One day, a colleague and I were chatting in the staff room when the rather vulgar issue of salary came up. We were both decrying the fact that at the language schools that we have taught in, Native English Speaker Teachers (NESTs) are paid more than their (quite often) equally qualified and experienced non-native counterparts. Shouldn’t equal experience equal equal pay? He turned to me and said, “You know why that is, right? People don’t go to see Mission Impossible 3 because it’s any good; people go to see Tom Cruise.”
It’s fairly easy to make that leap, to think that NESTs are the ‘stars’ of a language school. Like Tom Cruise, NESTs are paid more, featured more prominently on marketing materials, and have enough good will for moviegoers/students to forgive one or two or three ill-judged decisions (I’m looking at you Mission Impossible 2).
During my ten years of teaching English in Indonesia, I’ve never heard any of my students or my clients actually question the assumption that NESTs are are the stars of the show. No one has ever questioned why is it that classes with NESTs are more expensive than those that are mixed with Non-NESTs? No one has ever requested that their classes should have more Non-NESTs. No one has ever complained that “Hey! We were supposed to have a Non-NEST this week! Not another NEST!”
However, this widely held belief that NESTs are inherently better than Non-NESTs, called the Native Speaker Fallacy, or alternatively the Native Speaker Myth, doesn’t really hold up to much scrutiny. For one thing, Non-NESTs have already been successful at learning English well enough that they could teach it. That experience would count as a positive, right? But, no. In the minds of many people, that is trumped by the fact that another teacher just happened to be born in an English-speaking country.
I could go on, but I’m here to discuss the results of my research, and anyways, I’m guessing people who read this blog are already familiar with a lot of the arguments why this thinking is questionable, so I’m just going to go ahead and refer you to this link with a list of reading material, or to be cheeky, recommend this one to read the introduction on my research on this very topic.
The main issue is, that this thinking is entrenched in the minds of the public. Academics might question this thinking, but the layperson does not. And instead of trying to educate the public, many school managers and recruiters pander to this belief; if you look at ELT job listings there is a great emphasis on being a native speaker and even on having the right Caucasian look (Ruecker & Ives, 2015). To see how far we have yet to go on this, look at this blog’s hall of fame. We congratulate schools who do not have discriminatory hiring practices. This is like congratulating a duck for quacking. Please do not take this as an attack on the spirit behind the hall of fame or the schools who are on it. This is a good start, and every little bit counts, but in a perfect world, we shouldn’t be lauding schools who aren’t inequitable in their recruitment, we should be expecting it.
So how can we rectify this? Well, as Zach De La Rocha puts it, “Know your enemy.”
Last year, I set out to identify how much an English teacher’s perceived nativeness would influence Indonesian students’ attitudes towards them. To that end, I created two animated teaching videos with identical animations and scripts but with different narrators; one using Indian English, the other British English. In addition to that, the video also visually identified them as Asian and Caucasian (though I should say that the pictures used were not of the narrators). Two groups of Indonesian students were then asked to fill in a questionnaire that was designed to elicit their implicit attitudes towards the teachers.
This is what I found – please note that this is only a very brief summary of the findings of the study. To read more on the findings, refer to: Kramadibrata, A. (2016), which can be accessed here.
There was a statistically significant preference for the British-English-Speaking Caucasian teacher over the Indian-English-Speaking Asian teacher (p<0.01). This preference was also carried over two out of three attitudinal metrics, namely: engagement (p<0.05) and clarity of explanation (p<0.05), but NOT comprehensibility (p>0.05).
This tells us that:
- Even with the same exact animations, participants were more engaged with the Caucasian NEST video;
- Even with the same script and only a small difference in pace (1.4 words per minute), participants found the explanation in the video with the Caucasian NEST’s much clearer; and,
- Even though the comprehensibility of both teachers had a statistically insignificant difference, participants still preferred to be taught by the Caucasian NEST.
Now, before we continue, I must say that these conclusions are in no way conclusive. There were only 67 participants taken from one particular context, and used non-probabilistic sampling. Also, Indonesians aren’t as familiar with Indian English as they are with British English, so this could have influenced answers as well.
