The Myth of a Silent TEFL Equity

Michael Griffin recently argued on this website for “equity without myths,” arguing that ideas both of native speaker superiority and of non-native speaker superiority in English language teaching are myths that should be dropped. In the name of equity, the discriminatory talk of NESTs and NNESTs should stop. A veil of silence should be drawn across that divisive discourse. And here Mike articulates a more widespread assumption that if we in the teaching profession stop talking in discriminatory ways, then the forms of privilege that currently offend will start to disappear.

There is a risk here, though, that the call to drop these categorical myths spins a new myth – a political myth: the myth that the only thing needed to end this unjustified privilege is the withering away of the categories that once gave it a spurious legitimation. It would be nice if this were true – if a revolution could be effected simply by not saying the wrong things. But is it true, or is it a myth?

There are two sides to the issue. One is strategic: Would dropping those categories in that very limited realm among that limited group of speakers do much to achieve the desired equity? The other side is more theoretical: In putting all the emphasis on these two categories and the qualities of the teachers in question, are we not overlooking the deeper roots of inequity?

To highlight the mythical nature of this thinking about equity we will (at the risk of seeming somewhat frivolous) turn the clock back nearly a thousand years and consider a parallel (imaginary) situation in England in the period following the Norman conquest of 1066 – the conquest of England (where the upper classes spoke Anglo-Saxon) by people speaking a form of French.

Imagine how things could have been a few decades after the English had buried those fallen in battle and after they had begun to be impressed by the airs and graces of their new, more civilised rulers. Imagine the scene: The rough and bearded English are queuing up at their local schools for French lessons, along with lessons in the new Norman arts of cooking, shaving, wine-making, music and castle-building. In those schools, though, some people are getting a little angry. A fair number of the English teachers of Norman-French have learnt to speak the language as well as the Normans. They see that as teachers they are just as able as the Normans, perhaps better, in fact, insofar as they have a better understanding of the difficulties that the English barbarians have with the new language and they are better at managing English classrooms that too often tend to be places of riot rather than quiet study. But the Normans are getting the good jobs, and there is more demand for native-speaker Norman-French teachers. The English teachers protest that this is unfair. “We want equity,” they shout.

Now the demand for equity is an honourable thing, but does it make sense to demand equity between Norman and English teachers while leaving Norman superiority in the political, economic and cultural spheres unchallenged? The demand would make sense if the plum jobs were going to the Norman teachers simply because of a narrow (mistaken) belief about their superior teaching skills. But that is not the case. The Norman teachers are seen by fee-paying students and parents as what the people at Coca-Cola a thousand years later would call “the real thing”. In what is, in effect, an imperial order willingly embraced by the defeated English, in which there is a Normanisation of so many important things (drinks, food, fashion, language, political power and property relations, etc.) isn’t it an error to think that there could be equity between the Norman teachers and English teachers for as long as that Normanisation is accepted uncritically as progress?

Real things: Coke and NESTs

The Norman rulers might be moved by an odd sensitivity to impose a ban on all references to native Normans in adverts for teaching posts, but insofar as the Norman culture retains its dominant position, there is going to be a preference for the clean-shaven, soft-spoken Norman teacher as opposed to the bearded and rough-mannered English teacher. Instead of the ban increasing the number of bearded, rough teachers, it will leave untouched the process of Normanisation, in which all teachers shave off their beards and learn to mimic the mellifluous sound of the authentic Norman. And (prior to the complete Normanisation of the locals) the Norman teachers will continue to be perceived as the “real thing”, even if no one believes that as far as their teaching skills are concerned they are any better than the English, and even if, out of a sensitivity to the locals, the Norman rulers no longer use, in public speech at least, the old categories of privilege.

Shouldn’t the reply to the complaining Anglo-Saxons have been: There is no empire without privilege. If you willingly support your imperial rulers, you shouldn’t complain about the privilege they and their teachers are accorded. If you really want to do something about privilege, you have to find the courage and the means to do something about the imperial order that creates the privilege.

Is there not an ever so slight parallel here with the rise of English as an international language? Has English not achieved that status because of a historical project that could be described as a form of empire building? Is the spread of the English language not part of a broader global dominance of Anglo-American culture, politics and economics? Obviously this is not an empire like the Victorian empire, with direct rule from London, but it is nevertheless a form of empire.1

English language courses are often packaged and perceived – are they not? – as passports out of an overly narrow local world into a wider, more progressive global arena where the future happens. The language is most definitely not a neutral tool of communication, but part and parcel of a broader culture perceived to be, in some respects at least, superior, in much the same way that many things Norman were viewed as superior in England after 1066.

