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

by Dobroslawa_Gogloza8 min read3rd Sep 201918 comments


Diversity and InclusionBuilding effective altruismCommunity

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.


  • 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.


18 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:40 AM
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Thanks so much for writing this! This is something I think about in my work, but I'm sure still need to improve on.

Thank you, and congrats for writing this.

Avoid slang, abbreviations, unusual collocations. Speak clearly and slowly.

This has to be constantly remarked. I think a good antidote for that is to learn a second language and talk to its native-speakers (besides, reasoning in a foreign language may reduce some biases).

BTW, I'm not sure if that's just me, but one of the things that sometimes prevents me from engaging in a conversation with other person in her native language (not only English) is that, if I am too successful (e.g., if I mimic her accent or style), she often assumes I'm almost as proficient as her and ends up speaking twice as fast, with slangs only a professional rapper would know. So: even if a non-native speaker doesn't seem to have an accent (= she speaks with your accent), don't assume you can drop the "avoid slang..." advice.

This isn't meant to be a criticism of you or your comment specifically, but it was incongruous to see "congrats" right next to "Avoid slang, abbreviations, unusual collocations." It brings up the question of, is it a good idea to avoid literally all "slang, abbreviations" or does it make sense to still use some common ones? And what count as unusual collocations? Does "make sense" count or is it sufficiently usual?

True, some common abreviations are standard. But my remarks, and probably Dobroslawa's, concern mostly oral conversations - that's the context where non-native speakers are in a huge disadvantage, even if they are proficient.

I kind of enjoy reading unusual expressions or slang, because it gives me new data and time enough to update on - so if someone uses it in a conversation later on, I may have a better chance of understanding it. Perhaps that's precisely the problem for skilled non-native speakers: we're usually much better "trained" in the written language than in the spoken one, so that we're often ignorant about some of their differences. Thus, writing "slang, abbreviations, unusual collocations" may actually have a net positive effect.

This is very true and it's also something that I noticed, if you are fluent, people sometimes start speaking so casually that it's impossible to understand them. I sometimes say to my English-speaking colleagues: "Whenever you see me just smile and not, it probably means that I have no clue what you have just said." :)

What are some examples of unusual collocations? I wonder if some commonly used collocations, such as "get over", "prefer x₁ over x₂", "end up", "break the ice", and "come up with" might be more confusing to non-native speakers than expressions that are less commonly used or involve more complicated words but are more literal. I was surprised to hear that a non-native speaker friend of mine did not understand the construction "out of x₁, x₂ is the best".

This post should be required reading in the movement. This is such an important topic. Thank you for putting so much work into it. You outlined this in a very easy to understand and actionable way.

On a somewhat related note, here are some tools that I've found helpful trying to improve communication in multi-lingual and international teams...

Slack Translate App - https://slack.com/apps/A0ZJS6Z7E-translate# - autotranslates slack messages so that people can communicate in their first language.

Zoom AutoTranscription - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dk7xk3WtzE - Automatically adds transcription to zoom recordings.

Android Live Caption (out this Fall) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPv1PkjJ-J0

Digital Assistants like Google Home / Alexa / etc - Having it on ones desk for instant translation/definition (ex. you can say "ok google ¿Cómo digo gratis todos los pollos en inglés?" and it will respond with "...is Spanish for free all chickens" or "ok google definir emancipación" and it will respond with the definition in the language you asked the question in)

AI Text Analysis - I can't find the link but I know a system exists to assess text for reading ease. This could be used to quickly review documents put out by international coalitions like the Open Wing Alliance to make sure the language used in documents uses the most straight forward language (ex. not using slang, abbreviations, etc)

Live translation - Skype, Google, and several other video/audio call platforms have live translation features. The services are getting better every year, but I should mention, while they work well for certain languages and accents, they very poorly for others.

Leveraging systems that have auto-translation as a core feature - Building a chat bot to send out actions to volunteers? Build it on a platform that can parse and return multiple languages and doesn't force the user to interact with it in English (ex. DialogFlow)

I use the Hemingway Editor to assess the reading level of my writing.

