Who owns ELT? 'The Halo Effect' by Nick Michelioudakis

Before you start reading Nick’s post, please watch the video below which explains ‘the halo effect’ Nick refers to in the article, and shows how superficial features shape our opinions about people.

In the EFL world, being a non-Native English Speaker Teacher (NNEST) means you’re Melvin, the short guy.

Nick Michelioudakis “Who owns English? Is it the native speakers (NS) or the non-native ones (NNS)? And who owns ELT? Is it Native English Speaker Teachers (NESTs)s or NNESTs? I would like to argue that in the latter case, we still have a long way to go before we come close to anything resembling a level playing field.

It all boils down to accent of course… It’s such a shibboleth, isn’t it? The problem is its saliency. Research shows that babies as young as 6 months old can detect whether someone is speaking with a foreign accent (and, for good evolutionary reasons, they prefer people who sounds like their parents) 1.

But why should it matter? In the past of course, a NEST could serve as a ‘good’ model of ‘The Queen’s English’ (preferably) but these days with so much audio-visual material available, this advantage has all but disappeared given that any NNEST can go to YouTube and bring the Queen herself into the classroom. What is more, studies have shown that a NNEST has some advantages too – she can more easily understand the mistakes her students might make and she is often better able to explain grammar rules to them (due to the fact that she has had to study them herself). [more on it in James’ article: Why I wish I was a NNEST]

Yet this is not quite how things work. Work by Kahnemann, Cialdini and others, has shown that the default state of our mind is ‘laziness’. If you are a DOS and you want to hire a teacher, chances are you are not going to weigh everything up in order to make the right choice. Instead, more often than not, you (like everyone else) will rely on heuristics – fast and frugal devices for making quick decisions.

And as heuristics go, this one is hard to beat. Think about it; there are three key traits a good teacher should have: good knowledge of the language, good knowledge of methodology and the ‘right’ personality (friendly, accessible, enthusiastic etc.). If they are NNEST, you as the DOS need to check all three – if they are NEST, you need only look at two. It’s a no-brainer really… A native-like accent creates a ‘halo effect’ [remember Melvin and Marcus?]. It’s a bit like your handwriting; in a famous study, identical essays were marked more highly in one condition because they were written in more neat handwriting. 2

Nor is it just a question of what the DOS thinks; what about the market? Clients also seem to employ the same heuristic – to a far greater degree perhaps than the more knowledgeable ELT professionals. I remember some time ago a brilliant colleague telling me about her experience in a summer school; despite the fact that the kids were perfectly happy, the DOS had to replace her when a group leader complained that she was not a NEST… (never mind that she had a MSc in ELT…)

‘Unfair’ you might say. Well, I suppose it is… Surely every individual should be judged on the basis of her qualities and qualifications. This issue of stereotyping comes up again and again. Just because a woman has children does not necessarily mean that she can put in less hours at work (and therefore she is perhaps less suitable as a CEO) – yet in 2011 women made up only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs 3.

OK – here is one of my favourite studies: researchers sent out CVs to various employers. The qualifications were exactly the same. The only difference was the name. In one case it was typically white-sounding (Emily, Greg), while in the other case it was black-sounding (Lakisha, Jamal). Guess which ones got more responses 4. Now here is a thought experiment: what if we were to send out 100 identical CVs to various EL schools? Half of them could be signed ‘John Smith’ and the other half ‘George Papadopoulos’. Is there anybody who seriously thinks that the name would make no difference?

Of course in ELT we are a nice lot. So nice perhaps, that this niceness often distorts our perception of reality. I am quite sure that the vast majority of NESTs would like this issue to disappear. Indeed so fervent is this desire, that some of them go so far as to assert that this problem has already vanished! ‘This is not how things should be – ergo, this is not how things are’ * When I hear such pronouncements I just smile. Yet I must say, I sometimes feel the urge to go up to them and whisper in their ear ‘Yes, but you are not black…’ J

*There is a technical term for this; it is called ‘The Moralistic Fallacy’.

1 Kinzler, K. D., Dupoux, E. et al. (2007) ‘The native language of social cognition’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(30): 12557-12580.

2 Nisbett, K. E. & Wilson, T. D. ‘The halo effect: evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1977, 35, 250256.

3 Gneezy, U. & List, J. ‘The Why Axis’ Random House 2013.

4 Bertrand, M. & Mullainathan, S. (2003) ‘Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. National Bureau of Economic Research.

About the author:

nick michelioudakisNick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) is an Academic Consultant with LEH (the representatives of the Pearson PTE G Exams in Greece). In his years of active involvement in the field of ELT he has worked as a teacher, examiner and trainer for both teachers and Oral Examiners. His love of comedy led him to start the ‘Comedy for ELT’ project on YouTube. He has written numerous articles on Methodology, while others from the ‘Psychology and ELT’ series have appeared in many countries. He likes to think of himself as a ‘front-line teacher’ and is interested in one-to-one teaching and student motivation as well as Social and Evolutionary Psychology. When he is not struggling with students, he likes to spend his time in a swimming pool or playing chess. For articles or handouts of his, you can visit his site at www.michelioudakis.org.

