The Myth of the Native Speaker and the Skills We Should Be Learning to Improve Global Understanding.
As the first Covid-19 lockdown took effect in Poland, a friend whose daughter went to the same kindergarten as my son, sent me the following message:
‘Good news Hanna, I spoke to Matt, you know the Brit who is teaching the older group. He is great with kids and, more importantly, speaks with this posh English accent. I managed to persuade him to teach our kids too. The downside is we have to provide a place and deliver food. He is charging four times the Polish rate. We also need to pick him up from his place and drive him back as he does not have a car. It’s the other side of Warsaw and may take up to one hour to get there. We are both working with Piotr and I am looking after our youngest son but we really want Maja to speak with a native British accent and are now looking for more children to form a group’.
Matt had no degree in English language or pre-school pedagogy. Just like many native speakers of English employed by language schools outside of their home countries had never seen a vowel chart or heard of Chomskyan grammar. This story is a classic example of a native speaker bias, which can be found in many professions where people born into the English language are offered preferential treatment or serve as role models for the rest of the non-native world to emulate. The bias also exists in international business, in spite of compelling statistics, according to which 80% of speakers of English do not come from native ‘inner circles’, while only 2% of the population in England (not Scotland, Ireland or Wales) speaks the most revered ‘Posh English’ (Crystal, 1997; 2020).
Today English is the international language, yet many people still participate in practices which reinforce the view that certain accents are better than others and that we should be rewarded and granted opportunities based on our place of origin rather than our qualifications and talents. This approach is highly inefficient in the global context of business where communication between members of different cultural backgrounds is the default setting of everyday interactions. The environment distinguished for cultural plurality calls for a different and more varied set of skills than the achievement of phonological excellence. Here are the top four communication competences which are essential to working and leading across the borders.
A necessary ingredient in any communication, understanding proves more challenging in multilingual contexts where the speakers’ first language interferes with the production and comprehension of the international language. Since English spoken on globally comes in a variety of accents, we should place our emphasis on learning to decode non-native pronunciations. The exposure to a diversity of international accents will better prepare us for the reality of intercultural diversity than any pursuit of a native speaker’s phonological perfection. On the production side, as long as our articulation of English is clear and understandable, our mother tongues’ accents are meaningful only as markers of our identities, which we should be proudly articulating instead of suppressing.
2. Contextual appropriateness
Used synonymously with the term adaptation, contextual appropriateness or agility emphasises the skills needed to cope with the socio-cultural dimension of language. All cultures have their own conventions and rules for communicating in a variety of situations. In business, most interactions are typically reduced to meetings, presentations, negotiations, interviews, networking events or performance evaluations. All of them are governed by norms which do not disappear merely because we switch to English. This can be very problematic, as Katrin Lichterfeld (2020) reveals in her speech on ‘Accent, Identity and Culture’ referring to English as the trojan horse of global communication. Few of us are aware of the conventionalized nature of our conversations. The ability to recognize which style is the most appropriate under which circumstances is now increasingly part of the leadership skills portfolio.
3. Metacommunication strategies
The treacherous terrain on which we tread as speakers of English whilst being rooted in different cultural practices requires familiarity with the tools that can help us address those hidden dimensions. In the course of our international collaborations, we have all experienced communication breakdowns, where we failed to understand the person on the other end of the line, who spoke with technical jargon or used a regional dialect. Metacommunication strategies (Camerer and Mader, 2018) are techniques which allow us to overcome these barriers, for instance by clarifying meanings, clearing misunderstandings, reformulating statements, repairing damaged relationships and resolving differences when things are not running smoothly. In the world were cultural mishaps constantly lurk around the corner, we must have resources that will enable us to move our conversations forward at our disposal.
4. Politeness conventions
One of the key sources of misunderstandings among members of different cultures are differences in the expression of politeness and the importance assigned to the protection of ‘face’ (harmony) in interpersonal interactions. While some cultures are known for their direct, no-nonsense style of communicating (Israelis, Germans), others prioritize tact and delicacy (Japanese, Chinese). Lewis (2008) has observed that the coded speech through which different members of cultures minimize interpersonal conflicts takes a variety of forms, such as cynicism (US), ambiguity (China), compromise (Belgium), understatement (Britain), reticence (Finland) or correctness (Sweden). Politeness is the cornerstone of rapport management. Understanding its manifestations in business interactions (small talk, greeting rituals, feedback style, turn-taking) is crucial for building successful intercultural relationships.
The demands placed on business professionals in the complex, high-pressure global environment can no longer be met using old linguistic methods. A narrow focus on phonological and grammatical correctness will hardly prepare future leaders for the challenges of linguistic and socio-cultural diversity. What we need is a change of perspective. For teachers and language trainers to cross interdisciplinary boundaries and engage learners in exploratory conversations about cultures. We need to teach them how to spot deeper values and imagine themselves in someone else’s shoes. As language and communication coaches, one important task is to help our clients overcome the sense of awkwardness and inferiority stemming from the belief that their imperfect command of English is the cause of all communication problems. We need to combine linguistic and psychological resources to empower these high-achieving professionals to find their authentic English voice, so they are recognized for the quality of their work and noticed for the values they bring to wider communities. Finally, there is an overlooked contribution that native speakers’ should be making towards improving global understanding. Communication is a two-way process with both parties equally responsible for its outcome. It is only by creating conditions when everyone feels respected that we can bring out the best in people. Speaking a foreign language is a gain not a loss. It is time we worked together at reframing this narrative.
Camerer, R. and Mader, J. (2012) Intercultural Competence in Business English. Berlin: Cornelsen Schulverlage.
Crystal, D. (2020) The Myth of the Native Speaker. Canguro English. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p-kZLP2FWUI&t=2s
Crystal, D. (1997) English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lewis, R. D. (2008) Cross-cultural Communication. A Visual Approach. Revised Edition. Warnford: Transcreen Publications.
Lichterfeld, K. (2020) Dealing with Accent, Identity and Culture When Using English as a Lingua Franca in International Business. Sietar Europa Webinar.