Do you need to be a Native Speaker of English to get an English teaching job?

This is a question that is asked all the time: can I get a job as a non-native speaker of English? There’s good news and bad news. Yes it is possible, but it isn’t going to be easy for a variety of reasons.

Many Japanese companies hire based on public perception

It’s unfortunate, but a lot of Japanese companies will select their teacher based on looks as much as ability. In Japan, it is almost an advertisement in itself to have a stereotypical looking foreigner teaching at their school. Even Japanese Americans, who grew up in the US and speak English just as well as any other American, may have a harder time getting the job than a blonde girl who epitomises the Japanese view of a typical foreigner.

This is because the Japanese have an image of what they expect an English speaking foreigner to look like. Just ask any Europeans who don’t speak English – Japanese will reply to them and try to talk to them in English all the time, even after they say that they don’t speak English! Cultural perceptions are ingrained and hard to ignore, and for that reason it can be hard to get those English teaching jobs when you don’t match Japanese expectations for their English  teacher.

There are actually more non-native English speakers, so competition can be fierce

There are twice as many non-native speakers of English in the world as native speakers. Even in Japan, where you can easily spot a foreigner in a crowd, caucasian English speakers only make up a few percentage points. According to the Japanese Foreign Ministry statistics, there are only 72,000 Europeans and 68,000 North Americans living in Japan, out of 2.2 million foreigners. That’s a lot more of just about everybody else than Caucasian foreigners. This can make the competition pretty rough for non-natives.

You might have an accent

One of the key reasons why Japanese companies hire native English speakers is to expose the students to native sounding English. If you are a non-native speaker, it is possible that you have an accent influenced by your mother tongue. English speakers from the Philippines, India or Jamaica will have a different accent than many employers will expect based on watching lots of American dramas, even though English is a national language of the country! I’m British, and at one of my schools I have even been told to pronounce things in the American style (AKA incorrectly). There’s just no escaping it; Japanese people expect American English accents and if you don’t have one (even if you have a real English accent) there might be a problem.

However!

This doesn’t mean that you can’t get a job teaching English here. A lot of native speakers are totally untrained in teaching the language and have no other experience of language acquisition other than growing up. Getting some qualifications and improving your ability to actually do the job will make a world of difference here. We talked about this on a previous post about getting a TEFL qualification, and for non-native speakers this should be a bare minimum.

On top of that, Japanese people really love their tests (oh yes!) and if your birth certificate doesn’t have America, England, Canada or Australia on it, you might need to prove your English ability with a TOEIC score. Getting over 900 should be easy if your English is good enough to teach it, and the closer you get to the maximum score of 990, the better your chance of securing a job using English in Japan.

Benefits of being a non-native

There are a lot of difficult parts about being a non-native, but the key good point is that once you do find a company that is willing to hire you, there is a much higher chance that the school is actually a decent place to work, and has an interesting and challenging English program. Let me explain:

Schools that are just looking for a friendly caucasian gaijin face might actually just hire anybody because they don’t actually care if English is being taught. Some schools may only be hiring foreigners to lend legitimacy to their school, and their only goal can sometimes be getting the money for lessons. It’s a shame, but it does happen here in Japan. If they want a good teacher and not just a stereotype for their marketing imagery, then chances are they will be running a better kind of school that values your skills as a teacher and not just as a marketing prop.

Your education can speak for itself

I once met a very talented woman who was looking to teach English in Japan. She had advanced degrees from US universities and almost no accent to speak of, but she came from India and struggled to get an interview for an English teaching job. After getting her CELTA and getting a 900+ on TOEIC, she suddenly found that many more employers were asking to meet with her, and she landed a sweet job not long after.

If you are educated and have qualifications to teach English, companies and schools will have more respect for you here in Japan. As we have said before, it is a country that values qualifications and proof, so getting some of those proofs is the first step to getting an English teaching job as a non-native.

Are you a non-native speaker of English? Have you had any trouble finding a job in Japan? What did you do about it? Let us know in the comments below.

13 Comments

  1. Down at the corner

    Non-native! Had no problems finding jobs in Japan. Started in the human tape recorder (archaic word these days?) But climbed the work ladder and eventually found a fairly interesting position. Then left Japan because myJapanese wife realized life in Europe is better for women and children (doubled my salary as well).

    The one thing you notice when meeting native-speakers is that many of them are content being the expected stereotype and the reason is making money without an effort. A majority of them will return back home rather soon anyway. Thinking about it, I’d say it is quite a sweet deal for many Americans and English considering what jobs (and salaries) they can land in their home countries. In Europe, we have a surplus of people holding degrees which are mainly useless (B.A. or B.th. for example). Work hard for peanuts in Europe or dick around for 250k/month in Japan? I have met numerous native-speakers telling this story.

    Lately I have had a look at the job market in Japan. More or less all positions on for example Gaijinpot are ALT positions. NATIVE-SPEAKER is more or less the only listed requirement (apart from a BA). However, looking at the more “prestigious” positions it becomes clear that academic merit weighs heavier than birth country or native tounge. A native tounge isn’t much of a help when giving courses in Applied Linguistics or Renaissance literature.

    Finally, it is probably a less known fact both to Japanese and native-speakers that for example the Nordic languages (+ Icelandic) and Dutch are very similar to English. They share native words and the greater part of the contemporary vocabulary with English. In addition, the North European languages and English are gramatically very close. However, I do agree with the TOEIC being useful for non-natives not holding a degree relevant to teaching.

