Hide table of contents

Huge thanks to Konrad Seifert, Marcel Steimke, Ysaline Bourgine, Milena Canzler, Alex Rahl-Kaplan, Marieke de Visscher, and Guillaume Vorreux for the valuable feedback provided on drafts of this post, and to many others for the conversations that lead to me writing it.

Views & mistakes are my own.

TL;DR

Being a non-native English speaker makes one sound less convincing. However, poor inclusion of non-native English speakers means missed perspectives in decision-making. Hence, it’s a vicious circle where lack of diversity persists: native English culture prevails at the thought leadership level and neglects other cultures by failing to acknowledge that it is inherently harder to stand out as a non-native English speaker.

Why I am writing this

I’m co-directing EA Switzerland (I’m originally from France), and I’ve been thinking about the following points for some time. I’ve been invited to speak at the Panel on Community Building at EAG Boston 2023, where I shared a rougher version of those thoughts. I was pretty scared to share this in a place where the vast majority of attendees matched the description “native English speaker”, but after talking to a few people, it felt true. Many of the non-native speakers related, and many of the native speakers acknowledged it. I believe it’s possible that not enough people are thinking about it (especially the ones that should think about it more than the rest - the steerers). I’m pretty scared to share it here too of course, but it’s probably worth it.

An unconscious bias against non-native English speakers

The beauty of linguistic diversity is that it reveals to us just how ingenious and how flexible the human mind is. Human minds have invented not one cognitive universe, but 7,000.

- Lera Boroditsky

Non-native English speakers sound less convincing

The neural pathways that form in your brain during childhood will affect how you think as an adult. Depending on where and with which languages and cultures you grew up, the conceptual space in which your brain processes and communicates information will be different. Then, when a non-native speaker expresses their thoughts and opinions in English, most times it will be lower-fidelity than native speakers, and will probably be less convincing and/or sound less smart.[1]

Besides, I can relate to the experience shared here that native English speakers are sometimes hard to follow when your own native language (and culture) is not English.[2] I guess it’s especially true when your English is good enough that it doesn’t appear necessary to speak slower - but I think for most of us, it still is necessary to speak slower or repeat stuff, and avoid referencing local pop culture. Usually though, non-native speakers would like to avoid asking to slow down, repeat, or clarify because, on top of being burdensome, it can be associated with incompetence.

Hence, it’s important not to confuse competence with language proficiency, and keep in mind that for the majority of non-native English speakers, it’s harder to engage with the materials, harder to understand and intervene in debates, and harder to speak and write with fidelity to one’s thoughts. As a consequence, it’s then harder to be understood, stand out, get hired, and get heard. A similar case has been made for less-STEM-than-average people in EA.[3]

Additionally, the English language and vocabulary might also not allow one to express the full length of their thoughts – words might not even exist for them. Different languages can allow for different profiles of available concepts and thoughts, because their structure and vocabulary vary.

Poor inclusion of non-native English speakers means missed perspectives

One could consider the 6 dimensions of culture as a good illustration of the effect of culture (and then, language) on our values.[4] Lower language diversity then means lower diversity of worldviews and opinions.

I’m afraid that native English cultures are disproportionately represented on the EA Forum, in grant-making organizations, and within research institutions.[5] My guess for the reason is a mix of the founders' effect and English being a native language for those overrepresented cultures – hence it’s easier to engage with the content, connect with people, “climb the ladder”, etc. If that’s true, then the discourse that is presented there is probably missing some perspectives from the broader community.[6]

Native English speakers are overrepresented in EA’s thought leadership: a vicious circle

This discourse, however, shapes decision-making. This dynamic may hinder our progress toward achieving a diversity of worldviews and opinions within the EA community, and using its full potential. We should want more diversity at the level of our movement's thought leaders.

The monopoly on funding does not facilitate this – my impression is that it is especially true in community building. Indeed, homogeneity in culture and ways of thinking might strengthen itself with grantmakers selecting projects and people who are closer to them, easier to understand or better explained from their perspective, or anchored in a familiar thought system, and this bias is hard to overcome. I’m not arguing that funders should fund projects they don’t believe in – instead, I believe that different strategies and different teams of grantmakers will help diversify the projects that are funded. I’ve once been told that it was hard to assess a specific Swiss project's quality because they did not know how selective it was, while they have a much better sense of this from projects that are happening in the US – I’m afraid that this leads to really promising projects being deprioritized. I concede that we don’t have easy actions to take to improve this. But we need to acknowledge it and work with it.

