More and more people than ever are speaking English; it’s become a dominant language in business, science and politics.
As technology advances and our forms of communication evolve alongside I – for example, the increased use of online working since the pandemic – we have the ability to connect across borders more easily, bringing more people from different nations into English-speaking workplaces.
And because of the diverse ways different nations and groups use English, the language is ever-evolving. But this is not always embraced. Particular types of English are ranked higher than others, which can lead some employees to feel judged and even penalised for the way their English sounds.
Here’s a closer look at dialect discrimination, its effect, and what you can do to combat it in your workplace.
What is dialect discrimination?
While English may be a dominant language in business, did you know globally that non-native speakers outnumber native speakers three to one? A native speaker is usually a term offered to anyone who speaks English from early childhood as their first language.
However, whether you’re defined as a native speaker or not, particular status has been attached over time to English that sounds like it comes from countries that are wealthy, mostly white. For example, varieties such as British, American and Australian are typically more respected than the style of English spoken by multilingual countries such as Singapore or South Africa.
There are a couple of reasons why this has come about. Firstly, on a cognitive level, it takes more work for the brain to understand a less familiar accent. The extra grey matter required can lead to negative attitudes towards people who speak a different type of English to your own. They can be seen as less trustworthy and less competent.
Secondly, unchallenged bias has allowed stereotypes and perceptions of people based on their nationality or race to thrive. Before they even open their mouths, just seeing a face that is different from your own can trigger thoughts that their English may be limited, that you will struggle to understand their accent and that this person will be difficult to work with.
This can spill over into linguistic racism; a form of discrimination directed at people who speak in ways considered to be non-standard or “foreign sounding”, regardless of their competency. It can present itself covertly through exclusion at work or microaggressions (for example, complimenting a British Asian on their fluency or correcting someone’s pronunciation), or it can involve deliberate belittling and shaming.
How does dialect discrimination impact a person?
No matter how dialect discrimination presents itself, workers can feel lasting and demoralising effects. Those treated differently for their use of English can develop inferiority complexes and believe that they really are less intelligent. While they may remain confident in their English-speaking skills at home, their confidence can be shattered at work, leading them to contribute less and ultimately diminishing the creativity and productivity of a team or organisation.
They may not be just excluded socially, but also excluded from promotions or professional development opportunities. Some may find they don’t even make it through the door; unconscious biases can cause employers to look less favourably on highly-qualified job applicants whose dialect does not match their own.
If these situations are allowed to continue, workers could find themselves completely excluded, which only threatens the diversity of an organisation and all the benefits that come from a workplace that welcomes different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.
What can I do to prevent dialect discrimination in my workplace?
Firstly, organisations need to be having ongoing conversations about linguistic diversity.
Identifying and incorporating diversity of dialect into your ED&I strategy and policies gives it the attention it needs. In many cases, employees may not recognise that how they react to or treat someone who uses English differently to themselves can be premeditated by unconscious bias, and giving this prominence in your headline documents can be the prompt people need to start challenging their perceptions.
This message can be drilled down further with training that educates staff on how language-related biases can affect communication and ultimately negatively impact a person and an organisation as a whole.
As individuals, there is also further work we can be encouraging our employees to do. There is always the expectation that non-native English speakers should be putting in the extra effort to improve their vocabulary, change their pronunciation or tone down their accents for the benefit of native speakers. However, this balance needs to be readdressed and more effort should be made by native speakers to make English more accessible. For example, simple acts of thoughtfulness like slowing down and avoiding inside jokes and slang can make an instant difference. They can also pay more attention to body language and improve their active listening skills; that is, not just understanding the literal meaning of the words being spoken but what a person is actually trying to get across.
Another way to boost the confidence and inclusion of non-native speakers is to give them more space in meetings to speak, and also allow them to chair meetings and therefore giving them the power to set the tone for communications. With greater exposure, the brain becomes better at understanding different dialects and biases struggle to raise their heads.
However, even if organisations and individuals make a commitment to stamping out discrimination, fundamentally we need to challenge our ideas of what constitutes “good” English. It would make more sense for workplaces to focus on what is being communicated, rather than the accent or limited vocabulary of the person who presented the idea. Workplaces that lead with this focus nurture employees who are adept at understanding all types of English and are much better communicators. In a world of transnational business, this will only continue to grow in importance.
At Tell Jane, we work with forward-thinking organisations across the UK to design, develop and deliver effective diversity and inclusion strategies. If you’re considering ways to incorporate linguistic diversity within your strategy or looking for training opportunities for your people, get in touch by emailing email@example.com.
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