I didn't know many of them. Maybe it actually makes sense to create a list of tools that make communication easier and share it in the form of article?

I didn’t know Google Assistant was able to understand words spoken in other languages! By the way, “gratis” is an adjective or adverb that means “without charge”. I think you meant to express “free” as in “to liberate”, which would be “emancipar”, “soltar”, or “liberar”. I'm not a native Spanish speaker; I looked up the words in Wiktionary and SpanishDict to double-check their definitions.

Thanks for writing this! It's a challenging topic, and I am impressed that you have so many actionable suggestions.

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.

This is definitely true for me and most other English speakers I know.

Excellent idea, and highly detailed and informative post.

I was reading an article recently which suggested that scholars who speak English as an additional language can struggle with the expectation to write their work in English---especially in fields such as philosophy where prose expression forms the bulk of academic articles (less of an issue in the sciences). The article concluded that there should be more opportunities for translation, so that authors can express their ideas in the language they are most proficient and comfortable in. Perhaps this would be something for EA to think about offering? i.e. could offering to pay for translation of articles/books by non-native English speakers working in high-impact research areas essentially improve their productivity compared to them having to write in their non-native language? I've also never seen an EA event in which the speaker spoke through an interpreter, for example, but if someone did prefer to use one, it would be good for this to have been considered/offered as an option.

Also, one thing I've both read and personally noticed learning and teaching languages is that even very advanced speakers will usually do maths in their native language, and it can be hard to communicate orally about numbers in your non-native language. If you are doing a presentation at an EA event and mentioning numbers or percentages, it could be helpful (both for English as an Additional Language speakers and general accessibility) to display those figures on your slides also.

Thanks again for the excellent post!

If you're a non-native speaker, one way to improve your pronunciation is to make sure you know how the word is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Wiktionary is a good resource for this, and maybe also Lexico or Cambridge Dictionary. It's very difficult to correctly guess the pronunciation of an English word based on its spelling. Many non-native speakers don't do enough vowel reduction and overpronounce vowels that are actually /ə/.

Note that IPA in dictionaries is almost always phonemic and not phonetic, which means that it will not represent things like:

  • In American English, /p, t, tʃ, k/ are aspirated as [pʰ, tʰ, tʃʰ, kʰ] at the beginning of a stressed syllable, and unaspirated otherwise.† /p, t, k/ are aspirated after /s/ /t/ is often pronounced as [ɾ] between vowels (intervocalically, often even across word boundaries)‡ and as [ʔ] at the end of a syllable, except sequences like /st/ and /kt/ have [t] or [tʰ]. When the speaker is trying to speak quite formally, they may pronounce it as [tʰ], though that sounds a bit stilted to me.
  • I'm not sure about British English, but I believe that it is similar to American English except that intervocalic /t/ is pronounced [tʰ] or more casually as [ʔ], and never as [ɾ].
  • In American English, /d/ is also pronounced as [ɾ] between vowels except when beginning a stressed syllable. Again, speakers may sometimes pronounce it as [d] when trying to speak particularly formally or clearly.
  • "Vowels are [slightly] shortened when followed in a syllable by a voiceless (fortis) consonant. This is known as pre-fortis clipping. Thus in the following word pairs the first item has a shortened vowel while the second has a normal length vowel: 'right' /raɪt/ – 'ride' /raɪd/; 'face' /feɪs/ – 'phase' /feɪz/." For American English, "writer" and "rider" are both pronounced [ˈɹaɪɾɚ] but the /aɪ/ is pronounced longer in "rider", because /t/ is a voiceless consonant.
  • "In many accents of English, tense vowels undergo breaking before /l/, resulting in pronunciations like [pʰiəl] for peel, [pʰuəl] for pool, [pʰeɪəl] for pail, and [pʰoʊəl] for pole." (Wikipedia)
  • Some dictionaries for American English treat [ʌ] and [ə] as allophones of /ə/. In those dictionaries, /ə/ in stressed syllables should be pronounced [ʌ].
  • Some (even weirder) dictionaries write /e/ when they really mean /ɛ/ or /eɪ/, and /o/ when the mean /oʊ/.
  • Many speakers of American English drop the /t/ in unstressed /nt/. E.g., they might pronounce "center" as [ˈsɛnɚ] instead of [ˈsɛntʰɚ].
  • In American English, /aʊ/ is pronounced /æʊ/
  • I feel like /aɪ, eɪ, oʊ, aʊ/ are actually pronounced [ai, ei, əu, au].
  • British English is mostly non-rhotic, but inserts a /ɹ/ between vowels, even across word boundaries.
  • There's also Australian English, but I really don't understand the phonetic rules for that.
  • /ə/ is sometimes pronounced /ɪ/ in some contexts in American English; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phonological_history_of_English_close_front_vowels#Weak_vowel_merger.