What can we do about it?

Some prompts

I don’t have clear solutions, but can offer these questions instead:

  • How do we improve diversity in the movement and at the level of the thought leaders? How should we bring this topic to them?
  • How can we better support talented people, regardless of where they come from? Will it then not be “effective”? What are the costs and benefits?
  • How can we measure to what extent we are missing impact as a movement because of this?
  • Are there changes in the movement’s structure and governance that are necessary for this to happen?
  • What is enough effort in that direction and what isn’t?

I think the list of suggestions and notes at the end of this post are also good starting points.

Let’s talk about this

I want this to be the start of a conversation and understand how we can do better – I realize I’m also quite privileged being from continental Europe and I can’t stop wondering that if I feel that way, then there must be so many more people in EA that feel even worse.

Let’s talk about this more:

  • Down there in the comments, if you feel comfortable
  • Or reach out via this form – to give feedback, a testimony, comments, or book a call

I cannot guarantee that I will have the capacity to answer all the time, but I’ll try my best.
 

  1. ^

    Additionally, some cultures and languages tend to use more words and longer sentences to express thoughts, while English feels more concise and native English speakers might expect from you to express thoughts clearly and in fewer words than you would have otherwise done in your mother tongue.

  2. ^

     Those two posts have been mentioned as being useful practical tips in a similar vein.

  3. ^

     STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics background

  4. ^

     Geert Hofstede provides a framework for understanding the cultural differences between countries based on six key dimensions: individualism, power distance, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation, and indulgence. These dimensions help to analyze and compare societal values, norms, and behaviors across different cultures.

  5. ^

     See the 2020 EA Survey on Geography and see how many people are not living in English-speaking countries (assuming that they then have a different mother tongue, which is not necessarily true), and think about the number of leading figures in EA that you can name, and how many of them are non-native English speakers. Now, add the fact that more than 90% of CEA’s staff are native English speakers.

  6. ^

     I still think sharing some cultural norms and proven heuristics and epistemics is important: an overlap in culture helps in having a shared understanding of our goals, and that it goes both ways (the dominant culture being inclusive of other cultures and underrepresented cultures sharing the core thought systems of the movement that might come from the dominant culture). But I also think more cultural diversity around that core is valuable, to "widen" the echo chamber and represent more perspectives. 

138

18
3

Reactions

18
3

More posts like this

Comments37
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:39 PM

I can readily believe the core claims in this post, and I'm sure it's a frustrating situation for non-native English speakers. That said, it's worth keeping in mind that for most professional EA roles, and especially for "thought leadership", English-language communication ability is one of the most critical skills for doing the job well. It is not a problem that people who grew up practicing this skill will be "overrepresented" in these positions.

There is certainly a cosmic unfairness in this. It's also unfair that short people will be underrepresented among basketball players, but this does not mean there's a problem with basketball.

The actions to address this ought to be personal, not structural. It's worth some effort on the margin for native speakers to understand the experience and situation of non-native speakers—indeed this is one part of "English-language communication ability". I'm grateful to my foreign friends for explaining many aspects of this to me, it's helped me in a fair number of professional situations. Things like your talk at an international conference to educate people about this stuff seems like a great idea. And of course most non-native speakers who seek positions in EA (or other international movements) correctly put a great deal of effort into improving their fluency in the lingua franca.

"...for most professional EA roles, and especially for "thought leadership", English-language communication ability is one of the most critical skills for doing the job well"

Is it, really? Like, this is obviously true to some extent. But I'm guessing that English communication ability isn't much more important for most professional EA roles than it is for eg academics or tech startup founders. These places are much more diverse in native language than EA I think.

Yeah, I want thought leaders to be highly proficient in logic, statistics, and/or (preferably 'and') some key area of science, engineering, philosophy or social science. I really don't see any strong need for them to speak pristine English, as long as they can write clearly enough in their native language that someone can easily translate it.

I agree it's an important skill, but I also think its value is declining due to the ability of ChatGPT to help edit the posts of non-native speakers.

