That reminds me of an incident earlier in my career when a recruiter ranked candidates on their 'communication skills', which really was a proxy for whether they were an immigrant or not, in order to try to avoid discrimination laws.
Besides, it's failing to communicate clearly and be understood that makes a bad leader, regardless of the behavioural cause (foreign accent, mumbling, random trains of thought).
We're not against funding people from outside the US, and we fund a lot of them. But 564 startups is enough to see patterns, and the empirical evidence about very strong accents is striking.
And I am talking about failure to communicate here. I don't mean strong accents in the sense that it's clear that someone comes from another country. I'm talking about accents so strong that you have to interrupt the conversation to ask what they just said.
I have personally witnessed people losing their jobs/contracts because of this issue, and although I enjoyed their friendship, I wasn't really sorry for losing a teammate. Because trying to solve a technical issue while your mate uses a very broken accent is very very mind numbing and frustrating at its best.
Interestingly, my wife was also having trouble with pronunciation of certain English words as she was learning the language, and I did not want her to have the same fate when (or if) she got a job.
So I created a very simple app for her to practise her pronunciation. Later on I turned it into a webapp when her classmates also wanted to try it. If you are interested you can check it out at: http://www.sayafter.me
I fully support your effort and think this is a great tool.
Do you mean American mumbling accent or International English accent?
If the later, I fully agree and this apply the most to US citizens.
Last week I was having beer with two friend (one US one Canada) and a guy from LA came by, and it was completely impossible to me to understand one single word in his sentences (except for "fuck" and variants, which convey no meaning). He didn't seem to imagine that other people are different.
By the way, I'm French, living in China since 10 years, my English is rost because I use much more Chinese, but I usually can understand and make myself understood in International English.
For me the "hitishu" would have been obvious.
There is one thing behind this chitchat: English do not belong to UK or US anymore. It belong to the world. (Reasonably clear) Indian English has as many rights to life as have German English or Texan English or Aussie (which could well be the hardest).
I mean anyone who can pronounce words in English without causing you to interrupt them often, and ask to repeat themselves, regardless of their accent.
Another sad thing about this is the lack of "negative" feedback these people get, about their inability to communicate.
Most often native speakers are just too "kind", no one will ever say "I did not understand the half of what you just said, please speak slowly and pronounce words correctly". That is why most people never realize the severity of this issue.
You are correct about English belonging to the whole world, but trying to follow a common standard (British / American English) during education wouldn't be a bad thing.
Listen, people pronounce as correctly as they know how to. Do you know why people have an accent? It's because they can barely here the difference between sounds that sound alike, so they pronounce them the same. Many speaks of English around the world. Can't hear the th sound, they hear t or d. so they say tink instead of THing or Dis instead of THis. If you ask them to pronounce clearly, they will repeat the same thing over and over until they actually are taught to differenciate the sound. Until they can learn to hear it, isolate it, learn to reposition their tongue, mouth movement, etc. They won't be able to pronounce it "correctly"
Besides if they can do all that, that's still not enough, stressing the wrong part of a word, note, word not even sentence, can be a reason for you not to understand them. If they knew how to pronounce every single world the american way and stress it. If they don't link it or use the american intonation, you could still have a terrible hard time understanding them, unless they speak in an absolute monotone voice where it sounds like they are reading from a word list. That in itself is not easy as well.
It's not easy to acquire any accent, until you try it as an adult. You won't understand.
If it is like so, we should go back to slavery, it made no sense to abolish it.
> Indian English has as many rights to life as have German English or Texan English or Aussie
You are missing the point. It's not about "rights to life". No language (or dialect, or idiolect, or accent) has a "right to exist", or they all do. Who cares? (Also, German English? wtf?)
What matters are things like: Are you getting the results you want? Are you delivering good value to others (so that they want to give you good value back!)?
