will save us from the new "imperialism"?- Many of us grew up with our mother tongue, and the English language (of the colonial masters), using it as the medium of expression in education , commerce, politics. Some of us even went further to study it as a first degree, and then ESOL as a second degree! because we have the love of others in our hearts, who have not been exposed to the English language, and, therefore, would be left behind, because they will never secure decent jobs in the USA without adequate command of the English language! What rude shock to discover that one wouldn't get a chance to work where one wants because one has not the sweet voice that denotes that your own version of English is coated with the slur and the emphasis of the so-called-native speakers.
I think the leaders in the field of ESL, many who are "native speakers" should lead the way to enlighten the ESL employment world about what should be their priority in hiring. What should be the minimum qualifications etc? What test can they administer to potential hirees to determine their suitability. Let's get beyond the superficiality of accent and tap into the priceless riches of the "non-native" speakers wealth of culture, empathy, experience and dedication to work. Common, we know our stuff and we grew up the hard way, so we get the work done better and faster! That is the truth!. Your native speakers are privileged so they have no idea what it means to want to speak English very badly! We do, we the non-native speakers!

Posted by: Remi at March 9, 2006 06:33 PM

I've been hiring for part-time ESL positions in the US for a year. My experiences:
1. Female applicants outnumber male applicants 5-1.
2. Male applicants for part-time work are disproportionately (85%?) losers. The same is true of about 60% of applicants 40+ (I'm a male, 50+.)
3. Some positions demand a high level of sustained energy. E.g., a 16-hour/day, 7-day / week, 4 week summer camp in Asia I recruited for. Age correlates with energy.
4. Students have readily accepted Asian-American native speakers. No African-Americans have applied.
5. Students have sharply rejected any teachers (white included) whose incompetence in any area was evident. To students, competence includes native-speaker accent.
The list could go on, but despite my "bias" toward diversity, outcomes aren't "equal".

Posted by: Lee McMullin at September 6, 2007 02:07 PM


I'm an ESL teacher and have been teaching for over 8 years.

About two years ago, intending to find a teaching job overseas, I took a course to get ESL certification. The ads had said that they guaranteed that upon finishing the course, we would land on a teaching job somewhere overseas and they would help us out in our job seeking through their networks in some countries where ESL is such lucrative employment such as Japan or Korea. At that time, getting one seemed to be possible despite me being non-native speaker. I was confident that having had 8 years experience in the field plus an TESOL certification, excellent IELTS and TOEFL score would be enough to land me on a teaching job in either Japan or Korea..or China. Little did I know how discriminative the ESL employment is when it comes to hiring teachers.

It has been two years since I began my job hunting. Hundreds if not thousands of applications have been sent out with almost no replies. Only one or two responded with predictable replies such as "Although I am personally against racial discrimination, the students prefer native speakers here. I regret to say that I cannot further your application", "Your qualifications are excellent, but we need native speakers"... Even one agent that recruits ALT in Japan made a 'funny' statement "You have excellent qualifications but since you come from Indonesia I cannot further your application. We would like a teacher who could teach students here about being tolerant.." What does this mean? How could someone judge someone else negatively so easily based on where this person comes from?

I agree that the market itself applies discrimination towards non-native English speakers. The employers argue that they say the native speakers preference over non native is because they reasons that native English speaking teachers can explain idiomatic expression better, so what if non-native speaking ESL teachers don't use idiomatic expressions as much as the native ones? Is it the purpose of teaching English? So that people around the world speak English either like the British, American, Canadian or Australian for instance? If two non-native English speakers bump into each other, would the communication in English between them fail just because they don't use idiomatic expressions?

I know that I cannot blame the employers for trying to meet the demand of their customers a.k.a. 'students'. I believe, in case of Asian countries, that Asian people are hard to their fellow Asian. Asian tend to look up Western people with such admiration and look down on the other Asian. They always think that everything that comes from the West is the best. Western looks, food everything! Students prefer native English speaking teachers because they are Western especially if the teachers are caucasian. I don't know whether it is because they have this stupid mindset that native speakers will guarantee their success or it is exciting just to be able to admire caucasian looks closely.

These teachers get paid double or even triple of what the Asian teachers get. I don't know in other Asian countries but in Indonesia this is the case. How come it happens? We have the same workload!! Is it because their looks that most Asian admire? Or is it because of their qualifications? Some of my friends are non-native speakers. They speak English fluently and hold CELTA. But somehow they don't want to venture overseas for fear of being racially discriminated.

We are not in colonial age where Western were looked up with such fear and dumb admiration. It is time for Asian ESL employers and students to appreciate Asian non-native English speaking teachers and to treat them the way they treat their native English speaking teachers.

Posted by: feronia258 at January 29, 2008 05:59 AM

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