Let's get rid of the perfect English bias
Updated: Nov 4
I’ll never forget my English teacher making us recite over and over “Oh no Joe, please don’t open the window, it’s so cold” in the most pronounced British accent to teach the sound “O” to a class full of French, Belgian, Italian, and German kids. All of us concentrated to twist our mouths into little circles to emit the unfamiliar sound. Yet, foreign accent elimination wasn’t the main focus at the European School of Brussels where students acquire multiple languages as much from each other in the school’s hallways and playgrounds than in the classrooms. It is, however, the focus of many who learn English as a second language, particularly as adults.
Nonetheless, that British pronunciation learned at a young age didn’t stick with me. I mostly acquired an American accent, in part due to watching Hawaii 5-0 and Colombo with my father (always subtitled with original soundtracks), and when I later move to the United States for university studies. When I landed in Miami at the age of 21, I soon learned that accents are only one of the many distinguishing factors in the English language. It's the embedded cultural nuances –articulated through expressions, idioms, sayings, and regional jargon– that represent the real challenge for anyone learning a foreign language.
Although I had passed the English language exam required to attend an American university, I soon realized that my vocabulary was rather basic. My first Humanities-class assignment was to write about "the impact of soap-operas on our society." Soap-operas? I couldn’t find this bizarre term in my French-English translation dictionary. But even after a classmate explained to me what it was, I still couldn’t complete the assignment since I’d never actually seen a soap-opera. Unfortunately, my teacher didn’t care that I had absolutely no context. She gave me an F when I didn’t turn in the assigned paper! That’s when I realized that the culture wrapped into the English language was a piece of the puzzle I had to figure out if I wanted to succeed in America.
Over the years living in States, I’ve totally lost my “foreign” accent, learned the all-important US sports analogies, and have done my best to kept up with the latest socio-cultural sayings and slang. I have fully assimilated to the point where people often think I’m an American! While I’ve been working in global organizations my entire career, that’s what it took for me to “fit in.” Whenever I see other non-native speakers confronted with the same struggles I faced during my first years in America, I spend time helping them with their pronunciations, often interpreting US vernaculars. I also sensitize my American colleagues to their overuse of colloquialisms that confuse international audiences. I encourage Anglos to leave room for others to participate in conversations and demonstrate patience for those less fluent. I consider this an important step in promoting better intercultural communication and greater inclusion in my global working environment.
But today, I’m increasingly convinced that focusing on accent reduction and embracing the standard of a perfect English language doesn’t make sense anymore. In a world where 2 billion people speak English as a second language, those born into the language like Americans, Brits, and Australians don’t “own” the English language. Worrying about learning the proper Queen’s English or CNN’s neutral accent doesn’t do any good in our interconnected world. Pushing ourselves to become perfect English speakers as the only road to success on the global marketplace doesn’t add up.
When it comes to the use of English as a common language by native and non-native speakers alike, we need to change our expectations.
To encourage diversity and promote greater inclusion we must focus our efforts on understanding each other rather than expecting English fluency that only comes from being born into the language. We need to embrace non-native English speakers’ varieties in pronunciations and variations in vocabulary, accept imperfections in the language, and direct efforts towards native English speakers to learn to understand others rather than the other way around. Even the terms “native” and “non-native” should be rethought. I fully agree with global communication consultant Heather Hauser who said in her TED Talk How to Speak Bad English Perfectly that “we are nowhere near reaching our full potential in this world because too many people are afraid to speak up, of speaking bad English, and of being judged.”
Language diversity, equity, and inclusion means that (unless they are communication professionals) people should be comfortable communicating in English to the best of their own abilities and be respected, appreciated, and heard rather than pressured to fit into a perfect, uniform standard.
As an interculturalist, working with people from all over the US and the world (some native, and many non-native English speakers) here’s what I’ve heard, observed, and learned.
“Just because I speak with a strong Puerto Rican accent doesn’t mean I’m not as smart as others!” –Comment from a very experienced and knowledgeable colleague who should be respected for speaking at least two languages.
“I feel self-conscious because I always mix up ‘he’ and ‘she’.” –Concern from my Chinese American colleague who struggles as these are pronounced the same in the Mandarin language.
“I say “aks” not “ask” because that’s how I learned it; that’s how my people speak.” –Explanation from my African American friend who doesn’t understand why White Americans are so annoyed by this Black vernacular when they appropriate many others from her culture.
“I’m glad someone corrected my way of pronouncing ‘version’ when it sounded like I was saying ‘virgin’ so I wouldn’t embarrass myself.” –Comment from a Malaysian project manager who didn’t want to be misunderstood.
“It’s easier to speak English amongst non-native speakers than around Brits whose fluency can be intimidating for us.” –Observation from a group of European CEOs who use English as their common non-native language but tend to quieter when British people are in the room.
“When you speak 6 languages like I do, you can correct me.” -Response I often give my daughter when she points out how –to this day– I misuse American words and expressions.
“When he starts speaking, I automatically tune out.” –Remark from an American colleague when an Indonesian partner with a very strong accent spoke up in meetings.
“I get tired of people making fun of my Georgia accent” –Complaint from a professional whose very heavy Southern twang caused frequent teasing from his American colleagues.
“We can’t promote her/give her a seat on the board until her English improves.” –Heard often in my years in management resulting in countless talents and voices being missed in leadership positions.
“I would understand her better if she used less expressions and didn’t speak so fast” –Complaint from a German executive about an American conference speaker.
“How do you say that?” –Frequent question from my Brazilian colleague who wanted to learn how to enunciate English words so he would be well-understood when making presentations.
To promote English language diversity and inclusion in the world, these are my lessons learned and tips.
Don’t correct people’s English unless they ask.
Don’t judge people’s intelligence based on their English fluency or accent.
Don’t assume people understand you because you’re a native English speaker.
Do ask people to speak slower if you have difficulty understanding them.
Do adapt your communication to your audience’s knowledge of English.
Do learn to use simpler words and fewer local expressions.
Do ask a person for clarification or to repeat something if you are not sure what they meant.