That seems symmetric though, in the sense that ChatGPT can also help with many of the issues mentioned in this post

It can't help in face-to-face conversations though, which is a great part of an impression someone has of you, especially with respect to interviews or 1-on-1s during conferences, etc.

It will be able to do this soon I think

Maybe 'soon' is slightly too strong, it may take a few years for the tech and the culture to adapt. But voice recognition, translation and language/grammar tools are advancing very quickly.

I imagine in-ear devices that give you quick summaries and translations, and suggest responses or real-time adjustments to what you are saying. And people will become more OK with using these tools in conversation.

Thanks for your comment! I think you're right in highlighting that the current situation makes sense, and I agree with that. I also agree with personal actions being necessary if we want to improve this, but I'm more uncertain about it not being structural too. I'm not ready to change my mind about this yet, as I am still convinced a different structure of the movement could help with that issue, but I'm happy to consider additional arguments that could make me change my mind.

Thanks for writing this, Alix! 

I just wanted to add some data about two of your empirical claims about the prevalence of native English speakers in leadership positions:

Native English speakers are overrepresented in EA’s thought leadership

One very crude measure of this is to look at the attendees of the 2023 coordination forum. 
AFAICT, based on the LinkedIn profiles of the 31 attendees that are public: 22 are native English speakers, and 7 are not (two I am not sure about). Hence ~22% are non-native English speakers.

The monopoly on funding does not facilitate this – my impression is that it is especially true in community building. Indeed, homogeneity in culture and ways of thinking might strengthen itself with grantmakers selecting projects and people who are closer to them [...]

The three funders I looked up are OP, CEA, and EA Funds. The percentage of non-native English speakers is slightly higher than the percentage attending the coordination forum (7 out of 23 people are non-native English speakers, ~30%): 

  1. On the OP CB team ("GLOBAL CATASTROPHIC RISKS CAPACITY BUILDING"), four out of six people are native English speakers;
  2. On the CEA Groups team, three out of six people are native English speakers;
  3. At EA Funds, four out of four grant managers are native English speakers, and five out of seven grant advisors are native English speakers;

Thank you Jonathan, that is super helpful to add actual data! 

I'll add, about 2. CEA Groups Team, that out of 40ish people at CEA (the whole team), only 4 are non native English speakers, and 3 of them are in the Groups Team.

Alix - Thanks for writing this. I think it is a serious issue in terms of spreading EA from being a mostly Anglosphere movement (in UK, US, Australia, etc) to becoming a global movement,

There seem to be about 400 million native English speakers in the world, plus around another 1.5 billion people who have English as their second language (e.g. many in India and China), with varying degrees of fluency. From my experience of teaching college classes in China, often people there have much higher English fluency in writing and reading than in speaking.

So, roughly 75% of the potential English speakers in the world have English as their second rather than native language. This is a very large, often untapped market for EA ideas -- people who might be able to read Singer, Bostrom, MacAskill, Ord, etc., and read EA Forum posts, but who might feel quite intimidated attention an EAG meeting in person and trying to talk with people.

I think one small, practical step we can take is to be aware of this issue when writing posts and comments on EA Forum. We often use Anglo-American colloquialisms, rather obscure academic vocabulary, and rather convoluted grammar, partly as a coolness-indicator, and partly as an intelligence-indicator. When we use EA/Rationalist in-group dialect, I imagine that might be especially confusing to outsiders.

So, when we're writing stuff on EA Forum, I would suggest that people try to keep in mind a clear mental image of their audience -- and instead of imaging our US/UK in-group friends, we should try to imagine a 22-year from Shenzhen, Mumbai, Beirut, or Prague who's got pretty good English from a few years of school classes, but who's not fully fluent, or familiar with current US/UK pop culture or Rationalist jargon.

I think the concern about jargon is misplaced in this context. Jargon is learned by native and non-native speakers alike as they engage with the community: it's specifically the stuff that already knowing the language doesn't help you with, which means not knowing the language doesn't disadvantage you. That's not to say jargon doesn't have its own problems, but I think that someone who attempts to reduce jargon specifically as a way to reach non-native speakers better has probably misdirected their focus.

But a core thing that you don't mention (maybe because you are a native speaker, and you have to not be one to realize that, not being mean here but simply stating what I think is a fact), is that jargon adds to the effort. 

