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‘The Halo Effect and racism in ELT – research findings from Indonesia’ by Angga Kramadibrata

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.

1
Figure 1. NEST video
2
Figure 2. Non-NEST video

 

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:

  1. Even with the same exact animations, participants were more engaged with the Caucasian NEST video;
  2. 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,
  3. 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).

IMG_2122
Design @teflninja

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.

Design: @Teflninja
Design: @Teflninja

References:

  • 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 KramadibrataAngga 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.

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eltnick
Guest

Hi Angaa. I simply LOVED this study! It’s simple, straightforward, easy to understand and easily replicable. I am sure that were we to conduct similar studies on teachers’ perceptions of NEST – NNEST speakers for instance, we’d get very similar results. Re the likelihood of change in the future however, I am not quite so sure about how possible it is for us to overcome our biases through conscious effort… I somehow feel that lots of the support we get in our field is more due to the fact that declaring in favour of equity in TEFL is the PC… Read more »

Angga Kramadibrata
Guest
Angga Kramadibrata

Thanks for the positive comments, Nick! I really appreciate it. From what I’ve read (and I’m not trained in psychology so to whoever is reading, please feel free to say that I’ve got it backwards), these cognitive biases are hard-wired in our psyches. They don’t really change as much as we can minimise their effects through consciousness, and raised awareness. Perhaps we can’t change what our lizard brain thinks, but at least we can change what our conscious brain does. This, I believe is what matters. Most of the processes in our brain is automatised, and we can’t really do… Read more »

eltnick
Guest

Thank you Angga for your reply. Yes, I totally agree with you – there is no reason why we could not have a two-pronged approach towards the same goal. After all, I think we all agree we need to try to put an end to this kind of discrimination if we can. Hope we get to meet at some point so we can discuss these things at length. 🙂

Nicky Sekino
Guest

The controversy of native or non-native speakers does not seem to end and the decision to give more value to native speakers over their non-native counterparts is often given by employers. It is only natural for the victim of such injustice to complain particularly when there is a difference in salaries, which is in favor of native speakers of English as Kramadibrata indicates. If employers pay more to native speakers based only on the fact they are native speakers of English, it indicates that the native speaker status works as a commodity. Simply put, someone being a native speaker of… Read more »

Angga Kramadibrata
Guest
Angga Kramadibrata

Hi Nicky, Thanks for the comment! I couldn’t agree more with what you say, a teacher’s nativeness is a commodity. Though to be honest, I think it’s more than that. Though I hold an Indonesian passport, having grown up in Australia, I’m a native speaker of English. I mean when I first came back to Indonesia, I could barely speak a handful of utterances! So my school did consider me as a native speaker. That said, even with the experience and the qualifications I have, the amount of effort I had to put in to prove that to students, parents,… Read more »

Carl
Guest

Nicky, I agree with you that human characteristics can themselves be commodities. No amount of academic or ethical considerations about value, I don’t believe, will trump individuals’ freedoms and predilections to ascribe value to characteristics they perceive. It is true that many of these evaluations result from historic cultural dynamics, but then all manner of important present phenomena are predicated on earlier ones. I see no reason human tastes must be different. We are constantly judging one another. If some arenas of judgment (mate selection, friendship…) are open to prejudicial motivations, others are likely to be, as well, regardless our… Read more »

ald220486
Guest

Thank you very much for this enlightining posting, Mas Angga. I’m so proud knowing that an Indonesian such as myself can actually write this wonderfully! It’s very inspiring. As per the matter at hand, I agree with both your conception and ELTNICK’s. For the long haul, there needs to be a paradigm shift over the fallacy i.e. nNEST is less credentialed than is NEST. But in addition and more importantly, we need to create a system in which the desicive factor isn’t mainly (if not merely) one’s colors; I’d suggest a portfolio mano-o-mano to name an instance. Anyway, people change… Read more »

