September 2, 2013

Accents, English, Arrogance, Success

[edit: thanks to Thomas B. for correcting a few mistakes I did below. You rock!]

The recent discussion around “Accents” is very dear to me. Let me tell you something. Read on.****

1) Accents Paul Graham recently wrote about accents. Simply put: if you have a strong accent (e.g. your English is not that great), you are more likely perform poorly as the CEO of a startup. It is rather obvious, but important to know. One more point that Paul raises is that when communication is important (when you are the CEO of a Startup, and not just any employee), there are situations where communication degradation is particularly bad for you. When on the phone, for example, your understanding of English and your ability to be understood degrade a lot. The Mean Opinion Score shows that on the phone it’s at least 20-25% more difficult to understand what people are saying, and it doesn’t take into account that you can’t watch body language. When on a videocall, body language is still used far less than in real life. It also doesn’t help that the language spoken is English, that is, containing English phonetics, as some of the sounds are particularly hard to understand when communication is degraded. Which leads us to the next point.

2) English Latin and Greek were the “Lingua Franca” of the Roman empire. The Mediterranean Lingua Franca (80% of Italian, and a bunch of other languages) became the main medium of communication in the Middle Age and Renaissance, and remained common until the 19th century. None of these languages (Latin, Greek or MLF) were easy to master and the latest modern example of global Lingua Franca, English, is no exception. There is an important difference, though. Mediterranean Lingua Franca was a pidgin: “a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common”. English, instead, is a full-blown language. It means that: 2.1) There are native English speakers who master it. 2.2) It’s more difficult to learn compared to other Lingua Franca languages.

3) Arrogance Sometimes it’s arrogance and sometimes it’s just ignorance, but when native English speakers are in conversation with non native English speakers, they often don’t grasp how difficult it is for the latter to follow the conversation, and the non native speakers often perceive the other as either arrogant or ignorant. I am NOT saying that they are necessarily arrogant or ignorant, but that is what is perceived.

Antirez (the creator of Redis) writes about all this: English has been my pain for 15 years. He is a technical person, and has had trouble explaining things in English. He has communicated in English with other non native speakers (Europeans), and has realized that English is a bit broken. It is a tough language to learn and speak. In his view, learning how English sounds is really the key. If you don’t master it you become an introvert. Anyway, it’s too late to find another (easier) Lingua Franca, and therefore he suggests to just study English.

Let me explain why I think I believe there is a combination of perceived arrogance and ignorance. The first time that someone tells you: “I didn’t understand. Please say it again.”, as a native speaker you will often ignore the fact that a non-native can have trouble understanding/processing/hearing you. However, if you simply repeat it with the same voice and speed, you don’t show particular respect for that person in their perception. If later in the conversation you keep speaking too fast or not loud enough, you keep showing a perceived lack of respect, or perceived arrogance.

You might say: “If you don’t understand English, it’s your fking problem, not mine.“. Well, I disagree, because if your intent is to communicate and you realize that the other person doesn’t understand everything correctly, then you are supposed to do your best to be understood. At least, when the conversation is between equals this should be the case. There are other situations where it is, indeed, your fking problem. Let me give you an example I know very well.

I work for a big US company. Long time ago, when I started, my English was already quite good, but not as good as now (still far from perfect, but good enough indeed). I was mostly interacting with Americans and MOST of them would put NO effort in trying to make me understand, not even when I would tell them on the phone: “I’m sorry, I’m not able to understand what you’re saying. Can you space it a bit?”. My feeling was that if this company has hired me knowing that I am not a native English speaker, and if we’re here mainly to communicate with each other, I expect you to try to help me a bit. ESPECIALLY when your effort is minimal (just slowing down a bit would suffice), compared to the HUGE effort I have to put to try to understand every word. If you perceive that this is a problem, then someone made the wrong hiring decision. But again, since I’m hired and nobody questioned this when I was hired, and we work for the same company, well, I want you to help me a bit.

4) Success On my end I did all I could to learn and improve my English. I have to thank two people in particular: Martin Buhr (back then, my boss when I was based in Europe), and Shane Owenby (my boss when I was in Singapore). I simply told them: “Every time I make a mistake, correct me. Don’t overdo it, but please keep doing it”. They both did it. I am so grateful to them that they did. Every time they would correct me, I would take a mental note and once the meeting or the call was finished, I would write things down, or research why that was considered a mistake. I kept reading books in English, watching movies in English, and now I can safely say that my English is good enough. You can still hear that I have an accent, but it’s not as bad as it could be. In fact, I’m a public speaker for a technology company, and if they let me do it, it means that I don’t have too many issues. As Antirez wrote, there is no other practical solution other than work hard to improve your English.

A few pieces of advice: 1) To be understood better, try to capture the tone (music) of the language you speak. English speakers have a specific intonation when they converse, and if you put accents in weird places, they will have a hard time understanding you. Some people disagreethough, and I am not an expert. Also, try to use pauses between sentences, and use this time to check if the other person is properly following you. You can restate something, to make sure that you’ve made yourself clear. A very simple example (imagine a bad accent): “In Italy we have a lot of developers with good skills that can do a lot of programming for us in the future, so we want to hire them fast. In other words: we have developers (pause) they are smart (pause) I want to hire them (pause).“. 2) Dare to ask someone to correct you. With a very little effort, you can correct your WORST mistakes, and improve considerably. 3) The way to improve your understanding is to train your ears. If you think there is a shortcut to this you’re probably wrong. If a shortcut exists, it would have made for a super successful startup. Unfortunately, I believe there’s no easy way. 4) I’m a hacker, and there is a way to hack the “conversation” system: try to avoid situations where the “noise” is too high (e.g. phone conversations, or chatting with a friend in a crowded, noisy bar). Another trick is to slow your pace. When the interlocutor hears you speaking very slow, he slows down automatically. Avoid situations where the other person is in a rush, as it would prevent her from slowing the pace. When you hear something and you’re not sure what it means, repeat for confirmation, and mask it as a desire to summarize: “So, what you are saying is that, in essence, we should find 2-3 more people for that geography, and let them cover the community of developer? Did I understand correctly?”. 5) Don’t feel dumb just because you don’t understand too well, but also, don’t feel smart because “these Americans only speak one language, I speak three, they’re dumb and they don’t even know they are”. They’re not more dumb or more smart, they’re just people like you, and they have the advantage that they have practiced the language more.

If you’re not a native English speaker, good luck with your learning. If you ARE a native English speaker, the next time you are in conversation with an Italian, or a Bulgarian, or a Korean: think about this.

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