30 thoughts on “Who owns ELT? 'The Halo Effect' by Nick Michelioudakis”

  1. Reblogged this on roadsdiverge and commented:
    I normally steer clear of my work on this blog, but being a non-native English teacher and currently finding myself in a situation where many employers won’t even consider me for a job because I’m a non-native speaker, makes this issue very close to my heart. It’s not even so much about teaching as it is about issues such as discrimination, misconception and superficiality.

  2. The halo effect is undeniable and definitely at play. One question your post raises, Nick, is: Is the halo something fixed and immutable? Surely the sort of halo you are discussing is socially constructed or at least massively socially mediated. If a certain accent creates a halo effect surely it is because a whole set of cultural influences are at work in the background – influences that can be challenged and changed. On British TV there was a time when to have any halo effect at all someone had to speak with an RP accent. Things have changed, and the halos have been taken up by the likes of Ant and Dec with very broad regional accents. RP is now more likely to be a handicap than a halo. There is no reason why something similar could not occur in the fields of ELT if the right cultural forces came into play.

    1. Hi Torn! Yes, you are right. While our tendency to fall for ‘Halo Effects’ appears to have something to do with the wiring of our brain, this particular Halo Effect certainly has to do with cultural dynamics which, as you point out, may well change in the future. Having said that, it is going to be a long slog. You see, if one’s N or NN accent is used as a shortcut for someone’s command of English, it still makes some sense (at least for the NS). The problem is the ‘spill-over effect’; the automatic and unfounded assumption many people make that (often minute) differences in linguistic competence automatically translate into real differences in teaching ability.

      1. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that “differences in linguistic competence automatically translate into real differences in teaching ability”. It’s sad that this one factor has gained such prominence and relegated many other traits that make good teachers to a “bush-league” status. I feel that there needs to be a serious rethinking of EFL hiring policies. We need a more logical and fair approach, based – as Kahneman points out in his book – on System 2: conscious and deliberate decisions based on clear criteria, rather than inexplicable prejudice.

  3. The title of your blog is really interesting amamic1:)

    It’s great that you reblogged – I didn’t realise that it was such an overt or bovious issue – I network with many non-native speakers who have jobs in their native countries – are you competing in the English-speaking world?

    1. Hi Silversal,
      You’re right that often NNESTs can find jobs quite easily in their native country, but sometimes they’re discriminated there as well. If you’re a Spaniard and looking for a teaching job in Spain, you’re quite likely to face quite serious problems and discrimination. It’s even worse, though, when you try to go abroad. Around 70% of the jobs you see advertised will be for NESTs only.
      Another point is that since there are so many NNESTs who work (I don’t have any statistics, but my guess would be that there might be up to two times as many NNESTs as NESTs), you might get the impression that there’s no discrimination.
      Where do you work Silversal?

  4. I found it really offensive to be offered a couple of jobs at IATEFL after just a few minutes of small-talk with people I happened to be sat next to, who were at the conference primarily to recruit. When I asked why they would offer me a job without knowing anything about me, they replied that they were tasked with finding NESTs. It was pretty insulting. I want to be offered a job because of my qualifications, experience and expertise, and compete with others on those grounds alone – not because my of my passport, accent, and quite frankly, skin colour too. We’ve had students complain about British Indian teachers at work because they would prefer a NEST… it’s racism plain and simple, and I’m lucky to work in a school that does not tolerate it. But I bet there are plenty of schools where management put the customers’ demands first, regardless of how ill-informed, irrational and offensive those demands might be.

    1. Hi Katy,
      Thanks for sharing your story.
      I completely agree with you. And James Taylor said something similar in his post I think.
      It could make for a good campaign: hire me because I’m a good teacher, not because of where I’m from!
      What do you reckon?

      1. Definitely. I think that it’s vital schools understand what a turn off it is for teachers who have chosen ELT as a profession / career to see that the school places higher value on nationality than qualifications. It actively puts me off applying somewhere, and I imagine most DELTA-qualified, experienced teachers feel the same. So if schools want those kind of teachers, they should think twice before mentioning the N word in their job advert!

        1. I agree. I’d say that the more qualified and experienced the teacher, the less willing there would be to work in a school which only hires NESTs. And the more you know about teaching and learning languages, the less likely you are to discriminate NNESTs. The problem is that often schools are run/owned by people who have little or no experience in language teaching.

          1. ‘The problem is that often schools are run/owned by people who have little or no experience in language teaching.’

            Marek, I think you have hit upon one of the major reasons for all that can be wrong in the world of ELT.

            The question is how can we reach these people and educate them that this way of thinking is outdated and discriminatory.

          2. Hi Mike,
            Thanks for your response.
            I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to your question. Above all, we should believe that change is possible. For me, this project – although still in its early days – has proven that there are many dedicated and passionate professionals in ELT who are willing to devote their time and energy to advocating more equal hiring and employment practices.
            As far as a concrete action plan goes, James has written a very good posts where he lists the different things each and everyone of us can do: http://teflequityadvocates.com/2014/06/08/get-involved-by-james-taylor/
            What do you think? Have you got any ideas how to reach these people?