If your job doesn't require communication, speak whatever you like. If you're so damn good at your job that everyone else has to obey your whims, AND you don't care about the total effectiveness of your team, then speak whatever you like. But most people need to communicate, and for some people, poor accent becomes a dominant factor in their job performance. The responsibility is shared, but it falls most-heavily on the person who is most-different, because it's easier for one person to change than for a whole office to change. This, I hope and trust, is what znt meant when he said "professional responsibility".
Sometimes it cuts the other way, though. I'll give you an example from my own life. I am personally bad at understanding thick south-asian accents. I used to think all people from my background (Canadian anglophone) had the same problem. But I'm learning that I have more trouble than most people. That means it's mostly my problem. But if everyone agrees that so-and-so is very hard to understand, then it would be mostly so-and-so's problem.
This isn't about "rights" or "entitlement". It's about being effective. It's not the "law of the jungle", it's the law of gravity. And it's laughable, stupid, and somewhat offensive, to say that we might as well go back to slavery.
(Of course, sometimes I hear someone say "you have no right to speak your own language in my country". Those people are stupid and wrong. Fortunately, most people who say things like that are also not very good at other things in life, and they usually get punished by the marketplace, and we can ignore them. The rare people who are both powerful, and also stupid xenophobes, everyone else should cooperate to punish such people.)
The answer (in a strong Chinese accent)? "Noooo we can't do extended custom design hitishu".
They were baffled. Sure, they understood the "can't do extended custom design part", but the last word was entirely foreign to them. They tried to dig deeper, but all they got was "if we extend cable network we have hitishu".
The talks continued, in order to explore some alternatives; while the business guys did their talking, one of my colleagues figured what this hitishu gizmo was by accident; a few days later, he accidentally touched one of the chips on the board and burnt his fingers. The problem was that the processor they were using was already fairly loaded and, due to the design of the case, couldn't be properly ventilated. They feared that pushing it even harder could get it to heat up even more, which would have lead to heat issues.
When I run across someone doing what you're talking about, I just wish they'd repeat the phrase another way: "...hitishu; it get too hot." Problem solved.
Anytime race is involved you've got to be careful before playing the "strong correlation" card.
Granted this is about accents, which an be trained. But it's a little unsettling to me how nakedly pg relies on correlation of a racial/cultural signal, without so much as a comment on how obviously racist and sexist Doerr's perspective is.
I have zero doubt that it affected peoples grades. They couldn't clearly understand what was being said, and were less likely to ask for clarification if they knew communication would be a chore.
The data showed unambiguously that TAs who lost their accent were much better teachers than those who didn't. It wasn't about not being able to understand the words of the TA; there was an English qualification test that weeded out anyone who couldn't be understood clearly. I think the lack of accent was a proxy for other changes, like being adaptable and willing to alter one's behavior. The bad TAs with accents tended to use ineffective teaching techniques and not change while the good TAs updated their teaching methods based on feedback.
This fits well with my experience.
I realized about 5 weeks into the class that "wee" was actually just "v". :( I've had other profs with heavy accents before (that other people said they couldn't understand but I did alright with), but this prof just completely lost me on some words.
But I do understand how hard it is. I don't even know how long I confused the pronunciation of cheveux (hair) and chevaux (horses) and I used to butcher the pronunciation of l'eau (water; it sounds like 'low' not 'loo').
Accent is intrinsic to a person's sense of self, akin to their religion or ethnicity (truly). Asking people to change their sense of self for you is a lot.
Imagine I said I couldn't relate to a business person because they were just too, say, Chinese and so I suggest they take lessons to act more Canadian to fit my liking. Yikes.
Then imagine I said that in an nationally syndicated magazine as a role model to young foreign-sounding entrepreneurs. Double yikes.
After criticizing you, I guess owe you a different perspective. The real question I suggest in a business context is "were my expectations met?" Did they clearly explain their idea? Build rapport? Answer my questions? Direct the conversation? Organize a plan? It doesn't matter how foreign they sounded if I got what I wanted.