Not only you have to speak a flawless English and not mull over potential mistakes that potentially make you look foolish in the eyes of your interlocutor and reduce the credibility of your discourse, but you also have to use the right jargon. Add saying something meaningful in top of it: you have to pay attention to how you say things (language + jargon) and what you say. 

Try handling the feeling of inferiority that inevitably arises when your interlocutor speaks a perfect English and can focus 100% on the content only on what they say while you have to handle the language + the jargon + the meaning behind and that gives you a pretty good mix to feel like a fraud, especially when you disagree with someone. Try a sensitive topic, such as prioritizing x-risk over global health, and add all that mental load. Good luck! 

Ben recognizes that jargon adds effort, he is just saying it adds effort to both sides of the equation, because the nature of specialized jargon is it is not known to all native speakers:

  • Native Speaker: Content + Jargon
  • Non-Native Speaker: Content + Language + Jargon

Still, it might add more effort for the non-native speaker because a native speaker can identify something as jargon more easily. This is only a hypothesis of course, so to make progress in this discussion it might he helpful to review the literature on this.

Thanks a lot for writing this, Alix. I can only heartily agree. I'm fairly fluent in English, having studied abroad and lived in an English-speaking country for a few years. Still, especially in deep intellectual conversations, I find myself struggling to explain concepts in English more than in German. I notice too that I sometimes find myself having a hard time keeping up with the speed of talking, especially with people from bigger cities like New York or London. 
Keeping in mind that I'm very fluent in English, and now trying to extrapolate that experience to people who have e.g. a B3 level of proficiency, I can see why many people wouldn't be able to engage with the EA community, let alone get into a position of influence. 

native English cultures are disproportionately represented ... in grant-making organizations, and within research institutions.

I'm not sure if this makes it better or worse, but I suspect that part of the explanation for this is less about linguistic ability and more about the combination of a) the heavy overrepresentation of Anglophone institutions on world's top universities lists and b) the tendency of EA orgs to hire people very recently out of university and to bias heavily in doing so towards EAs who've come from top universities.

I wonder whether the focus on top universities in itself carries Anglophone bias.. most other countries don't have a large disparity in talent-attraction between different universities. Instead, the talent is concentrated within universities in e.g. Honours programmes and by grades.

I think it’s hard for many other countries to a similar level of talent differential as many of the top students from those countries are at the top Anglophone universities

Top Anglophone universities are already quite small, and I find it hard to believe that the migration numbers are significant

I think that's indeed one of the dynamics. Thanks for pointing it out! Not sure what to think of it yet, though...

Thank you for writing and sharing this, Alix! I'm sorry that it was scary for you to post and I'm glad you did. You also linked to so many other useful readings I hadn't seen previously!

I'm wondering how these dynamics play out across different platforms and spaces—e.g. hiring processes for organizations with varying degrees of international staff vs. international online platforms like the Forum or EA Anywhere Slack vs. in-person events—and if there are better moderation mechanisms for acknowledging and accounting for language barriers across each. Online, for example, it's easy to list the languages you speak and some organizations list this on their staff pages (e.g. "You can contact Alix in French and English."). Maybe this could be added to Forum profiles or EA Global Swapcard profiles.

I'm also wondering how we can better account for this as community builders, especially in places with many immigrants. We remind attendees at the start of most EA NYC events that everyone present has a different starting point and we all have something to learn and something to teach. We began doing this, in large part, to make sure newcomers who don't "speak EA" feel welcome. But there might be a benefit to also explicitly noting possible language barriers, given how deeply international and multicultural the community here is. This is also making me want to look into facilitation trainings specifically focused on these dynamics; I'm sure there are non-obvious things we could be doing better.

Ah I really like the idea of adding languages to swapcard profiles - I'll share this with the events team!

Thanks Rocky!

Forum and Swapcard profiles including languages seem like a good idea!

I think it's an important conversation to have as community builders, as you said in places with many immigrants, especially in places where the community is driven by native English speakers. I'd be keen to discuss what it means for e.g. NYC vs Switzerland: 2 places with high levels of immigrants but different first languages. In Switzerland, we would all speak English at events, but it's not the first language for the vast majority of people, and I've experienced much less frustration in those contexts than at events where English is a mother tongue for most - and then maybe I'm blind to some other dynamics that impairs how welcoming we appear to certain people. What should each of us be more aware of so that we make it as welcoming as possible?

