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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.

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amamic1
Guest

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.

Torn Halves
Member

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… Read more »

Nick
Guest

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… Read more »

silversal
Guest

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?

Katy Simpson
Guest

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… Read more »

Altan Nevcombe
Guest
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.

Nick
Guest

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!]

mel
Guest
mel

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… Read more »

englishtutorbrisbane
Guest

Reblogged this on englishtutorbrisbane and commented:
Interesting!

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[…] Mike Griffin’s post, Nick Michelioudakis has written on this website about the halo currently seen around the native speaker teacher – that warm glow of authenticity enjoyed by NESTs who are perceived to be the “real thing”. […]

Dave Boydon
Guest
Dave Boydon

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.

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[…] from the post-colonial imperial order, equity cannot be achieved. Nick Michelioudakis showed how the halo effect might put NNESTs at an instant disadvantage, while most recently Andrew Woodberry argued in his […]

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[…] To be frank, my dear fellow non-recognized native speakers, I fear we find ourselves very much grasping the short end of the stick. We were not born in one of the key passport countries and thus are at a distinct disadvantage from the get go. While several equality issues regarding race or gender have been resolved in our time, the EFL industry remains actively discriminatory, seemingly concerned more about country of origin than it is of teacher quality or reliability. It’s like entering a ring or stadium to compete against someone who already has the referee’s favour. […]

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[…] You might be interested in reading his three posts published on TEA blog: ‘Why are there so few NNESTs at the top? – the Magnifier effect’, ‘Screening out the chaff’ and ‘Who owns ELT? The Halo effect’. […]

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[…] 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 […]

pailasandra
Guest
pailasandra

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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