In political theory this situation is referred to as hegemony – the rise to dominance of a social order accepted as legitimate by those who have been dominated. A popular new chain of coffee shops in the part of Greece where we live writes its name and tagline in English and uses both the English language and British symbolism in its marketing. Every little local business that has global dreams takes it for granted (for the time being) that those dreams will be played out in English. English is big business, and big business is English. The distinctly unpoetic motto for the linguists wanting to cash in on the distinctly unpoetic new imperial order might be: Think global, speak English. And so the desire to “go global” goes hand in hand with a willingness to accept the language (and much besides) of Anglo-American hegemony.

English as global business

Where there is this acceptance of a certain Anglo-American superiority, is it not mythical or utopian to think that there can be equity between the native and the foreign? Does it make sense to call for equity but leave the hegemony – a form of empire – unchallenged, given that it is the imperial order that is responsible for the lack of equity? Surely the calls for equity have to be part of a broader attempt to comprehend and resist that Anglo-American hegemony, assuming there are good reasons for resisting it. Otherwise the equity movement risks wanting to have its cake and eat it too: to profit from the empire (and so affirm it) while objecting to the privilege that is constitutive of it.

It is certainly not a matter of being bluntly anti-English, anti-American or anti-anything foreign, closing the borders and declaring Jihad on the infidel. On the contrary, we could begin by posing the question: What can we (in this non-Anglophone country) learn from the Anglo-Americans? Here in Greece, for example, there is a long history of learning from the best that America, in particular, has had to offer. The Greek revolution of 1821 (ending 400 years of Ottoman rule) owed something to the example set by the American revolution (and the French that followed). An openness to examples set by foreigners can be absolutely crucial to progress.

That example is worth a little further thought. What came from America in the 18th century was the modern period’s first collective assertion of a principled autonomy. As filtered through the French revolutionary discourses, the principles were those of liberty, equality and fraternity. The TEFL equity advocates rest their case on one of those principles. However, America has been the source of the best and the worst: the principled revolutionary and the happy shopper (the smiling face in front of the trans-national corporations that want to see the pleasures of consumption become so consuming that the old revolutionary ideals are completely forgotten). It is not a question of being anti-American or being anti-modern or anti-progress; rather it is a matter of being selective – of taking the best of the American/modern/progressive and defending that against the terrible forces that have grown up alongside it – malignant forces that much of ELT is currently assisting, given its incorporation into the global finance-military-industrial-entertainment-drinks-language complex.

A TEFL equity movement that did not fall back into mythical thinking (what used to be called “utopian thinking” in certain circles) would confront the order of power which has elevated English to its current status. In the first instance, the issue of equity within the teaching profession would then be seen within the broader context of power relations in the educational establishment. The argument about NEST privilege would evolve into a critique of the real centres of NEST power: the exam boards, and the councils and the publishing houses in the UK and the US – organisations that set the agenda and the standards for the entire business, whose representatives have to be wined and dined more lavishly than the locals2 when they visit the colonies (known in our post-colonial empire as “markets”).3

Rather than dropping the NEST – NNEST categories, local teachers might want to contest them, rejecting the negative definition of the non-native. Why persist in defining yourself negatively with respect to someone else? Rather than the debate stopping because its terms have been dropped, the terms of the debate would be changed and new issues would arise. A new field of discourse and practice would come into being (and one would hope that the NEST-NNEST distinction would not simply be replaced by the clinically apolitical L1-L2 distinction).

The equity movement would then be part of a local movement to assert some of the collective autonomy that was asserted in America in 1775, with local teaching organisations pushing for their own ideas about what English is, what history it belongs to, how it is to be taught, in combination with what, to what level, with what standards and with what means of assessment and certification. This, though, presupposes a broader cultural movement (beyond the teaching profession) that combines an embrace of American revolutionary ideals with a rejection of the commerce-dominated form of globalisation responsible for the spread of English as a foreign language. The assertion of autonomy within the educational establishment could only succeed as part of a broader assertion of autonomy within the community as a whole. In other words, a call for TEFL equity that is not mired in myth needs to be part of a wider movement calling for a new idea of global equity – a new form of globalisation.

