Who Owns ELT: ‘The Halo Effect’

Contributor Opinion: Who Owns ELT: ‘The Halo Effect’

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.

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

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).

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.

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.

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. 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.’1  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…’

Originally post on teflequityadvocates.com. Reposted with kind permission of the author and Marek Kiczkowiak.


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

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.

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

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

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.

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