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Mind your language or how to avoid linguistic discrimination


display of interntainoal  flags with black headphones laid on top

Recently, I was talking about work with a friend who was explaining how their monthly departmental meetings worked. ‘As I’m one of the few native speakers on the call, I tend to do a lot of the talking,’ he told me. I imagined the scene where colleagues for whom English is their second or third language were interrupted, talked over, rarely, if ever invited to speak.

 

It could be worse, these ‘non-native speakers’ might have found themselves excluded from important meetings or passed over for opportunities to present or lead initiatives. Several studies have suggested that non-native speakers are less likely to be promoted or receive funding than native speakers. Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, showed that people are more likely to believe information given to them by a native speaker than someone with a foreign accent.

 

Somehow this type of language-based discrimination seems to be less recognised than other forms of discrimination.  In the UK, race is a protected category under the 2010 Equality Act but nationality, language and accent are not. When I was first teaching English as a foreign language, employers would advertise for native speakers, discriminating against potential applicants with excellent teaching skills and language fluency.  The term may have been officially banned in recruitment by the EU, but native speakerism is still very much alive in the unconscious biases and microaggressions that impact how multilingual employees are recruited, developed, valued and promoted.

 

Effective communication still matters. It matters more than ever as working across borders and in diverse teams has increasingly become the norm.  But effective communication and the need for everyone to speak a standardised, seemingly perfect version of the language of communication are not the same thing, particularly if we remember that back in 2003, David Crystal calculated that non-native speakers outnumbered native speakers by a ratio of three to one.

 

Here are some practical considerations to help ensure that speakers of other languages feel valued and included rather than discriminated against.

 

Names matter

Start by getting people’s names right. Still today, I have clients from overseas whose companies have asked them to shorten or anglicise their name to ‘make it easier for everyone’. If a colleague has a name you are not familiar with, ask them how they prefer to be called and check you are pronouncing it correctly.

 

Resist the correction itch

Consider if, when and how to correct your colleague’s pronunciation. If it’s causing misunderstanding, find a way to address it sensitively. If it’s simply a regional variation or sounds different to how you would say it, resist the temptation to impose your version as the correct one.

 

Quiet does not equal incompetent

For people operating in another language than the one they grew up speaking, it can take them a little longer to process what they hear and to formulate their ideas. This doesn’t mean that they have nothing to say, but jumping in, answering your own questions or interrupting can cause these colleagues to withdraw from the conversation – they feel marginalised and you miss out on their valuable input.

 

Avoid in-group colloquialisms

When we are communicating with ‘people like us’ it’s easy to find our communication becomes coded.  We share insider jokes, make references to popular culture from our childhood or use slang or idiomatic language like ‘feeling gutted’ or ‘fancying a cuppa’.  If you are collaborating with colleagues from diverse backgrounds, be mindful of using expressions that get lost in translation.

 

Corporate language only mandates

Many organisations may have decided that English is the corporate language to be used in meetings, correspondence and offices worldwide. This makes sense in many ways but risks causing frustration and becoming exclusionary, particularly if other languages are banned. It can be more efficient to check a status or make a quick arrangement in a shared first language and colleagues feeling the cognitive load from operating in a language they didn’t grow up speaking shouldn’t be judged for speaking their own language over a coffee or lunch break.

 

These are often unconscious or unintentional actions and behaviours not meant to cause harm or offence. Yet the impact can be discriminatory or exclusionary causing employees to feel undervalued, side-lined or worse.

 

Language support?

If we promote linguistic diversity and foster cultural intelligence then we can create an environment where multilingualism is celebrated and other language speakers are not penalised for their less-than-perfect pronunciation or grammatical accuracy.


  1. Suggest foreign language training to local staff – this can help create an atmosphere of linguistic curiosity and increase empathy for those operating in another language

  2. Advocate a plain English approach to communication

  3. Create a meeting culture where information is sent in advance and reflection is valued

  4. Offer mentoring and support in presentation and other soft skills if needed

  5. Organise cultural intelligence workshops for employees to understand and appreciate each other’s cultures and challenge their biases

  6. Consider offering social activities such as international film nights to expose employees to other accents

 

Should we really be discriminating against people not part of the minority lucky enough to be born in a WEIRD country? (Western-Educated-Industrialised-Rich-Democratic). There are, after all, many Englishes.

 

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