The pervasive problem of 'linguistic racism'

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Not everyone who speaks English is treated the same way. What happens when accent discrimination creeps in to our conscious and unconscious – and what do we do about our biases?

Last summer, Triangle Investigations, a New York-based HR consultancy, examined allegations of accent discrimination at a global non-profit organisation. An Ethiopian-accented staff member had reported that his colleagues frequently interrupted him during Zoom calls, commented on the unintelligibility of his English and excluded him from meetings. He became self-conscious during the meetings that he was able to attend, and ended up using the chat feature instead of speaking up, says Kia Roberts, Triangle’s founder and principal.

When Roberts and her team looked into the matter, they found that the allegations had substance, and that employees of colour had been treated differently; they were being spoken to disrespectfully, as if they weren’t competent to hold their positions, and their opinions and suggestions weren’t being taken seriously. The investigation ultimately led the non-profit to introduce employee training and periodic HR check-ins to try and remedy the issue.

Of course, this case of linguistic discrimination wasn’t an isolated episode. Globally, more people are using English than ever, and it’s a dominant language in business, science and government. English is constantly evolving, because of the diverse ways different nations and groups use it. Yet instead of embracing this linguistic diversity, we still rank particular types of English higher than others – which means that both native and non-native speakers who differ from what’s considered ‘standard’ can find themselves judged, marginalised and even penalised for the way their English sounds.

Not every type of linguistic discrimination is intentional; many people who think they’re being inclusive don’t understand that their inherent biases are pushing them to make judgements they don’t even know they’re making. Yet no matter what’s driving these kinds of incidents, workers feel lasting, often demoralising, effects. And, as these kinds of situations continue – especially when companies don’t recognise or stop them – things can get worse for workers, as they’re side-lined or flat-out excluded in the workplace. 

As the globe becomes even more connected in a remote-work world, the ability for workers to be able to speak to each other effectively and respectfully is imperative. So, how do we end linguistic discrimination – and create a more inclusive, functional use of language to benefit native and non-native speakers alike?

Speakers from some multilingual countries are thought to use less 'legitimate' forms of English than others (Credit: Getty Images)

Speakers from some multilingual countries are thought to use less 'legitimate' forms of English than others (Credit: Getty Images)

Covert or overt

Globally, non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers three to one, although defining the term ‘native English speaker’ is complicated. The term usually refers to anyone who speaks English from early childhood, as their first language. But many children grow up learning multiple languages simultaneously – for instance, if their parents are from different places, or if a nation has several official languages.  

A particular status is attached to English that sounds as if it comes from countries that are wealthy, majority white and mostly monolingual. According to this limited view, multilingual countries like Nigeria and Singapore have less ‘legitimate’ and desirable forms of English (even though English is an official language in both). Globally, the most respected types of English are varieties such as British, American and Australian, says Sender Dovchin, a sociolinguist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. 

Within any country, certain forms of English bring fewer benefits. To give just one example from the US, African-American English remains misunderstood and discriminated against. And on an international level, certain types of speakers face judgements based on perceptions of their nationality or race, rather than their actual communication skills. “When English is spoken by some Europeans, including for example French-, German-, Italian-accented English, they can be considered really cute, sophisticated, stylish and so forth,” explains Dovchin. But, she adds, English spoken by Asians, Africans or Middle Easterners may be viewed as challenging and unpleasant. 

English spoken by Asians, Africans or Middle Easterners may be viewed as challenging and unpleasant

This linguistic stereotyping applies even when those Asians, Africans or Middle Easterners are in fact native speakers of English. Just seeing an Asian face makes some Americans consider that speaker’s English to be hard to understand, regardless of how they actually speak or where they were born. I was born in the US, hold a UK passport and have an English degree, but like many other people of Asian descent, I’ve had the surreal experience of people complimenting my English fluency.

These perceptions feed into linguistic racism, or racism based on accent, dialect and speech patterns. The overt form of linguistic racism can involve deliberate belittling or shaming, such as “ethnic-accent bullying” that occurs despite someone’s actual English proficiency. Or it can be more covert, like the unwitting social exclusion of people with foreign-accented English, or a seemingly well-intended compliment toward an Asian American’s English.