There are lots of other phonetic rules such as dark vs light /l/, but as a speaker of American English I don't really understand them.

† One exception (from Wikipedia): When the consonants in a cluster like st are analyzed as belonging to different morphemes (heteromorphemic) the stop is aspirated, but when they are analyzed as belonging to one morpheme the stop is unaspirated. For instance, distend has unaspirated [t] since it is not analyzed as two morphemes, but distaste has an aspirated middle [tʰ] because it is analyzed as dis- + taste and the word taste has an aspirated initial t. ‡ However, unstressed /tən/ is pronounced /ʔən/. "Curtain" is pronounced as [ˈkʰɚʔən], not [ˈkʰɚɾən], and "button" is pronounced [ˈbʌʔən], not [ˈbʌɾən].

Now that you know the phonetic representation, it's time to learn how to pronounce the phonemes/phones! /ɹ, ð, θ, ɑ, æ, ɪ, ɛ, ʊ, ʌ/ can be particularly difficult. I would personally focus on /ʌ/ as it's quite common and pronouncing it as /a/ sounds weirder than common approximations for other phonemes.

Also be sure to know which syllable of the word is stressed. Also note that some words are pronounced or stressed differently depending on whether it is a noun or a verb (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initial-stress-derived_noun#List).

Honestly though, I've felt that speaking with perfect pronunciation isn't as important as having the intonation (variation in pitch of the words of a sentence) similar to a native speaker's. I think the only way to learn a native-sounding intonation is to hear English often.

While this is all true, I can't remember having trouble with the pronunciation or tone of non-native English speakers I've met in EA. I think there's probably lower-hanging fruit in having native English speakers adjust their behaviour, like this article suggests.

It may be my problem, but the popular Grammarly app works terribly with comments: I can't use its suggestions; I can't navigate the comments with mouse/trackpad; because of that I need to use the web version, which takes, say, 10–30 seconds and is annoying.

I am on:

  • Google Chrome: Version 80.0.3987.163 (Official Build) (64-bit)
  • MacOS Mojave: 10.14.5 (18F2059)

Great post, I really appreciate the solutions you propose. I often fear some english mistakes could harm how my arguments are perceived. I think keeping personal written notes with solutions could help people in putting the conscious effort of evaluating arguments in virtue of their content. It could even help the comprehension of arguments made by natives speakers...

I have a fear that, even knowing all this, if the conscious effort is lacking, the effect remains the same. I don't feel very optimistic given what I've seen in similar contexts, but I hope I'm wrong. Note that there are many areas in which knowledge doesn't really help without conscious effort. Rationality as a whole may qualify as one of these areas.

I'm thinking that maybe losing an accent is less important for white males, as we already get an unfair advantage. In those cases, the accent might be making it fairer. But this doesn't apply to people whose job involves communicating in English with people outside of the movement.

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It's not a matter of fairness. It's a matter of reducing the probability of not hearing good ideas because of stupid reasons.