Native Speakers and the Equality Act

When applying for jobs, especially in languages, you often come across the words ‘native speaker’. Whether it’s for a language teacher, a translator, an interpreter or any other general roles that require you to speak another language. Some companies are direct and put in the job description ‘must be a XX native speaker’, which kind of makes sense when it’s a language teaching role, or translating – you should always translate from a foreign language to your native language, rather than vice-versa.

But then again, does it make sense? During secondary school, all the teachers in the language department were British, and that didn’t effect my grades or learning experiences. We had native language assistants who would come in a few days a week for conversation classes, cultural immersion and other things, but the majority of my Spanish was learnt from a British teacher.

So now, as I’m actively seeking a job where I can use my language skills – particularly my Mandarin skills, I do get disheartened and angry when I see employers demand native speakers. In some cases, native Chinese speakers’ native language isn’t even standard Mandarin, their native language is a Chinese dialect, and many dialects in China are incomprehensible to speakers of other dialects. Whereas my Chinese is so 标准 that native speakers are amazed at my almost textbook/newsreader style of correct pronunciation.

I know if I was invited for an interview, I could probably impress the employer with my Mandarin skills, but I’m often either dissuaded from making an application because they ask for a native speaker, or am rejected at the first stage (because I’m not a native speaker).

It seems some employers are aware of this possible breach of the Equality Act, so they sometimes include a line that says something like you must have terrifically great Chinese language skills, and have good English skills too.  This to me shouts ‘we want a native Chinese speaker but are too afraid to state it so directly’.

So, are employers breaking the Equality Act by requesting native speakers? I have studied Mandarin for over 5 years, including a year and a half studying at Chinese universities. I have passed the HSK Level 6 exam (HSK is the international standardised test for non-native Mandarin speakers). Level 6 is the highest, and the description says ‘…[HSK Level 6 holder’s] language application ability is close to that of a native speaker’s’. I often sit here thinking to myself, what more do I need to do to apply the skills I’ve spent so much time on acquiring in a suitable job? I have a university degree, an international qualification, firsthand experience of living in China and I am so passionate.

The UK Government is currently pushing for more people to apply to be language teachers, but from my experience, continuing languages at higher education has not reaped me the rewards I believed it would have so far. If the UK wants to encourage language learning, there should be opportunities for linguists to flourish in jobs that are challenging and rewarding, not restrictions imposed on us because we were born in Britain.

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2 thoughts on “Native Speakers and the Equality Act

  1. When I was learning Chinese at Uni, some teachers were Spanish. Their Chinese was obviously very good and no one thought they were learning less than if they had a Chinese teacher. But nowadays there is still this stupidity about the native thing, when I think natives should only be a requisite for translation. But what I see are translation agencies employing non natives to translate into Spanish (I’ve had to proofread a few horrible texts done by Chinese people, from Chinese into Spanish. Just imagine the result…) and schools and companies requiring natives when there is no need. A teacher doesn’t have to be a native, and in most companies that require natives an advanced level of the language is enough.

    When I was looking for a job in Spain I was trying to find something related to Chinese. ALL of the offers wanted native Chinese. I applied anyway. I think it’s just that people just don’t believe a foreigner can have a good command of Chinese, but you can prove them wrong. That company contacted me, had a Chinese employee testing my skills, and I got the job.

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