I have to make a confession to you, my fellow foreigners… Despite having struggled with English fluency myself, and despite making mistakes while speaking myself, I do sometimes make assumptions about other foreigners and their level of English …
You see, the strange thing about it is that I’m fully aware of the fact that making mistakes and struggling for words is normal.
I know only too well that there’s a multitude of different factors affecting one’s spoken English performance – starting with stress and anxiety and ending with such complicated English fluency issues as preparing speech in one’s head before speaking and a total information overload. After all, I have a first-hand experience of what it feels like when you know EXACTLY what you want to say, but your mouth suddenly disobeys you and says the wrong thing…
So quite naturally I’d expect myself to be the last person to draw hasty conclusions about somebody’s level of English, yet it does occasionally happen!
Of course, the moment I catch myself thinking something like – “All right, I have to choose slightly simpler words when talking to him because he just used a completely wrong English Grammar Tense, so most likely he won’t understand me if I speak the way I speak with native English speakers…” – I immediately say to myself: “Robby, common, don’t be such a meanie, are you always perfect yourself?!”
Imagine, if it takes me so much effort to stop patronizing others, how must native English speakers feel when they hear me make some stupid mistake when speaking to them?
Can I blame them for assuming that my English is poor just because I mispronounced a very simple word? I, for instance, stressed the wrong syllable in the word ‘monopoly’ the other day. I said [‘monopoli] instead of [mo’nopoli], and had my workmate Will not known me for years, he probably would have judged my English skills by that one stupid mistake!
On another occasion, I made a mistake by misplacing a word in a phrase. I said “Fair done!” which is a mix of two phrases – “Well done” and “Fair play to you!”
Once again, for someone who doesn’t know me this would be a reason good enough to extrapolate that mistake to everything I might say. It’s the so called reverse halo effect, and now let’s look at this phenomenon in depth!
The Reverse Halo Effect
To better understand the nature of a reverse halo effect, I think we should start with looking at a halo effect. To put it simply, it’s a psychological phenomenon whereby people’s perception is clouded by a certain positive trait of a person and they are lead to believe that other traits of that person are very positive as well.
So for instance, it has been proven that good looking people are judged by their good looks and are generally perceived to be better employees, better partners and friends and they’re thought to do better in life while in reality it might not be the case at all!
I can even think of a perfect halo effect example in terms of English fluency – it’s when foreigners speak with a near-native pronunciation. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re fluent, however, majority of other English speakers will extrapolate that person’s success in mastering perfect pronunciation onto other aspects of their English and they’ll be perceived as fluent English speakers.
Not that there’s anything wrong with speaking with a perfect pronunciation, all I’m saying is that one can be fluent even when speaking with a strong foreign accent, but quite often the reverse halo effect will kick in and you’ll be perceived as a so-so speaker – just like when making an odd mistake!
So that’s what the reverse halo effect is all about – you just have to possess one bad trait, and people will judge other aspects of your personality by it. 😡
Do you lose your temper easily? Then you must be a terrible person overall!
Is your English pronunciation flawed? Then your English must be poor!
Did you just make a grammar mistake when speaking in English? Then your English is definitely bad because all fluent foreign English speakers speak without mistakes, isn’t that right?
That’s the reverse halo effect. As I said, it’s been proven that people can’t help it, and it’s only human to make assumptions about your English based on a mistake you’ve just made.
Still, I’m willing to fight for the cause and appeal to every native English speaker and also those foreigners who speak impeccable English at all times – please don’t judge others by one or two mistakes they might make when speaking with you!
Mistakes Rarely Paint a Full Picture
I’ve said it countless times on my blog – even native English speakers make mistakes, so is it not only fair that a foreigner whose English is their second language, gets some sort of a concession to make an extra mistake?
I can tell you right away – I still make mistakes every now and then, and it’s mostly down to slight embarrassment, speaking with certain people or English fluency fluctuations that so many of us experience.
A few years ago, however, I was so bad at making mistakes when speaking English that I was told on one occasion that I should go and learn to speak properly… It happened during a phone interview, and I was mortified because deep down I new my English was very good, it’s just that I made a few mistakes when speaking with the interviewer on the phone…
Anyway, the reverse halo effect kicked in and that particular job was gone for me forever. I guess that even if I got to speak with the same person once more and performed brilliantly, they’d still say ‘no’ to me because of their initial perception which is very difficult to change.
So, the moment you judge the other person when hearing a wrong grammar construct – such as “Did you went to your supervisor to complain about that issue?”, say to yourself – “Common, give him a break, anybody can make a mistake, it doesn’t mean his or her English is worse than yours, and after all – are you sure you’re not making ANY mistakes when speaking?!”
I’m pretty sure you are, despite being a very decent English speaker, so I think you have to admit that you can’t really tell what somebody’s English level is just by hearing a couple sentences from them!
Worst Mistakes May Go Hand in Hand With
Superb Expressions and Sophisticated Vocabulary!
Another reason as to why you shouldn’t be rushing into making hasty decisions about a fellow foreigner’s ability to speak English properly is the fact that you might just hear perfect and really sophisticated English right after a clumsy and incorrect sentence.
I think you don’t need a better proof that mistakes don’t paint a full picture in terms of an English speaker’s ability to speak fluently than this!
For example, a couple days ago I heard a radio interview with a foreign taxi driver and initially he was hesitating a little and struggling to answer the questions. I thought to myself – “well, I guess this fella is struggling to speak and it means he’s come to the country only recently…”
Next thing I knew, the chap starting speaking using very specific phrases and his choice of words immediately suggested that he’s a very good English speaker.
It made me realize for the hundredth time that you can’t tell what a foreigner’s English is like just after hearing him utter a couple sentences ❗
Of course, there are plenty of our fellow foreigners who DO struggle to get the message across due to genuine lack of vocabulary and means of expression such as idiomatic expressions; I’m not trying to convince you that every single foreign English speaker is fluent!
All I’m saying is that any foreigner despite having made a bad first impression might just have a surprise in store for you, and I know only too well that stress and anxiety can get the better of anybody.
And I can tell from my personal experience that the worst thing about being judged by the mistakes you make is that sometimes it’s very hard to make a good impression after the harm is done. No matter how well you speak, the other person might be oblivious to the fact that you just said something in perfect English. The reverse halo effect results in a completely wrong judgment, and they might keep speaking to you as if you were a child just because you struggled to pronounce a word properly or asked to repeat the question at the start of the conversation.
So please, don’t be too judgmental of a foreigner who just made a few mistakes when talking to you or someone else. It doesn’t necessarily mean his English is poor; you’ve got to spend a bit more time with that person to figure out their real capacity as a foreign English speaker ❗
On the finishing note, I’d like to remind you of a very interesting fact.
I’ve met quite a few foreigners in my life whose English was terrible in terms of grammar, YET they spoke fluently.
By ‘fluency’ I mean their ability to express themselves in most daily situations, and those particular foreign English speakers had obviously never bothered with acquiring correct English speech patterns; they spoke by simply sticking words together and it worked for them because they were understood.
Not that I would think it’s the right way to speak in English – personally I always aim to mimic native English speakers and you don’t even need to know grammar rules to speak correctly.
The point I’m trying to make here is that nothing is straight cut when it comes to a foreign English speaker’s fluency and you just can’t make a first-minute decision when hearing somebody make a stupid mistake when speaking in English!
P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!
P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!