Seen in the broadest possible historical context, the great empires find their justification in their ability to provoke a reaction that will strive to overcome the contradictions of the old order (like the cultural contradiction of the principled citizen and the happy shopper). The TEFL egalitarians need to see themselves as part of that reaction in order to understand the non-mythical historical significance of their struggle. And it may well be that in that struggle they see the need to advocate not only a new notion of justice for language teachers, but a new notion of justice for languages and the cultures articulated through them – a notion of justice that might be summed up in the idea of international multilingualism, and captured by the motto: Think global, speak local.

It will be objected that this broadening of the debate raises issues that are even more divisive. But surely it is impossible to overturn entrenched privilege without ruffling a few feathers. To think otherwise would be a myth.


Since 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”. James Taylor has also published a post listing practical steps to end discrimination in the English teaching profession.

What we see here – we suspect – is another line of thinking that could also be described as mythical. The essence of mythical thinking is its obscuring of the social realities of institutions and hierarchies of power. Both Nick and James come close to reducing the problem to one of psychology. Both highlight the issue of prejudice. If there is a difference, it has to do with how optimistic each is about the mutability of that psychology. In reply to this, we would argue that to focus in a one-sided way on the psychology of employers and customers obscures the imperial order to which English belongs, and which creates the positions of privilege (and the halo that goes with them) of certain categories of native speakers (providing that the majesty of that imperial order is accepted by its subjects).

When we push for equity we need to be clear about what exactly needs to be changed. Just as it can’t simply be a matter of dropping categories or banning them, so it also can’t simply be a matter of shaming people into repressing their ingrained prejudices. No, we need to bite the bullet and accept that what really needs changing is the so-called New World Order – the current form of globalisation – the post-colonial imperial order that grounds the privilege currently causing offence. It is imperative – is it not? – for TEFL equity advocates to join hands with those pushing for a new form of globalisation – one that is less addicted to inequity, and one, perhaps, that thinks globally but acts (and speaks) locally.

Powaqqatsi and globalization


1. For more about the role of the EFL teacher in the process of globalisation see EFL/ELT and Globalization.

2. See the following for a report about the privileging of native speakers at a conference in Turkey.

3. For a gentler argument along these lines see our post on the need for local TEFL organisations to make the English-language business their own.

About the author:

Torn Halves has been teaching English as a foreign language in Greece for 20 years. His education-related posts are published at


6 thoughts on “The Myth of a Silent TEFL Equity

  1. Nick says:

    I hate Torn Halves’ posts. Every time I see one I sigh to myself ‘Not again…’. The reason is simple: TH is one of the most brilliant thinkers I have come across on FB. More on TH at the end – here are some brief comments about this post.

    [!!]: The parallel he draws between the way NESTs – NNESTs are perceived today and a fictional similar reality in Britain after the battle of Hastings is a stroke of pure genius!
    [!!]: TH perfectly captures the way the market feels about NESTs vs NNESTs today – the former (just like Coca-Cola) are ‘The Real Thing’! Brilliant! (Marek – please make a note of this).
    [!!]: While we are still on the subject of effective communication, TH makes the obvious yet often missed point that the very terms used in the debate place define NNESTs in a negative way: we are ‘Non-Native’ ESTs! Once again, clearly not ‘The Real Thing’! Excellent!
    [!!]: TH is spot on when he says that when we don’t like the way reality is, we try to find reasons why this is simply not the case. This is the ‘moralistic fallacy’. We would not like to believe that the Golden Dawn bigots actually exploit a built-in ‘us’ and ‘them’ module, so we attribute everything to socialization. We are fair-minded people and we would not like NNESTs to be discriminated against, ergo the problem does not exist!
    [!!]: “(the assumption is that) if we in the teaching profession stop talking in discriminatory ways, then the forms of privilege that currently offend will start to disappear”. Once again, TH hits the nail on the head. Attitudes and biases do not evaporate so easily. Gender equality is a good case in point: after so many changes, so many debates, so much awareness-raising, women have still not attained full equality (see ‘The Fair List’ campaign).