    1. Avatar
      Charlie Moritz Author

      Absolutely – if the only requirement is being a native speaker, the pay won’t be great and you won’t be afforded much respect. This is something that really bothers a lot of foreigners coming to Japan, because they feel like somehow they are entitled to more respect than they have actually earned. If you are on your first year out of university, teaching English without a licence or qualification, and think you should be called sensei like the Japanese staff who have done a lot more work to get that kind of respect, no way! In Japan, respect is earned, it is not a right, and that is how it should be.
      Non native speakers with great qualifications can go much higher up the ladder then natives with no marketable skills other than their accent.

  2. Veronica Truman

    What about the Perceived Non-Native English speaker? Jamaicans, unfortunately, fall within this bracket. As you mentioned in your article, English speakers from the Philippines, India or Jamaica will have a different accent than many employers will expect based on watching lots of American dramas, even though English is a national language of the country!” Jamaicans are native speakers. They switch to pure English when necessary.

    The best overall teacher I ever came across was from Jamaica! She was very articulate, no accent and had great delivery style! To be honest, I was a bit taken aback after watching one of her classes. I am still in awe. Totally flawless pronunciation and presentation skills.

    I am not saying all Jamaicans are like that, but can only assume that those who teach English abroad are of the best caliber.

    Then again, you touched on another degrading aspect of the hiring process, when you stated in your article that there are schools that are just looking for a friendly caucasian gaijin face, and that some schools may only be hiring foreigners to lend legitimacy to their school, and their only goal can sometimes be getting the money for lessons. Yes, it’s a shame, and it does happen here in Japan. All true, and unless there is a major change in the superficial Japanese mind-set, Japanese people will forever be among the worst of English as a second language speakers.

    I had to write this, as I too thought Jamaicans were non-natives.

    1. Avatar
      Charlie Moritz Author

      Thanks for your comment, and it is a real shame that some people struggle to get recognition based only on appearance. It takes a long time for cultural attitudes to change, and remember that Japan was for the most part closed to the world until after WW2, so in just two generations I think Japan has come an incredibly long way towards a more open and globally minded attitude. I hope that the diversity of English language speakers will be something that gets more and more consideration in the future.

  3. Mary

    Since when is the American accent incorrect? Native English is native English, period/full stop.

  4. InsertNameHere

    I’m getting pretty frustrated in my search, and as much as I like Japan the discriminatory hiring practices are starting to bother me (not that this is the first country where I’ve faced discrimination). I thought my profile would be highly desirable here, since I have:

    -experience teaching kids and adults
    -worked with kids in other capacities
    -an interest in working with kids
    -a Master’s
    -basic Japanese
    -stellar recommendations
    -I’m a linguist

    However, though I was educated mostly in an English speaking country, I never got citizenship from that country, nor am I white – I don’t know which the Japanese find worse, really. I do have a slight accent but only native speakers ever detect it, if at all. I’ve lost count of the number of applications I’ve submitted in Japan over the years (!), and no matter how I present myself I get nowhere.

    1. Avatar
      Charlie Moritz Author

      That sounds awful. It isn’t just the qualifications though, and although it is great to have them, not leveraging them in the right way can be the difference between and interview and your resume being tossed in the trash. Take a look at this article I wrote about getting the interview. Once you have an interview you have a chance to show your skills, but getting the interview can be the hardest part. Don’t give up, stay hungry.

  5. Charu

    Seeking a English teaching Job in Japan is really challenging although i have studied in an English Medium School and English medium College and worked in a Corporate for 3 Years. And yes i am a Non Native Speaker. Do you recommend me to take TOEIC Exam to get a English teaching Job in Japan ?

    1. Avatar
      Charlie Moritz Author

      Yes Japanese companies often look for a TOEIC test score of over 900/990 for non-native speakers to be considered good enough to teach.

  6. Rafa

    That is actually quite an interesting read! I am originally from Mexico, but I moved to the US in order to get a bachelors (and currently, my masters), and the prospect of teaching english abroad has always seemed interesting to me. My question is, would I still be considered a non-native if I have a degree from the US and by this point I’ve been living for close to 7 years over here?

  7. Subir Banerjee

    I can speak in Japanese and can also write fluently in Hiragana and Katakana !! but sometime forget to remember the kanji !! I can speak english as good as native people !! I worked as a Manager in our National Bank and was working in the Office of the Banking Ombudsman and my job was to settle the dispute arise among the bankers and its clients !! yes tough job but I have enjoyed. I also have experienced to work with the tourists as an interpreter !! I also have the capacity to start and continue any type of job independently !!
    I love and like the Japanese People and Japan !! I need to work in Japan – and it is my dream to be there !! In this connection I would like to mention that I stood first three times in the Japanese Language Speech Contest Held in our city !! and twice in one calendar year !! i.e. in January and December !!! How and where I can get job ????

    1. Avatar
      Charlie Author

      Comments boxes on blogs usually aren’t the best places to find jobs. Try going on a jobs board and applying, get an interview and be a good candidate. If you have the skills people will eventually give you a chance. Good luck!

  8. Maria

    Hi, I’m from Mexico and I don’t have any strong accent so my English is similar to the american one. Also I’m planning to get the CELTA Certificate next. I still don’t know which japanese schools are more open to non-native teachers, but I don’t want to give up.
    I have a couple of questions: If I get a CELTA Certificate do I still need to do the TOEIC exam in order to get a job? Do you know some specific schools that may be more open on hiring non-native teachers? Thank you and thanks for giving us hope :).

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