(Image credit: Getty Images)
By Christine Ro 3rd June 2021
Not everyone who speaks
English is treated the same
way. What happens when
creeps in to our conscious
and unconscious – and
what do we do about our
Last summer, Triangle Investigations, a New York-based HR consultancy, examined allegations of accent
discrimination at a global non-profit organisation. An Ethiopian-accented staff member had reported that his
colleagues frequently interrupted him during Zoom calls, commented on the unintelligibility of his English and
excluded him from meetings. He became self-conscious during the meetings that he was able to attend, and ended
up using the chat feature instead of speaking up, says Kia Roberts, Triangle’s founder and principal.
When Roberts and her team looked into the matter, they found that the allegations had substance, and that
employees of colour had been treated differently; they were being spoken to disrespectfully, as if they weren’t
competent to hold their positions, and their opinions and suggestions weren’t being taken seriously. The investigation
ultimately led the non-profit to introduce employee training and periodic HR check-ins to try and remedy the issue.
Of course, this case of linguistic discrimination wasn’t an isolated episode. Globally, more people are using English
than ever, and it’s a dominant language in business, science and government. English is
constantly evolving, because of the diverse ways different nations and groups use it. Yet instead of embracing this
linguistic diversity, we still rank particular types of English higher than others – which means that both native and
non-native speakers who differ from what’s considered ‘standard’ can find themselves judged, marginalised and even
penalised for the way their English sounds.
Not every type of linguistic discrimination is intentional; many people who think they’re being inclusive don’t
understand that their inherent biases are pushing them to make judgements they don’t even know they’re making.
Yet no matter what’s driving these kinds of incidents, workers feel lasting, often demoralising, effects. And, as these
kinds of situations continue – especially when companies don’t recognise or stop them – things can get worse for
workers, as they’re side-lined or flat-out excluded in the workplace.
As the globe becomes even more connected in a remote-work world, the ability for workers to be able to speak to
each other effectively and respectfully is imperative. So, how do we end linguistic discrimination – and create a more
inclusive, functional use of language to benefit native and non-native speakers alike?
Covert or overt
Globally, non-native speakers of English
outnumber native speakers three to one,
although defining the term ‘native English
speaker’ is complicated. The term usually refers to
anyone who speaks English from early childhood,
as their first language. But many children grow up
learning multiple languages simultaneously – for
instance, if their parents are from different places,
or if a nation has several official languages.
A particular status is attached to English that
sounds as if it comes from countries that are
wealthy, majority white and
mostly monolingual. According to
this limited view, multilingual countries like Nigeria and Singapore have less ‘legitimate’ and desirable forms of English
(even though English is an official language in both). Globally, the most respected types of English are varieties such as
British, American and Australian, says Sender Dovchin, a sociolinguist at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.
Within any country, certain forms of English bring fewer benefits. To give just one example from the US, African-American
English remains misunderstood and discriminated against. And on an international level,
certain types of speakers face judgements based on perceptions of their nationality or race,
rather than their actual communication skills. “When English is spoken by some Europeans, including for example French-
, German-, Italian-accented English, they can be considered really cute, sophisticated, stylish and so forth,” explains
Dovchin. But, she adds, English spoken by Asians, Africans or Middle Easterners may be viewed as challenging and
English spoken by Asians, Africans or Middle Easterners may be viewed as
challenging and unpleasant
This linguistic stereotyping applies even when those Asians, Africans or Middle Easterners are in fact native speakers of
English. Just seeing an Asian face makes some Americans consider that speaker’s English to be hard to
understand, regardless of how they actually speak or where they were born. I was born in the US, hold a UK passport and
have an English degree, but like many other people of Asian descent, I’ve had the surreal experience of people
complimenting my English fluency.
These perceptions feed into linguistic racism, or racism based on accent, dialect and speech patterns. The
overt form of linguistic racism can involve deliberate belittling or shaming, such as “ethnic-accent bullying”
that occurs despite someone’s actual English proficiency. Or it can be more covert, like the unwitting social exclusion of
people with foreign-accented English, or a seemingly well-intended compliment toward an Asian American’s English.
These examples show that it may not be obvious to the
perpetrators what they’re doing, because there are a number
of subtle psychological mechanisms at play. Cognitively, it
takes more work to understand a less familiar
accent. The extra brainpower involved, as well as
warmer feelings toward members of
one’s own group, can lead to negative
attitudes toward a person speaking a different type of
English. Overall, it’s common to assume that non-native
speakers are less truthful, less intelligent and less
competent; psychology studies suggest that people attach
less credibility to statements spoken in a foreign accent.
