Viewpoint: The Silencing of ESL Speakers

 

By Paul Stevens August 6, 2019
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Many companies now understand that having a diverse and inclusive workforce brings real benefits, including higher-than-average profits. But while diversity and inclusion policies typically focus on overcoming biases based on race, ethnicity, disability, age, gender and sexual orientation, hundreds of millions of people are affected by another bias because they are not native speakers of the English language. Studies show that nonnative English speakers are considered by native English speakers as less successful, intelligent and believable than other native English speakers.

English is the common language of global business. Companies such as Siemens, Nissan, Honda, Sodexo, Rakuten and Renault have adopted English as their official working language. More than 1.5 billion people speak English, but about 75 percent are nonnative speakers. There is an expectation among hiring managers and HR professionals that employees will be able to speak English at a "useful" level, even if it is not their first language. Yet there is little or no expectation that native English speakers should have to learn a foreign language to be successful.

Learning to speak English as a second language (ESL) requires commitment and hard work. However, research by Mayflower College in Plymouth, England, suggests that ESL speakers are rarely given the credit they deserve, and there appears to be considerable unconscious bias against them.

In one study, the psycholinguist Shiri Lev-Ari, Ph.D., asked nonnative English speakers to record statements such as "Ants don't sleep" in English. Native English speakers recorded the same statements. When native English speakers rated the recordings for their veracity, they rated the speakers with the heaviest accents as least true, while native speakers were rated the truest.

"We're less likely to believe something if it's said with a foreign accent," Lev-Ari said.

Magda Bowyer, a U.S. citizen who is originally from Poland, said, "It often happened to me that a customer questioned my answer to a problem simply because of my accent. I was told, 'I don't think you understand what I am saying. Can I talk to someone else?' They acknowledged [my answer] only after they heard the same answer in 'perfect' English."

Research shows that we need to have diversity of opinion to make better workplace decisions. But bias—whether conscious or unconscious—against nonnative English speakers causes "the silencing effect." They can feel isolated and excluded, and team meetings are less valuable as a result.

"I notice that native English speakers tend to take over during project meetings," said Lennert Visser, a quality manager for a multinational organization in the Netherlands. "They will start jumping in when nonnative speakers leave time and space or are slow in coming back with replies. Sometimes we just need more time to formulate our thoughts in English."

Some say this issue is even more problematic. "This goes beyond unconscious bias and is very much a form of classism, and elitism even," said Sarah Saska, a diversity and inclusion specialist in Toronto. "I'm always taken aback when native English speakers tease, correct or even mock those who speak English as a second language."

This communication barrier isn't confined to formal meetings. Information flows, team unity and career progression can be built just as effectively in informal settings, such as over lunch or at get-togethers after work, as in structured interactions like meetings.

Whose Language Is It, Anyway?

Experts note the irony that the very people who are struggling to have their voices heard at work due to English language differences are the same people having a huge impact on the evolution of global English. The nature of the English language is changing. Pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar have been adapted as English reflects the first languages of international speakers. English as a "lingua franca (ELF)" may be spoken with a Spanish twist, an Italian rhythm and a Japanese lilt.

Research has found that native English speakers often have a negative emotional response to ELF, regarding it as erroneous and substandard. "It is easy to dismiss ELF as the use of incorrect English by people who have not learned it very well, but it is an entirely natural linguistic development, an example of how any language varies and changes as it is appropriated by different communities of users," according to Barbara Seidlhofer, professor at the University of Vienna.

Native English speakers may be responsible for more communication breakdowns than they realize. It isn't just how native speakers view English that causes problems; it's also how they use it.

Mayflower College research on 1,000 nonnative English speakers showed that 88 percent find it more difficult to communicate with a native English speaker than with another nonnative speaker, because native speakers typically don't know how to adjust their English for their audience.

Airline pilot Dimitri Kovalov, a native Russian, illustrated the point from the safety-critical world of aviation: "I still have bad dreams about the first time I flew to the U.S. I was an experienced pilot, and my English was OK, but when the air traffic controller asked me, 'How are you riding today?' I had no idea. I understood the words but not the meaning. In fact, he meant, 'Is the flight bumpy? Is there turbulence?' It's a scary thing when you're flying a plane and you don't understand an instruction or a question!"

Creating an effective language management strategy within a diversity and inclusion plan requires going beyond raising awareness of unconscious bias against international speakers of English, say language experts. It needs to help native speakers adjust the way they communicate with their international colleagues and customers. But why are many native English speakers so bad at this effort?

Some have accused native English speakers of having a sense of superiority, even "linguistic imperialism," which they voice by saying such things as, "I'm a native English speaker; therefore, the problem cannot be mine. It must be yours."

Many in the U.K. and the U.S. fail to fully understand and empathize with the challenges faced by nonnative speakers because they do not learn foreign languages. Education systems in English-speaking countries typically reward the use of idiomatic, "sophisticated" language. This is usually the opposite of what is needed when communicating with international English speakers—when tolerance and understanding are most needed.

Native English speakers who learn a second language are applauded for their intelligence and hard work. However, the same isn't true for nonnative English speakers. "In France, it's no longer a bonus to have English on your resume. ... It's just considered normal, something which is expected," said Jean-Pierre Blavac, a postgraduate student in Toulouse, France.

Language training solutions have traditionally been designed to enable ESL speakers to improve their English. However, it may be time to consider the role of the native English speaker, as well.

Kim Min-seo, a financial analyst from South Korea, eloquently explained the challenge: "I really find it difficult when I go to our office in the U.K. Most of the other people have English as their first language, and sometimes I have no idea what they are talking about, especially when they are talking with each other. I just wish they could slow down a bit. It makes me feel stupid ... a little bit humiliated."

To address this issue, language pros suggest that native English speakers do the following:

  • Learn how to filter and adapt their English when communicating with nonnative speakers.
  • Become more empathetic to the challenges faced by their international colleagues and customers.
  • Change any unconscious bias they have that their opinion somehow matters more because they can say it in "perfect" English.

Change Is Rarely Easy

People tend to react with anger and irritation when confronted about their biases. But that is no reason not to confront them. The cost of behavioral change is not much when compared with the benefits. Albert Einstein summed up this concept rather well: "The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking."

Paul Stevens is the CEO of Mayflower College in Plymouth, United Kingdom. 


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