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Matt Levine & The Impact of Nonnative English Speakers on the Workplace

Around 8,025 billion people live on our planet. Despite that, we still say “one in a million” when we want to express that something is special.

Around 2.4 billion people speak English. For 2 billion of us, English is a second language. Despite that, the onus to adapt and speak a specific type of English is on the majority.

Through the general consensus that American (or British) English is the gold standard we should strive for, some native English speakers have been able to turn this into a profitable business through language coaching, accent reduction YouTube channels, courses, apps, and books.

As someone who’s been working with Americans exclusively for the past 2 years, I have some experiences I’d like to share.

How to improve communication between native and nonnative English speakers

Heather Hansen, an expert who has spent years trying to answer this question, says native speakers should bear this responsibility:

“…the onus shouldn’t be on nonnative speakers but rather on native English speakers to improve their comprehension of accents different from their own.

Take a page out of nonnative speakers’ book by modifying your English to be more inclusive. That means no more confusing idioms, jargon and sports references, so no “touching base on improving synergy with your teammates.”

Instead of policing others’ accents, native English speakers can focus on changing their own enunciation to be more understandable. For example, research shows that clearly enunciating hard “t” and “r” sounds in your speech makes it easier for nonnative English speakers to understand you.”

Tower Of Babble: Nonnative Speakers Navigate The World Of ‘Good’ And ‘Bad’ English by 
Carolyn McCusker & Rhaina Cohen

Are we solving the right problem?

In one of our 1:1s a while back, my manager and I were talking about a role we were desperately hiring for and a specific candidate we had made an offer to. I was excited to have this person join the team. At one point in the conversation, I said something like: I hope we get them.

My manager laughed. I didn’t laugh along and probably looked confused. She immediately realized there might have been a misunderstanding. She asked what I meant. I explained that I meant I hoped the offer was enticing, that they’d accept it and we’d get them to join the team. Crisis averted.

Why do we communicate? To get our point across.

In order to get our point across, we don’t need to pronounce things perfectly, not have an accent, or be perfectly clear every time in the sense that no one we talk to has follow-up questions or asks us to clarify what we meant.

As a nonnative speaker, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve spent time googling idioms and stressing out about mixing analogies in a meeting.

As overthinkers, we consider perfection the norm. I need to speak clearly and succinctly, at the right time, all the time. This is an unrealistic expectation.

As a nonnative English speaker, I don’t think we should spend money on anything communication-related that a native speaker wouldn’t spend money on, i.e. language coaching for business, accent reduction or anything like that.

If English is your second language, you use it in professional settings and with your friends and partner, and you have communication issues affecting your relationship’s health, your team’s success, or minimizing your impact at work, unpack that and look at ways to improve. But I don’t think language is relevant here nearly as often as we make it to be.

You shouldn’t (feel like you have to) spend any time, energy, or money (ew) on changing how you pronounce “r” sounds or frantically learning American sport references and ALL the idioms.

Whenever I start working for a new client (#AgencyLife) and know I’ll be collaborating closely with a PM or engineer I haven’t worked with before, I try to establish rapport with them before we start working. For example, before the actual kickoff, I sent the following message to someone I’d be working with for the first time.

Their Slack title said something like Cat herder. Mine just says my job title, but a lot of my coworkers add some personality to their profiles. This includes inside jokes, mentions of musical proficiency, state pride, and animal love, or so I figured.

When my (native English speaker) coworker replied apologetically that they didn’t have cats, I was confused, but quickly found the answer I was looking for. Here’s the Cambridge dictionary definition and example for like herding cats:

used to describe something that is extremely difficult to do:
He says managing lawyers is like herding cats.

Ah! Misunderstandings are inevitable, despite the vernacular and whether it’s someone’s mother tongue or third language. What matters is what we do after that. Do we feel guilty? Blame the other person for having a sense of humor? Decide to never express interest or excitement again? Nope, we keep communicating frequently and candidly. We remain open to feedback, continue on the path of radical self-inquiry, and worry about what we can control. (Shout out to my awesome coworkers!)

Can nonnative speakers work in UX writing or content design? Should they?

A decade ago, Sarah Winters coined the content design term during her work at GOV.UK where she helped completely revamp the usability and simplicity of the government site.

“Content design is about using data and evidence to give the audience what they need, at the time they need it, and in a way they expect.”

UX writing is a part of content design.