Speakers from some multilingual countries are thought to use less 'legitimate'
forms of English than others (Credit: Getty Images)
These subtle mechanisms feed into behaviours that can impact negatively on people speaking different forms of English.
I’ve been guilty of this in practice. I’ve found myself gravitating to colleagues I can easily banter with (so that I don’t
have to explain or replace Americanisms like ‘inside baseball’ or British terms like ‘take the piss’). I’ve edited away
Indian English expressions in reports, like ‘upgradation’, without wondering why I treat ‘upgrading’ as the better term.
And in bouts of impatience during work conversations, I’ve spoken over or finished the sentences of colleagues who are
This type of bias can take a significant psychological toll. Dovchin’s research shows that many people who are shamed or
excluded because of their language develop inferiority complexes, and start to believe that they’re actually less
intelligent. Lots of multilingual people report being fairly confident in their English-language skills in their home
countries, then losing their confidence due to the way they’re treated in English-first countries.
At worst, linguistic racism can lead to deprivation in education, employment, health
and housing. In the workplace, people with certain accents can be openly harassed (like a Puerto Rican call
centre worker who was told by a customer, “your stupid accent makes me sick”), or excluded
from specific opportunities (like a Pakistani transport worker in London whose manager kept him out of
The discrimination might also mean that certain people don’t even get through the door. For
instance, Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, which directs seed funding to start-ups, has openly admitted that
the programme is biased against applicants with strong foreign accents. In an interview with business
publication Inc., he speculated that “it could be that anyone with half a brain would realise you’re going to be
more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong
accent”. An outcry followed these comments, but Graham was unrepentant, writing “you can’t make it be
work to understand you”. This is a classic expression of native-speaker privilege: the minority of global
English speakers demanding that the majority change.
How to chip away at linguistic racism
Linguistic racism needs to be tackled head on, both at a corporate and individual level. “If we wait for it to happen
organically, it will never happen,” believes Dovchin.
First, organisations need to be strategic about having ongoing conversations about linguistic diversity as a type of
diversity, educating staff about how language-related biases affect communications and opportunities and incorporating
this into policies.
But, on an individual level, speakers of English as a first language can make their English more accessible. They can
slow down, and avoid inside jokes and idioms, for instance. They can talk less in meetings to give more space to
non-native speakers, while also allowing non-native speakers to chair meetings and set the tone for communications.
They can also pay attention to body language and improve their listening skills – for instance, by seeking out popular
culture featuring varied groups of people, and thus varied ways of communicating. With greater
exposure, the brain becomes better at understanding differently accented speech. Overall, everyone can become
more aware of language-related biases.
Research shows that many people who are shamed or excluded
because of their language develop inferiority complexes
Not every type of linguistic racism is intentional, but judgements are
pervasive due to our inherent biases (Credit: Getty Images)
Suresh Canagarajah, a linguist at Pennsylvania State University, US, says that given how transnational work has become,
we all need to get better at communicating with people speaking all kinds of English. “You can’t afford to say ‘I don’t
understand Chinglish or I don’t understand Indian English’, because you're going to lose out on that market.” This
certainly applies to hiring decisions; highly qualified candidates may be overlooked if they trigger a hiring manager’s
biases about less prestigious types of English. There, says Canagarajah, “You’re focusing on the wrong thing, and maybe
losing on a lot of expertise.”
Yet even if companies and individuals do what they can to level the playing field, another option is to change our ideas
about what constitutes ‘good’ English. In many workplace settings, it would make more sense to focus on effective
communication rather than flowery prose or slangy chat. In functional settings, someone who is adept at understanding
varied types of English is actually a better communicator than a person who can only understand their own form, whether
it’s considered native or not.
I’ve been reflecting a lot on the extent to which my career depends on my privilege as a so-called native English speaker.
To teach English in Romania, I wasn’t required to have any teaching qualifications; simply being American was enough. To
be hired to write and edit publications, my primary asset has been my familiarity with the kind of English that carries
The very least that I, and others like me, can do with this privilege is to become aware of its effects and reduce the ways
that we contribute to it. Individual acts of thoughtfulness can’t dismantle the structures of power that keep North
American and Western European English dominant. But they can help cultivate an appreciation of English in all its
The pervasive problem of 'linguistic racism'