Accents aren't really important. They vary wildly even in the United States. Is Steve Ballmer's heavy New England accent germane to his leadership's successes and failures? Or did Ross Perot's Texas accent matter when building EDS? Or Scott Thompson's Boston accent matter when turning around PayPal?
Conversely, it's easy to find successful tech CEOs with "strong foreign accents" such as Sridhar Vembu (ZOHO) or Rashmi Sinha (Slideshare) or Mikkel Svane (Zendesk) or Tobias Luetke (Shopify).
On the other hand, of course clarity does matter. Consider Todd Bradley who was passed over for German-accented Leo Apotheker as CEO because (reportedly) he mumbled during presentations (despite running a $41B division of HP)? cf. http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2012/05/08/500-hp-apotheker/
That's different. You can still be clearly understood with a strong foreign accent. cf. Gandhi. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yMcNubXqc4
I find it best when somebody has an accent that is enjoyable to listen to. I love a nice elegant German accent. Love listening to a good Indian English accent. But some people are struggling with the language and accent so much that it gets very distracting.
I worked a bit with a Pakistani guy and as much as I liked hanging out with him and talking, it was always a struggle for him when he had to stand up and present. It really blocked him. (actually I am guessing that he's also hard to understand in Urdu)
OTOH I know some Germans who have such a good American accent that its disconcerting. This is an uncanny valley effect. You spend a lot of time just listening to them and trying to spot any small errors. ("Yeah, we've been doing this since 4 years...")
If you took the time to learn English and you took the time to learn all the complexities of building a business (technical, legal, financial) and probably also learned how to pitch, use your hands, communicate, then you should take the time to fix an overly strong accent. Its not that hard.
This is a bit of a truism don't you think?
> You can still be clearly understood with a strong foreign accent. cf. Gandhi.
I hesitate to argue on behalf of someone as esteemed as pg, but surely he is using foreign accent to describe the cause of their communication deficiency, rather than painting persons with foreign accents as deficient.
"One quality that's a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent. I'm not sure why. It could be that there are a bunch of subtle things entrepreneurs have to communicate and can't if you have a strong accent. Or, it could be that anyone with half a brain would realize 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. I just know it's a strong pattern we've seen."
As I read it, unfortunately, there's nothing in this published interview that says a foreign-accented person failed to communicate or needed to repeat themselves to be understood.
It just says a "strong" foreign accent, with not clear definition of the subjective meaning of "strong".
Then, it goes astray, saying "subtle cues" could be what leads the person to business failure; presumably subtle cues that would be obvious to a native speaker. Further, not being idiomatic (i.e. not a native speaker). Thus, the conclusion is the deficiency is the foreignness, not a functional problem like elocution.
So, then I think it's pretty cutting to say people are "clueless if they haven't gotten rid of their strong accent" (emphasis mine). Since the strong accent is the foreignness, this read to me as saying Americanize which means change your identity.
I contend this is not the best way to make the point. Also, the wrong track since as we have discussed above to death the real problem is the elocution, leadership and business skills, not the foreignness per se.
However, do you think I read the interview (as published) incorrectly? I'm thinking about a cold reader, like a 21-year old woman in Tennessee who moved here with her parents when she was 12 from Sri Lanka thinking of the next big thing.
In football, you can't go an complain that you don't understand your teammate, you getting paid $200 000 a week, so shut up and make it happen. Park Ji Sung and Patrice Evra became best friends yet one spoke korean and the other french, teammates would laugh commenting on how they don't know how they communicate. The issue is that they were both willing to learn to understand each other, having mutual respect for each others culture but bottom line no football player can use language as an excuse.
My first language is English, so i was amused when moving to LA, an asian girl from UCLA was at one of the teller windows and i guess that she could not fully understand this girl so she just bravely says to here coworkers that "this asian girl is so dumb, how did she get into UCLA, she can't even fill out a deposit slip". The amazing thing is that she felt so natural saying it as she knew other americans will not mind what she said, even though she is a teller and the young girl is attending a top U.S College.