These examples show that it may not be obvious to the perpetrators what they’re doing, because there are a number of subtle psychological mechanisms at play. Cognitively, it takes more work to understand a less familiar accent. The extra brainpower involved, as well as warmer feelings toward members of one’s own group, can lead to negative attitudes toward a person speaking a different type of English. Overall, it’s common to assume that non-native speakers are less truthful, less intelligent and less competent; psychology studies suggest that people attach less credibility to statements spoken in a foreign accent.

These subtle mechanisms feed into behaviours that can impact negatively on people speaking different forms of English. I’ve been guilty of this in practice. I’ve found myself gravitating to colleagues I can easily banter with (so that I don’t have to explain or replace Americanisms like ‘inside baseball’ or British terms like ‘take the piss’). I’ve edited away Indian English expressions in reports, like ‘upgradation’, without wondering why I treat ‘upgrading’ as the better term. And in bouts of impatience during work conversations, I’ve spoken over or finished the sentences of colleagues who are more hesitant.

Not every type of linguistic racism is intentional, but judgements are pervasive due to our inherent biases (Credit: Getty Images)

Not every type of linguistic racism is intentional, but judgements are pervasive due to our inherent biases (Credit: Getty Images)

This type of bias can take a significant psychological toll. Dovchin’s research shows that many people who are shamed or excluded because of their language develop inferiority complexes, and start to believe that they’re actually less intelligent. Lots of multilingual people report being fairly confident in their English-language skills in their home countries, then losing their confidence due to the way they’re treated in English-first countries.

At worst, linguistic racism can lead to deprivation in education, employment, health and housing. In the workplace, people with certain accents can be openly harassed (like a Puerto Rican call centre worker who was told by a customer, “your stupid accent makes me sick”), or excluded from specific opportunities (like a Pakistani transport worker in London whose manager kept him out of conference calls). 

The discrimination might also mean that certain people don’t even get through the door. For instance, Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, which directs seed funding to start-ups, has openly admitted that the programme is biased against applicants with strong foreign accents. In an interview with business publication Inc., he speculated that “it could be that anyone with half a brain would realise you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent”. An outcry followed these comments, but Graham was unrepentant, writing “you can’t make it be work to understand you”. This is a classic expression of native-speaker privilege: the minority of global English speakers demanding that the majority change.

How to chip away at linguistic racism

Linguistic racism needs to be tackled head on, both at a corporate and individual level. “If we wait for it to happen organically, it will never happen,” believes Dovchin.

First, organisations need to be strategic about having ongoing conversations about linguistic diversity as a type of diversity, educating staff about how language-related biases affect communications and opportunities and incorporating this into policies.  

But, on an individual level, speakers of English as a first language can make their English more accessible. They can slow down, and avoid inside jokes and idioms, for instance. They can talk less in meetings to give more space to non-native speakers, while also allowing non-native speakers to chair meetings and set the tone for communications. They can also pay attention to body language and improve their listening skills – for instance, by seeking out popular culture featuring varied groups of people, and thus varied ways of communicating. With greater exposure, the brain becomes better at understanding differently accented speech. Overall, everyone can become more aware of language-related biases.

Research shows that many people who are shamed or excluded because of their language develop inferiority complexes

Suresh Canagarajah, a linguist at Pennsylvania State University, US, says that given how transnational work has become, we all need to get better at communicating with people speaking all kinds of English. “You can’t afford to say ‘I don’t understand Chinglish or I don’t understand Indian English’, because you're going to lose out on that market.” This certainly applies to hiring decisions; highly qualified candidates may be overlooked if they trigger a hiring manager’s biases about less prestigious types of English. There, says Canagarajah, “You’re focusing on the wrong thing, and maybe losing on a lot of expertise.”

Yet even if companies and individuals do what they can to level the playing field, another option is to change our ideas about what constitutes ‘good’ English. In many workplace settings, it would make more sense to focus on effective communication rather than flowery prose or slangy chat. In functional settings, someone who is adept at understanding varied types of English is actually a better communicator than a person who can only understand their own form, whether it’s considered native or not.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on the extent to which my career depends on my privilege as a so-called native English speaker. To teach English in Romania, I wasn’t required to have any teaching qualifications; simply being American was enough. To be hired to write and edit publications, my primary asset has been my familiarity with the kind of English that carries global cachet.

The very least that I, and others like me, can do with this privilege is to become aware of its effects and reduce the ways that we contribute to it. Individual acts of thoughtfulness can’t dismantle the structures of power that keep North American and Western European English dominant. But they can help cultivate an appreciation of English in all its diversity.