Angga Kramadibrata
Guest
Angga Kramadibrata

Hello there! Thanks for the comment! There is a lot of truth in what you say, and I’ve seen that a lot myself. I think the thing to remember is at the end of the day, nativeness doesn’t add or subtract to your ability in teaching a language. Some of the best teachers I’ve seen have been native speakers, and some of the worst have been native speakers as well. The same thing goes for non-native speakers. Same thing goes for educational background. Some of the best teachers I’ve seen have come from economics, geography, chemical engineering! And some of… Read more »

TeamBritanniaHu
Guest

I agree that, for most posts, in most countries, there should no longer be any need for discrimination in favour of NESTs. However, we cannot ignore the fact that positive discrimination in favour of recruitment and in-service training of qualified NESTs, to work alongside indigenous teachers of English, has assisted and accelerated the development of communicative English language teaching in many countries, including Hungary (where I have worked for ten years), where English was/is taught purely as a foreign language in state-funded schools, using the first language rather than the target language as the main medium. The issue is not… Read more »

Angga Kramadibrata
Guest
Angga Kramadibrata

Hi there! Thanks for the comments, this does make one think, doesn’t it? Regarding your first comment, I actually do make that point in my journal article. I guess that trying to condense a 7,000 word research report into a 1,500 word blog post intended for non-academic audiences can only cause more issues. “Another possible reason for this attitude is that historically, Non-NESTs, especially in less economically advantaged places such as non-white neighbourhoods in post-Apartheid South Africa, are quite often not as well trained as their NEST counterparts (Chick, 1996). Some argue that even now, many Indonesian English teachers lack… Read more »

Joe
Guest
Joe

One thing I wonder is how much is made of qualifications of teachers when it comes to marketing courses. It’s very difficult as a student, particularly at a low level (or as a parent, where you don’t actually see the teacher), to know whether a particular teacher is able to speak a decent standard of English. In Vietnam, where I work, a lot of people’s experience of learning English is of learning from someone who is intermediate level at best, so that’s probably what they associate with nNESTs. The NEST guarantees at least that they will speak the language to… Read more »

Angga Kramadibrata
Guest

Dear Joe, Thank you for the response. You’re absolutely correct when you say that in a lot of contexts, having a native speaker does guarantee a good level of English, at least. I remember high school in Indonesia where the teacher had worse English than at least half of the class. There are a lot of contexts in which further training is needed to ensure that teachers actually have a sufficiently good level of English. You make a lot of valid points there, and the frustration that your Irish friend faced is something that I see quite recently here. It’s… Read more »

Angga Kramadibrata
Guest

Hi Joe,

Thanks for your response. You’ve made a lot of cogent points that I couldn’t agree with more! It’s frustrating that the bias that our students and parents feel can influence our HR practices this much. And yes, we definitely do need to communicate better with the market. I see the injustices of this institutionalized discrimination on a daily basis, and I kind of feel that I’m part of the problem because I’m not doing enough.

Lakshmi Kala Prakash
Guest

Hi Angaa, Thanks for sharing your thoughts and research on this topic. Your blog is clear and easy to understand. The research conducted by you is of course timely, yet not exclusive. This is an issue that continues to test the resolve of those against discrimination in more ways than one. As an EFL teacher and Ph.D. Candidate, I can see how interdisciplinary forces would be needed to arrive at some possible solutions for the future. The recent Plenary Presentation at IATEFL online by Silvana Richardson does put the underlying demons in a clearer light and offers subtle suggestions for… Read more »

Angga Kramadibrata
Guest

Hi Lakshmi,

Thank you very much for your kind words. Watching that Plenary was quite something, wasn’t it? We really do need to move on from labeling teachers as NEST and Non-NEST.

Carl
Guest

I am an African descended man of US citizenry in my forties with three degrees, all from US Ivy League universities, including a terminal doctorate, and an accredited certification in TEFL. The horrible US economy this year motivated me to seek a teaching post outside the US, for which I believed, wrongly, I’d be a very attractive candidate. Months and literally hundreds of applications later, many requiring costly investments in ancillary professional services, I have not a single job offer. Language schools from Asia feel comfortable admitting to me that my obvious African heritage is a problem for them, despite… Read more »

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