I would also like to add that many football coaches take jobs where they cannot speak the home language fluently but are still successful. I feel that Europeans are more accepting of foreign accents than Americans and i have worked in Europe and stay in the U.S.
It's demonstrably false that what you're talking about is a "'MURICA!!!" thing— English is the lingua franca of engineering and the technical world. Not only in America, but all over the world. This has been discussed over and over again here.
The CEO of a startup is the leader and public face, so should be in command of the company's message. If this person cannot make themselves understood, their odds of success are zilch a priori.
If anything, a big football shop is a highly-adapted enterprise with tons of cash that can afford extravagance. They have already scaled and can afford specialized subject-matter experts with multitudes of baggage.
In an early startup, you need "go doers": those that are infinitely more capable on average to either get shit done or know what shit actually needs doing (and fast). Later on, the time will be right to bring on more specialized people as the early founders may start to get bored.
No, if payers wore mic's you would hear it is very verbal as well, just lip read sometimes or in preseason watch a warmup game since the crowd is small you can hear all the calls, "wazza backdoor" etc, is mainly between one to three words, but you use everything you have. Then half-time, the strategy sessions are all talk. I forgot to mention when the coach can't speak english or any other home lanhuage but still is successful.
Southampton are currently managed by a guy who speaks no English: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mauricio_Pochettino
Giovanni Trapattoni manages the Republic of Ireland national team (and is one of the highest paid international managers around) speaks notoriously poor english. When he managed previously in Germany, he was also known for mangling the local tongue.
Jose Mourinho is a fascinating character. He is highly educated and speaks 5 or 6 languages fluently. He is one of the most tactically astute managers in the modern game. He's also notoriously paranoid, convinced everything is a conspiracy against him, which seems to stem from an incident in his childhood where an uncle was a wealthy member of the ruling elite, but a peaceful coup meant that the family lost a lot of their wealth. Here's a good documentary covering his recent managerial career:
His own example, forget the manager, the players themselves have to be on the same page in so many levels during practice. Don't you think Messi, Neymar, and Alexis (all 3 different countries playing for Barca) would have to practice and know precisely about their timing.
I think the key thing here is the who really needs whom. Most entrepreneurs need YC/VCs and so might have to suck up what they expect.
Even empirically your dataset consists of startups that target USA markets mostly and hence this conclusion. I am guessing CEOs are good and can come from anywhere, its perhaps "sales" that really needs the idiomatic speak.
I see this happen all the time here at startups in Bangalore. Of course if the audience is YC and the investors, it goes without saying what the language requirement is.
Indira Nooyi (Pepsico, CEO and one amongst that cnn list) articulates it perfectly in this video:
Of course. But again, what does that really tell us? To be effective, you need to be able to communicate with a large variety of people, not just a carefully-chosen subset of people. As Indira acknowledges, it is your own responsibility to ensure this- not your listeners.
I've met people in America with accents almost this unintelligible: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5XyecKONu8 (although typically their mother tongue was of Asian lineage so the sound was different)
This is an interesting point. Beyond happening to notice patterns yourself, have you tried running machine learning algorithms on your data to try to find other characteristics?
Look this way... The job of a CEO is to hire and sell. And having heavy accent is a big disadvantage when doing these two things. So if you have strong foreign accent you should be aware of that and try to "hack it" and somehow use it in your advantage.
Also there's this immense sense of quality about people that speak a foreign language super well.
I think pg meant strong foreign accent combined with usage that just doesn't feel native. Which I feel is strongly correlated.
There are a handful of successful immigrant CEO's in tech along with other industries (CEO of coca cola is just one example). One of the things they all have in common is excellent communication skills in english...so you can't necessarily write off that metric as an anti-immigrant filter.