If you find relevant trainings, please share!

I like this "everyone present has a different starting point and we all have something to learn and something to teach", I'm gonna steal it :p

Side note regarding hiring, I feel there's also the tricky problem of behavior expectations and cultural bias e.g. during interviews, where your culture can be an obstacle (e.g. from my experience, US and UK people tend to be very friendly and cheerful even to strangers, which could be unconsciously expected of you during interviews, while in your own country it would not be expected of you) - a dynamic that I believe also plays an important role in gender diversity.

Thanks for posting, Alix!

I think having lots of native English speakers in top positions at EA-aligned organisations is also explained by founder effects. The effective altruism movement started mostly in the UK and US, which have English as the native language, and top positions will tend to be occupied by people who have been in the movement for longer. In addition, as Arepo noted, EA-aligned organisations recruit from top universities, where students are either native English speakers, or speak English pretty well anyway.

In terms of next steps, maybe it would make sense for the EA Survey to include some questions about to which extent linguistic ability is hindering participation in the movement, @David_Moss and @Willem Sleegers?

Thank you Vasco! Yes, I mentioned the founder's effect in this paragraph, and I agree.

I am uncertain whether asking about participation being hindered is truly where the problem lies, but it should help understand the scale of the problem. There's also something unseen from the participant side, where people you interact with form judgments about you that you will not be aware of, that are biased. I hope this makes sense. What I mean is: I wouldn't say that my participation has been hindered due to my linguistic ability, but I am somewhat sure some of my conversation mates have formed impressions of me that are wrong because English is not my native language or culture.

I also think this misses the point that those people have perspectives that could benefit the movement but are not as listened to as they could be.

Thanks for writing this Alix. Something I hadn't been tracking much before this post was how events like EAGs and retreats might be especially tiring if you're doing lots of 1:1s in a different language. I remember being surprised by just how tired I got spending all day in a different language when I worked in France, and can't imagine how much that's multiplied when discussing complicated EA topics and ideas.

Thank you for your comment Charlotte! Yes I think it's probably something additional (and not necessarily very visible) that non-native speakers might struggle with in intense events such as EAG(x)s and retreats. What do you think you might do differently now?

Thank you for posting, Alix! I am a non-native English speaking scientist and I have often wondered about it in the context of my own productivity. Working on a manuscript that has 17 previous draft iterations can easily make a biologist think about linguistic bias in academia.

This is actually the good news that I wanted to share - this linguistic injustice within "thought leaders" is an issue that we are already working on. The general idea is that non-native English speakers spend more effort in conducting scientific activities (reading and writing papers and preparing presentations etc), but the experience/insight of the writer overpowers native-speaker status.

A thought leader has to have ideas. Being able to form grammatically correct and aesthetically pleasing sentences is just the final packaging. In the end, it is the community that determines how important the presentation part actually is. Therefore, it has been also interesting to read the replies.

Furthermore, I think in case of "lectures, presentations, chairing etc" native speakers have only a minute advantage. Yes, when I was living in US (and I started 'thinking in English') - presenting got easier! However, the main skill comes with experience. If you done it hundreds of times - so you don't get nervous, can get/keep the attention of the audience and find ways to explain/emphasize key points in that sea of information.

Maybe I am wrong. Cheers!

Thank you Peeter for this message! This is quite interesting, I'll reflect on this!

You have driven home a point and it's worthy to be reviewed at the thought leaders structure of EA.

worthy to be reviewed at the thought leaders structure of EA

I'm not sure what this means?

(And I'm worried that it might reflect a misunderstanding of how the EA movement is organized.)

I didn't think about it at first, but I am only now realizing that this could be precisely the kind of interaction this post is talking about!

Do you think my response contributed to the dynamic you're concerned about in this post?

Not necessarily no, as you ask for clarification - though if you were to form an opinion about the person commenting before the resolution of this potential misunderstanding, that could be caused by a lower language proficiency than expected and not a misunderstanding of the movement dynamics, then maybe yes?

[comment deleted]4mo1
0
0
Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities