English as a dominant language in the movement: challenges and solutions

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Many of the problems we are facing are global, so the social movements that we have to create in response to them must also be global. To facilitate cooperation within any movement, we also need a common language. It is very good that we have a language that makes it easy for activists from different parts of the world to share information, learn from each other and plan strategies together. However, we must also be aware that the use of a single language of communication has certain consequences for the dynamics and power structures of our social movement.

There are many studies that analyze differences in the perception of native-speakers of a language compared to a second language or foreign language speakers. The results are very worrying. One observation is that people for whom a common language is their mother tongue, especially those whose pronunciation has the most prestigious accent, “are automatically in a position of strength compared to those who need to learn it as a second or foreign language”. A standard accent — like the ones normally shown in the media — is automatically associated with higher education and higher economic status. It is also worth noting that it’s practically impossible to lose an accent completely when speaking a foreign language.

Some other observations from scientists studying the evaluation of people speaking with a non-standard accent:

  • Non-standard speakers are usually perceived as less competent, less intelligent and less trustworthy.
  • If you are not very proficient in English as a foreign language, you will feel anxious and inhibited when you need to communicate in English.
  • Non-native speakers avoid expressing their opinions at meetings for fear of being perceived as incompetent.
  • Some experiments suggest that a non-standard accent contributes to discrimination or being perceived negatively, even more than having a different skin color.
  • The same arguments put forward by a person with a standard accent are assessed as being of better quality.
  • In one study, most of the non-standard speakers were convinced that they would be more respected if they spoke a standard accent and one-third of them reported experiencing discrimination based on their accent.
  • The accents are not equal. While most people who speak with a foreign accent are assessed negatively, some experiments have shown that people with a Western European accent are perceived rather positively. Especially German-accented speakers are sometimes seen as more organized and intelligent.
  • People who speak English as a foreign language feel more comfortable speaking English with other people who speak it as a foreign language since they do not feel constantly assessed.
  • Communication with other non-standard speakers can be more important in creating a platform for understanding each other than cultural differences between the interlocutors.
  • When native speakers are difficult to understand, it does not affect their status. When a non-native speaker is hard to understand, it affects the perception of them as less professional.

To quote a meta-analysis of various studies on the perception of people who are not native speakers:

Across rating dimensions, speakers who use a standard accent are rated more positively than those using a non-standard accent, almost a full standard deviation higher. This effect may have considerable consequences for those speakers being evaluated. For the standard speaker, it represents a huge advantage, and for the non-standard speaker, it represents nothing less than a considerable handicap. The reader should consider the fact that evaluations have been shown to be shaped by single words, such as the speaker saying “hello.” The implications for non-standard speakers are considerable, as they are much less likely to make positive impressions, even first impressions when compared with standard speakers.

As a person who started learning English only at school, I felt very uncomfortable reading all these studies. For a moment I even regretted that I started to pursue this topic at all. For me — as for any other person who speaks a foreign language at work — communication with native speakers is stressful, even though I am an English philologist by education. I know that every time I make a mistake, the person I talk to will hear it. It’s not done on purpose, it’s just how things are.

To share my thoughts in writing, I need help from Kirsty Henderson who proofreads them before publishing, and when a few years ago we were informed that my organization was about to go through an evaluation process that involved a long conversation with me — I took accent reduction classes. I’m interested in the subject of language acquisition and I already knew before that a foreign accent affects the perception of the interlocutor as less competent and less intelligent. I didn’t want the evaluation of the way I speak to influence the evaluation of the work of all my colleagues from the organization. I know myself that life of a non-native speaker is not easy, but I didn’t realize that the situation is so bad.

As the organizer of the CARE conference, I know that delivering a presentation in English is a stressful experience even for experienced speakers. Most people feel uncomfortable speaking in public, people giving lectures in a foreign language are terrified of it. The most frequent challenges include the fact that it takes much more time to prepare your talk, the fear that under stress you will forget key words, that you will not understand a question from the audience, or that even if you know the answer, it will be difficult for you to present it in a concise and persuasive way — in public situations there simply is not enough time to think. I had many conversations about it with people and it seems to me that these fears are not really related to the actual level of language proficiency (which doesn’t make them any less real) and are so common that I haven’t met a single person free of them.

Stress related to the use of a foreign language, especially in an environment of people who are native speakers, makes many people avoid speaking and even give up the position or promotion opportunities that would require frequent communication in a foreign language. Managers of teams including either native speakers or more fluent English speakers might feel threatened because their lower level of language signals lower competence and lower status which can also impact their wellbeing in the organization. People with more proficient language skills are automatically judged to be more professionally competent and also tend to perceive themselves as such.

Stress and exclusion of individual activists is a big problem, but the potential challenges of using only one language for communication do not end there. During evaluations or grant-making processes, the competences of the organization’s managers are increasingly and rightly so — assessed. If we already know that people who speak English with a foreign accent tend to be automatically perceived as less intelligent, less competent and less trustworthy, this puts organizations managed by nonnative speakers in a worse position.

That a foreign accent affects our assessment of competence or even the intelligence of our interlocutors is not without significance for the movement itself. There is a risk that when different people or organizations discuss the best strategies and solutions together, the voices of native speakers will dominate, regardless of their merit. Organizations managed from English-speaking countries and operating internationally should also be careful to avoid similar dynamics. They should take into account the fact that this unconscious bias against non-English-speaking people may mean that most decision-makers do not have sufficient confidence in the decisions of local leaders, or do not treat their ideas or doubts with due respect and attention.

If the movement is to become more global, it must be increasingly sensitive to voices from outside the English-speaking world, and our automatic reflexes don’t help, so we must work consciously to communicate well and listen effectively to people outside the dominant culture. Without this work, we will not use the full potential of the people who work in our movement, and we can function in a situation where diversity in organizations or in the movement itself is apparent — we have people from different backgrounds at the table, but some of them are afraid to speak out, and when they speak out, they are not taken seriously.

The possibility of communicating in one language is very beneficial for the movement. There are also a few indications that the position of the English language will change in the near future. Also, the problems described do not apply to English as such — it is best explored as a dominant language in many business or academic environments, but exactly the same reactions occur with other languages that are used for international communication in companies.

It is therefore worth focusing primarily on how to function in an international environment, how to deal with these power imbalances and how to ensure that the growing number of activists from all over the world can feel good in this movement and realize their full potential. I do not know how to do this, but I hope that more and more people will think about it and together we will find good solutions. However, I would like to share my thoughts on what organizations, English-speaking activists and activists who speak English as a foreign language can do.

Organizations:

  • For meetings with people with different levels of language skills, it is useful to have processes in place to ensure that all participants contribute fairly.
  • Managers should pay attention to the dynamics of the discussion and the amount of space they give others to express their views.
  • Managers should also understand that, as with other forms of discrimination, language stereotyping may be less visible and subtle. In addition to training and policies related to counteracting gender or racial discrimination, it is worth adding those related to discrimination of people who are not native speakers.
  • When hiring new people, it is always worth considering whether a position really requires a native (or only fluent or very good) knowledge of English.
  • Think about employees who speak English as a second language or a foreign language as potentially valuable people in an increasingly globalized movement. Such people can be very good bridges to other cultures — fluent knowledge of English and their native language makes them often understand not only both languages but also both ways of thinking or cultures.
  • Those who speak English as a foreign language are better understood by others who are not English speakers. Their language is more specific, free from colloquialisms, slang, and abbreviations. This facilitates communication in multilingual teams and can make non-English speakers better coordinators of international teams. In addition, other non-English speakers will feel more comfortable communicating with a manager who is also non-English-speaking, which can be important in multinational teams.
  • If the organization evaluates the work of others or provides grants and the whole process involves interviews, they should give those who speak English as a foreign language a longer time to express themselves and a longer time for preparation of written material. Accurate communication in a foreign language requires more reflection, vocabulary checking and often, because of greater difficulty in choosing the most precise way of conveying information, non-native speakers need to speak more descriptively, which takes more time.
  • It’s worth considering investing in language development for employees. Sometimes very competent people may be afraid of jobs that require a lot of communication in English. Subsidies for language learning can reduce the stress associated with taking up a job.
  • It is also worth investing in tools for actual assessment of the language level of employees as employees tend to perceive their language level as lower than it is in reality, which affects their fear of speaking in a group.
  • In the case of employing both native speakers and learners of English, organizations should pay particular attention to organizing socializing opportunities and thus increasing the level of psychological security and reducing the level of anxiety associated with the sense of being assessed by the level of language.

English-speaking activists:

  • As with any other form of discrimination, it is worth starting by gaining basic knowledge about how listening to someone with a non-standard accent affects their evaluation.
  • Avoid correcting other people’s language mistakes unless someone explicitly asks you to do so. Correcting mistakes leads to an increase in the level of inhibition and stress associated with speaking in a foreign language.
  • When talking to a non-native speaker, give them more space. Speaking a foreign language requires more thought in the choice of words or grammatical structures. People speak slower in a foreign language and take longer breaks.
  • Avoid slang, abbreviations, unusual collocations. Speak clearly and slowly.
  • Start learning a foreign language. The ability to speak another language will help you adapt to different levels of language and improve your ability to communicate with people from all over the world, not only in the language you are learning but also in your mother tongue.
  • If you speak a foreign language, you will probably find yourself in situations where you will be less competent and stressful when talking to native speakers. This will give you the opportunity to become more aware of the experiences and dilemmas of most people on the planet and make you a better person.

Activists who learn English:

  • Remember that even though English has become the lingua franca of this movement, most of the people you will communicate with are also not native speakers. They also make mistakes, they don’t necessarily notice your mistakes, and also, they’ll actually understand what you’re saying much better than if you were a native speaker. Seriously: don’t you understand them more than you understand British or American speakers?
  • Be proud that you communicate in a foreign language. It’s difficult, and you had to put a lot of work into it. If you communicate with an English speaker in English, it usually means that your English is much better than their level in your mother tongue.
  • If you want to improve your language level, try to have a lot of contact with it, preferably every day. Don’t think about textbooks or tests, watch movies, listen to interesting podcasts, read books and use the opportunity to talk in this language. This will pay off and you will feel more confident.
  • If you want to feel more confident speaking English, don’t focus on grammar and words, but on pronunciation. Better pronunciation will make it easier for people to understand you and you won’t hesitate when using words you already know.
  • A good study on improving your language skills from intermediate to advanced is the free brochure “Moving Beyond the Plateau: From Intermediate to Advanced Levels in Language Learning”.
  • Additional benefits of having learned to communicate well in a foreign language — you will make more rational decisions and you have delayed potential dementia by almost 5 years. Great work!
  • Remember that the more often and courageously you speak in public, the more people get used to a foreign accent in English. In this way, you make it easier for others to communicate, and our movement very much needs the input of people from outside the English-speaking area.

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