  5. Altan Nevcombe

    Whilst agreeing with the vast majority of the writers argument,I think to suggest that Natives have only accent as the key differentiator from their non- native colleagues is fallacious.The use and knowledge of idioms and phrasal verbs for example by natives cannot be undervalued.However these assets do not make for better ESL teachers.Having taught abroad in Turkey now for nearly ten years I would concur with all the writers remaining points; particularly the teaching of grammar which most Turkish teachers here are extremely accomplished at.Nevertheless an excellent thought provoking piece.

    1. Hi Altan! Thank you for your kind words. You are right of course – a NEST’s command of language is (usually) superior to that of a NNEST in a number of ways. As you point out, phrasal verbs and idioms immediately come to mind, but the accurate use of prepositions is another give away. The reason I singled out accent is that it is almost instantly detectable and it is the key element behind ‘The Halo Effect’. [NB: Naturally I agree with you that being an expert language user and being a good language teacher are two very different things!]

  6. Excellent. I had this discussion this weekend with a group of people who only wanted to learn languages from native speakers. I’ve been teaching ESL/EFL/etc for 15 years, and hands down the best teachers have been NNS. But there are so many misperceptions about how we learn language, that it is only natural that people believe native speakers are best.
    I like to point out that NS-level fluency and accent is not really all that necessary, because how many of our students are ever going to achieve NS-level fluency themselves? How many will ever be able to speak without an accent? Much better they have a teacher who understands how to explain grammatical concepts and can anticipate problems with understanding and use.

    Besides, which particular English accent should a teacher have? 🙂

    1. Hi Mel,
      Thanks for commenting.
      I think you make a very valid point when you say: “how many of our students are ever going to achieve NS-level fluency themselves? How many will ever be able to speak without an accent?” The proportion is indeed very small. For the vast majority of students the main goal is to be communicative usually in an international and multilingual setting, i.e. when most of their interlocutors will be other non-natives. As a result, setting the native speaker model as a goal can be regarded as unfair, unrealistic and perhaps irrelevant, but for some specific cases, e.g. language geeks like me 😉
      Regarding accent, we all speak with one, native and non-native speakers alike. For me the emphasis should be put on intelligibility, not on perfectly taking off a particular accent, which again is a rather unfair and unrealistic goal to set for our students.
      What do you think?

      1. I wonder if there is still a myth that our students are going to use their language to communicate with native speakers in a foreign context. I find it more realistic to discuss with them their future language use, and what will be most useful for them. For example, my South Korean adults didn’t need ‘slang’ because they were most likely to be communicating with Chinese or Japanese speakers who wouldn’t understand it. But the high school students I taught in the last couple of years were heading off to British universities, so needed a different language skill set including academic structures and social skills.

        I think I spend nearly as much time teaching students about language learning as I do teaching language. 🙂

        1. I couldn’t agree more. To a great extent, what we do in class should come as a response to our students’ needs. Yet, many language schools do the opposite – we’ll give you a NEST because this is what you need and want, I’m sure of it, so I won’t ask you.
          Me too! Many – especially at low levels – have no clue how to tackle the language, because they’ve never done it before.
          BTW, you could try to extend your comments into a post for this blog, Mel 🙂

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  8. I did some research on this in the late Nineties (See IATEFL Conference Selections, 1999. One of the defining criteria for NEST status which the research highlighted by NNESTs was the notion of levels of ‘comfort and discomfort’ when using English. I argued at the time, and still think today, that discomfort with English (or any language) is not exclusive to Non-native speakers or NNESTs. Comfort with using a language is very much contextual. A form of Anomic Aphasia can strike at any of us, particularly in stress inducing situations, like given a presentation at an IATEFL conference.

    1. Hi Dave,
      A very interesting comment. Thanks a lot. I would love to find out more and read your research.
      My personal experience with learning languages tells me exactly what you pointed out in a post (if I understood contextuality correctly): comfort or discomfort with using a language (be it your first, second, third, etc) has much more to do with the familiarity of the situation you are in. For example, if you have gone through a particular experience (e.g. repairing a car, listening to a football commentary) in a given language, you will feel comfortable talking about it in that language, but not in another, regardless of whether it is your L1 or L2. When I read an article in e.g. Spanish, it’s much easier for me to relate it in that language rather than in a different one I know – even my mother tongue, Polish. On the other hand, although I am completely proficient in Spanish, and my mother tongue is Polish, I’d still rather talk about teaching in English (most likely because I learned everything about it in English, not in Spanish or Polish).
      What do you think, Dave? Could you be persuaded into writing a post for this blog about this?

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  13. I disagree , with many of your comments many non- native speakers ar more than capable of teaching to an extremely high standard .As for accents or comfort with the language one must remember the language is to be spoken and thus increases in accordance with the ability of the individual in the art of expression.A second language is not a bi-lingual acquistion ,but a means ,be that for academic or non- academic reasons .

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