    Naturally, there are also some points where TH and I have our disagreements….
    [!?]: TH is of course right that in many cases privilege may have its origins in empire-building, but I believe that the forces that sustain it may well be different (e.g. British English is arguably still perceived as ‘superior’ to American English, despite the fact that it is the US that is dominant politically).
    [!?]: A slight problem with pointing out similarities is the question of agency and intentionality (the human brain is hard-wired to perceive agency even where none exists). While there is nothing accidental about the toppling of Salvador Allende in Chile or the invasion of Iraq, the linguistic dominance of English appears to be an accidental by-product. The problem with these parallels is that some might see NESTs as ‘the baddies’ and this is not the case at all (nor is this what TH intends).
    [!?]: TH’s lens is all-encompassing; yet there is a risk that in trying to understand the broader context we might refrain from taking immediate action. By all means, let us try to understand the way the capitalist system works – but it still makes sense to support Wal-Mart workers in their fight for a decent wage. The two goals can be pursued in parallel – I am sure TH agrees with me there, but I would like to stress this point just the same. What I am saying here is that it does make sense to take action on advertising policy for instance. To go back to gender equality, discrimination against women is not going to evaporate overnight just because a sexist law has been abolished; but it is still a step in the right direction.

    So you can see now why I hate Torn Halve’s posts…. 🙂 They are so interesting, so provocative and so much better than most of the stuff one comes across in the blogosphere that one feels compelled to write a response… This one has taken me more than an hour. I think I’ll stop here… 🙂
    [A note on the symbols: I am using chess notation here. !! = brilliant; !? = interesting]

  2. Torn Halves says:

    Nick, thanks for going to the trouble to write such a detailed response. Let me reply to the bits that seem to call for a reply:

    1. “British English is arguably still perceived as ‘superior’ to American English, despite the fact that it is the US that is dominant politically.” You mention this as something that contradicts the thesis about empire creating privilege. I don’t think it contradicts it. It just indicates that the thesis needs more sophistication than it is possible to develop in a short post. Have you seen the documentary “The One Percent” by Jamie Johnson? That begins with some footage of Jamie’s relatives playing croquet in the US. Speaking (if my memory serves me correctly) with an American version of the Queen’s English. The new imperial order (perhaps because of its own cultural poverty) is drawing on the culture of the Ancien Regime to establish the distinctions between the groups in the new pecking order. Another factor (perhaps) is that the American elite have somehow become infected with a British psychological malady: a lack of concern for consistency (one appalling feature of the British is that they see no contradiction between democracy and monarchy). The elite of the New World Order have a similar disregard for consistency, which enables them to pick and choose in an opportunistic way whatever enables them to advance the inequity that they are addicted to.

    2. “linguistic dominance of English appears to be an accidental by-product.” Certainly the dominance of English was not a primary objective of the IMF, the World Bank, NATO, the World Trade Organisation or whatever. But it is worth bearing in mind what Churchill said when speaking at Harvard University in 1943, when he praised the university’s fledgling EFL programme, and spoke about how wonderfully convenient it would be when all the world spoke English (see 12 min into this clip: Churchill would be delighted with how things turned out in that department, although he might be dismayed to find it had less to do with the universities and more to do with things like Hollywood and hip-hop and fizzy drinks.

    3. “a risk that…we might refrain from taking immediate action.” Our intention is to support the TEFL equity campaign, not to stop it in its tracks. We left a comment below James’ nice list of steps for campaigners to take, supporting the steps but disagreeing with the hints the post gives of the way the movement should understand its target. Part of the problem has to do with the modern malady in theory: we are great at analysis, but not so great when it comes to synthesis – to making connections and seeing the whole. It would be very convenient if the NNEST discrimination issue were something completely detached from the rest of what is happening in the world, but surely it is not. There are connections – are there not – between the discrimination against teachers and the way the English language is perceived, and with the way that certain organisations in the UK and US are given the authority to define the standards and the curriculum.

    Then there is this horrible recollection of the disorganisation that rules in Greece, where the farmers fight in their corner, the taxi drivers in another, the lorry drivers in another, the teachers in another, the cleaners in another, the pensioners in another, and the need for action in concert is ignored, making real change so much less likely to occur. Divide and rule. The point of emphasising the whole is not to dissuade individual groups from taking action, but to encourage them to join with others so that there is more chance of getting at the roots of the problem.

  3. silversal says:

    In brief – this is the essence of the issue, I’d say;

    “synthesis – to making connections and seeing the whole.”

    Torn Halves

    But that’s me being brief 😉

  4. Pamela Jacqueline Stacey says:

    I was hoping to read something related to the teaching of English. Here I find nothing more that political rhetoric and wonder if the writer might consider a career that would meet his demands rather than consider those of his students.

    • Torn Halves says:

      Pamela, thank you for taking the time to give me your feedback. In reply I would merely say: Either you see the political dimension of aiding the spread of English as THE international language, or, for one reason or another, you do not. It is not a question of caring or not caring for your students as people who want to “succeed” in life.

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