“UX writing is the process of creating copy—the words people see—on a website, app, or product. The goal is to help users navigate these digital products with written content.”

Are there any professions where being a native English speaker actually affects your performance and success at work?

Yes, and roles in content and UX are some of them, at least according to a requirement found from time to time in job descriptions.

  • Native English speaker

For many roles, this string of words isn’t listed under Preferred, but under Requirements.

María J. Arabia wrote a fantastic piece, Asking for ‘Native English’ in Job Ads Is Unlawful, But a Load of Companies Still Do It, for Vice:

In 2019, the Centre for Social Investigation conducted a study where they sent out over 3,000 applications, using the same skills, qualifications and work experience, but “randomly varying applicants’ minority background”. On average, the job search was less successful for ethnic minorities, who, despite having identical credentials, needed to send 60 percent more applications to receive as many callbacks as their fictitious white British counterparts. 

As tech companies continue to focus on accessibility and inclusivity, this requirement sticks out like a sore thumb seems completely misaligned.

Especially in fields like content design, the idea that someone needs to be a native English speaker directly counters the whole premise of the discipline.

Why wouldn’t someone who has had to clarify and simplify interfaces and experiences for themselves their whole life not even be considered for a role where they’d do the same thing for others?!

General best practices can only go so far. If you want to help and reach international audiences, you need someone with an international point of view.

Blow off steam. Break a leg. Back to the drawing board. Bite off more than you can chew. Get the ball rolling. Stay on top of it.

After a while, using these becomes second nature to native English speakers, but it never does to nonnatives who can quickly point to ambiguous terms or idioms that don’t take into consideration other cultures and may come across as insensitive.

The verdict on verbosity

How you feel about language also depends on your personality and the value you place on having a rich vocabulary.

I value vocabulary growth and love learning new words whether in Albanian (my mother tongue), English, or the other languages I speak.

However, I’m quite literal. I’m all for word consciousness, but find verbosity slightly despicable.

A cartoon from @marketoonist summing up how I feel about verbosity and AI

There’s this climactic aspect to plain language and making the complicated simple. I derive more joy from usability than beauty for the sake of it.

For example: Matt Levine is one of my favorite writers. Previously a lawyer and investment banker, he’s now a columnist for Bloomberg News. He covers finance and business using plain language.

If you give me poems and Matt Levine’s column and ask me to choose reading one of the two for the rest of my life, well, ask me anything about securities fraud!

In his daily column, Levine covers these incredibly complex subjects using the simplest, non-flowery words out there. I love what he does with words and it looks like I’m not the only one. A recent study found that Levine’s vacations dampen market volatility. Imagine that!!! This is the power of accessible language.

Should you correct nonnative speakers?

Should you correct nonnative speakers when they pronounce something wrong? Will they appreciate it or find it disrespectful?

Many nonnative speakers report feeling supported when they are corrected in the spirit of friendship by co-workers.” Others, maybe not as much. Ask people if correcting their grammar or pronunciation would be helpful and set clear boundaries around what those interactions look like.

Heather Hansen, the researcher, says “tone, purpose and, importantly, whether corrections are welcome make all the difference.”

Final thoughts

Native English speakers are generally monolingual.

Michael Blattner, the head of training and proposition at Zurich Insurance Group, speaks German (his mother tongue) but uses English for work. He says he “often hears from non-native colleagues that they do understand me better when listening to me than when doing so to natives.

Recently, I found out that there are decades of research showing correlation and causation between:

  • a native English speaker joining a conversation among nonnative speakers
  • understanding going down

At first, I found this surprising. Then, I started thinking of situations when this had occurred. I could see it. Then, I tried to come up with a reasonable explanation. My guess matched what researchers found as well. Here’s Chia Suan Chong, a communications skills trainer in the UK:

The non-native speakers, it turns out, speak more purposefully and carefully, typical of someone speaking a second or third language. Anglophones, on the other hand, often talk too fast for others to follow, and use jokes, slang and references specific to their own culture. In emails, they use baffling abbreviations such as ‘OOO’, instead of simply saying that they will be out of the office.

The native English speaker… is the only one who might not feel the need to accommodate or adapt to the others.”

Native English speakers are the world’s worst communicators by Lennox Morrison for BBC

We all strive to be understood. This is a core human desire, a universal craving we can all help satisfy by being mindful of our word choices and generous with the interpretations we come up with for others’ communication skills. Shnet!

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