This may be my opinion, but I don't know any tech companies that wouldn't hire someone just because they're from a different country other than for visa reasons.
If you want to make progress, I suggest finding a piece of content 15-30 minutes long, and listening and repeating everyday for a year. Once you have memorized the content word-for-word, then you will be able to stop hearing meaning, and actually hear the sounds.
You could also spend time with a book which explains differences like the 'th' difference in 'thin' and 'then'. I assure you that book will not help you. Many native english speakers don't distinguish between 'pin' and 'pen' but no one confuses 'thin' and 'then'. Trying to learn a bunch of rules will not work. You have to learn to hear the difference, and the only way to learn to hear the difference is to listen to the same thing over and over.
I have an actor friend, who is well-respected professionally. I once discussed how he approaches the new play that he is working on. He said that at first he just rote-learns the play, so that he can keep all of it in his head.Only after that he starts to analyze and think about the role, deeper themes and emotional flows in the play.
I also used a somewhat similar tactic to get better at public presentations. I studied and watched two presentations over and over, making notes about structure, pausing between words, content of the slides, etc. It really helped and I managed to create a presentation that people liked a lot and I was asked to give presentations afterwards in several events.
I have succeeded with the academic approach, I can pronounce English sounds without an accent when I try and with a very slight accent when I don't try (most people can't hear minor mistakes when I speak)
I can tell you the difference between apical and laminal consonants and actually pronounce it. There is not just one way to learn. But I doubt most people can replicate my success without putting in as much time into it as I have. You have to be genuinely interested in linguistics
Once you have learned to mimic one accent you can quickly master another.
Source: I did this myself in Brazil when learning Portuguese. The words that were hard to pronounce I would say like I was from Rio. It was easier to mimic the accent from Rio because it was different from what I was hearing every day. If I were actually in Rio I would have probably found it easier to mimic a Paulistano accent.
I actually have been thinking about something similar for a while too. In my case, I thought that British accent would be easier for me to mimic. I haven't actually tried that out yet and now seems to be a good time to do so. Would British accent be a good goal? Out of curiosity, has there ever been a case of someone having a "too thick" British accent that would make it hard for American to understand?
If you have friendly native speakers, you may be able to get them to exaggerate the sound. E.G. the difference between thin and then is that the 'th' in then gets voiced (your throat vibrates) and the vowel is different. 'World' has an extra syllable (wur - ul - d) vs. 'word' (wur - d). I'm less sure about your issues with the others, save that certain sounds probably don't exist in your native language.
And those you just have to study & practice. I know how hard it is, though, having learned such sounds as 'ng', the 'eu' vowel in 'feu' (French - fire), glottal stops (yes, those exists in the English word bookcase, but...), the Japanese 'R'-group sounds (they're not 'R's or 'L's as we know them).
A slight Southern American accent sometimes does cause many Americans to perceive someone as more trustworthy, and some Americans do find a slight Southern accent to be very attractive. Though, be warned that a Southern accent may cause some Americans to perceive you as more stubborn and slightly less intelligent.
I know, it seems trite. But the point is: think of someone who speaks your native language. Copy their thick accent into the language you are learning.
So when I began to use ze outrrrageous Franch acc-sont, my actual French-speaking improved.
Seems he was just saying that those with strong accents were less successful in previous rounds. That certainly could be due to prejudice in society at large, but it still would be a valid predictor.
I think the problem is the attitude: when I speak in my language with english speakers who are just learning it I go the extra mile to understand their broken accent and mispronunciation and not be too upfront when correcting them.
On the other hand when I see foreign founders with a thick accent pitching something I can sometimes see some faces in the public changing from a neutral "let's see what this guy is working on" to a decidedly negative "oh not another [insert term here]]".
Is there bias? yes there is, I could tell all english speakers trying to speak spanish "shut up your accent is horrible!" but I refrain from doing so out of cordiality. Maybe its a cultural thing, because over here that cordiality rarely exists.