With that said, the findings are indicative of the strength of the Native Speaker Fallacy. With most things being equal, it does seem that Indonesian students prefer NESTs to Non-NESTs. This partiality for NESTs seems to be well established in Indonesia, and may cause students to prefer NESTs just because. My position is that this preference is similar to a well-documented cognitive bias that psychologists call the Halo Effect, which is the “widespread human tendency to make unwarranted inferences about a person’s unknown characteristics on the basis of known but often irrelevant information” (Forgas, 2011). In this case, a teacher’s perceived effectiveness is based on whether or not (s)he is a Caucasian NEST (you might also be interested in this post by Nick Michelioudakis where he explains the ‘Halo Effect’ in ELT).
Though it is said that cognitive biases are hard-wired into the human brain and is nearly impossible to dispel, it has been shown that mitigation is possible through awareness. The bias may remain implicitly, but the effects can be diminished by conscious thought. This awareness has already begun to permeate into society. An interesting thing about this study is that the abovementioned implicit attitudes were not necessarily in-line with the data on explicit attitudes gathered through the interviews and questionnaire. Though there is an implicit preference for NESTs over Non-NESTs, many participants could see there are advantages and disadvantages to being taught by either. A few even said that nativeness doesn’t really matter, and that what’s important is a teacher’s personality and how they teach. There was even one respondent who said: “Many people think that local teachers aren’t as good (as native speakers)… that mindset has to change…” (Kramadibrata, A. 2016, p. 291)
The great thing about being human, is that we are able to overcome the impulses from our lizard brain by understanding and using our ability to reason. There does exist a bias in the participants of my study. However, it’s implicit. I believe that when most of the participants actually think about it, they really do believe that there is more to a teacher than her nativeness, it’s just that they are conditioned by the prestige surrounding NESTs. This can be mitigated. Tom Cruise wasn’t always a movie star. People only started to see him in that light ever since he starred in Top Gun, and then that was only really cemented when he did Mission Impossible (the first).
The tide is changing, and I believe that in academia at least, Non-NESTs have already had their Top Gun moment. But we really need to change the light in which Non-NESTs are viewed by the general public, and cement their place as movie stars alongside NESTs. The discourse on equality in TEFL needs to be moved from the hands of academics, and into those of practitioners and students. This is why Marek’s work with the TEFL Equity Advocates and his Hall of Fame is so important. All of us can help make a difference by raising awareness of these ideas and making them less opaque to the general public (there’s a reason that this post is written in a style semi-suitable to the layperson). Student-facing lesson plans such as Anes Mohamed’s on English with an accent can open our students’ eyes on Linguistic Imperialism and perhaps reduce their sometimes unhealthy and unnecessary obsession with achieving a ‘native’ accent. And the teacher-facing training session entitled I am just me by Zhenya Polosatova and Michael Griffin can help teachers become more comfortable and confident in their own abilities while empowering them to discuss these issues with their peers, students, and clients, further spreading the movement.
I’ve been trying really hard to come up with a pithy way to end this post, but I really can’t find the words. There’s just much too much I want to say. But I guess that’s what we need, though. We shouldn’t be ending this post, we should be extending the discussion of this post with our colleagues, our students, our clients, and our managers.
So stop reading, and start speaking out for a fairer ELT.
- De La Rocha, Z. (1992). Know your enemy. Rage Against The Machine [CD]. New York, NY: Atlantic Records
- Forgas, J. P. (2011). She just doesn’t look like a philosopher…? Affective influences on the halo effect in impression formation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41(7), 812-817
- Kramadibrata, A. (2016). The Halo Surrounding Native English Speaker Teachers in Indonesia. Indonesian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 5(2), pp 282-293. DOI: 10.17509/ijal.v5i2.1352
- Ruecker, T., & Ives, L. (2015). White Native English Speakers Needed: The Rhetorical Construction of Privilege in Online Teacher Recruitment Spaces. TESOL Quarterly, 49(4), 733–756. http://doi.org/10.1002/tesq.195
Angga Kramadibrata is an EFL teacher and teacher trainer based in Bandung, Indonesia. He holds a Masters in English Language Teaching and is currently trying to not let his predilection for procrastination delay too much his completion of the last module of the Cambridge Delta. His interests include the teaching of pronunciation, teacher identity, and student attitudes towards language learning. Apart from that, he is particularly fond of DC Comics, his daughter, and incredibly spicy foods.