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It's not our top criterion. It's just one that I'm willing to talk about publicly, because there's no way to fake it.

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.

If I had read this reply 3 years ago, I would have called you "racist". But after spending time with engineers from different countries, I believe having an understandable English accent is not a nice thing to have, but rather a professional responsibility.

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

Your video uses phrases which are not standard English. The phrase 'a spaghetti' is not used. 'A plate of spaghetti' might be used in that context. Additionally the phrase "Would you please bring some water" would only be used if you have just asked "What should I bring to the game?" or something like that. In the context displayed 'ordering food' you would most likely say "Could you bring me a glass of water?" or "Could you please bring us some water?"

I fully support your effort and think this is a great tool.

This being HN, I immediately thought he should run it by some speech therapists and see what the market would be for such a tool.

I actually talked to a friend and showed him the app who was receiving speech therapy for his stammer. He told me that they are doing "similar" exercises in therapy sessions. So there may be a market, yes. I will research this subject more, thanks for the idea.

> having understandable English accent

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).

> Do you mean American mumbling accent or International English accent?

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.

You can ask someone to please speak slowly, but to ask them to pronounce words correctly?


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.

The common standard exists already! It is international business English and my point is that German or Indian speakers are often much better at it than many Americans I have met. Weirdly enough, Americans who happen to also speak Chinese or another language are much easier to understand in English. Probably having learnt another tongue teaches you how hard it is and how annoying are those natives who make no effort to slow down and clarify their speaking, and no effort to understand others as soon as they pronounce slightly differently from hometown accent.

I got TONS of negative feedback at first, people here would make zero effort to try to understand me, typical "not my problem" attitude. What I didn't get was any CONSTRUCTIVE feedback to know what I was doing wrong, I had to figure it our by myself and fix it.

You are correct, "Indian English" or any type of english has as much right as say "British or American English" but the issue and reason pg could make such a statement is that American money is calling the shots.

So even after dozens of centuries we are still in under Law of the Jungle, were the ones who have more can bully and look down on the ones who have less?

If it is like so, we should go back to slavery, it made no sense to abolish it.

> Do you mean American mumbling accent or International English accent?

> 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.)

Too bad we need to create an account (in clear HTTP) to try it.

So, use a unique password and/or a throwaway email?

This reminds me of a fun thing that happened to my colleagues a few years ago (weeks prior to me joining them). They were working on a router pimped with some home automation features (Z-Wave/ZigBee interfacing & co.); the baseboard that the HW provider was offering had 2 Ethernet ports, but they wanted four. They informed them they don't have a four-port version, so they asked if a custom one can be made, extending the current design.

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.

I have a Southern American® accent. I work with Indians of various English fluency. I make an effort to reword and repeat certain phrases that I know would cause trouble for a non-native speaker. I don't have any immediate examples because this habit has become second-nature when speaking with others who have heavy accents. Think of it as an attempt at automatic forward error correction.

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.

"That correlates more with any other success factor that I've seen in the world's greatest entrepreneurs. If you look at Bezos, or Andreessen, David Filo, the founders of Google, they all seem to be white, male, nerds who've dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in -- which was true of Google -- it was very easy to decide to invest." -- John Doerr

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.

pg is not a politician who must appeal to all to be successful, so why do you wonder? he just thinks of the things that work. I run an outsourcing shop, and if i clearly knew that black gays are 2x productive for the same rate i'd quickly turn worst racist/sexist guy you seen.

Only politicians should be concerned with racial equality? Wow.

Only politicians have to pretend that everyone is 100% equal in every way, because they can't afford to offend anyone. pg, on the other hand, doesn't need to worry about that as much because what matters is whether the startup is successful or not. If there is a pattern indicating that a certain group of people are particularly bad at running a business, why should he take the higher risk associated with investing in them?

Because correlation != causation, and applying "pattern recognition" to race and gender is racist and sexist.

Sort of like your university calculus professor then? I remember students changing seminars just to avoid a certain not so easily understood prof.

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.

Coming at it from the teaching side there is definitely a high correlation between lack of foreign accent and good teaching skills. In school I used to help assign graduate TAs into math sections. We would go through and rate all the graduate students by teaching skill and then use that to divide up teaching and grading assignments.

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.

Agreed. The thick accent is just the tip of the iceberg. I found people like this to be somewhat old-school. Education as a hazing experience rather than a process of learning.

This fits well with my experience.

This happens all over the world?? In my university (USP at São Paulo, Brazil) there were several foreign - normally Russian - physics and calculus teachers with terrible accents - some were still learning portuguese.

In my undergrad EE, we had an elderly german prof who pronounced "quiescent" as "christian." Awesome professor, but half the class didn't take the initiative to understand (1) the meaning of the word or (2) it's true pronunciation. Could you imagine communicating with these people in industry?! It would've been maddening. </anecdote>

I recently had a math prof with a bit of an accent and also fairly bad handwriting. He always used the variables "u" and something that sounded like "wee", where "wee" was drawn kind of like a backwards uppercase "N" where the right hand tail didn't go all the way down to the baseline.

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.

My Electronic Circuits professor pronounced 'threshold' as 's-ratio'. I didn't actually discover until after the semester in another class that there was something called a 'voltage threshold'.

I had a professor turn pivot into something close to pervert (pee-vert, to be precise). It was... distracting.

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').

Thanks for replying. I guess I should explain further why it is disappointing to me.

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

He's talking only about accents that are so strong that you struggle to understand what they are talking about. For a CEO this totally does not work. A CEO is a communicator.

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.

> Accent is intrinsic to a person's sense of self

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.

Ok, let me pull the quote and be more direct about my reaction.

"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.

If I ever had to live and work in a foreign country, I'd be proud to speak their language so fluently they couldn't quite detect an accent. It would be a little different moving to another English-speaking country, but lots of people end up picking up a slightly different accent after living someplace for a long time. It doesn't have to be a matter of identity unless you choose to make it one.

As an Australian that has tried both, it was a lot easier to sound English than it is for me to sound French. I can almost pull off a decent English accent these days - enough so that I'm not identified as Australian in a short conversation. In French, after 10 years of living in the country, my accent is picked after oh, around about one syllable I think. Maybe two syllables... And yet I'm perfectly fluent, and can write better idiomatic French than a good percentage of the French population. Accents are hard if you don't have the ear for them.

Until you move to a foreign country and speak with their language so fluently that they can't detect your accent. You need to come back to reality. If it was so easy, everyone would be doing it.

Sure, it's not easy and you'd probably have a recognizable accent unless you worked hard at it. But speaking e.g. French in a thick American accent is a stupid thing to incorporate into your self-identity, just like speaking English in a thick French accent.

Well said. I find it amusing how Americans are not friendly to sexy accents. But they still love Arnold Schwarzenegger and don't object to his accent. Made him governor and even toyed around with the idea of him running for president.

It's a good thing you not a football manager, imagine Lionel Messi, Ronaldo,Zinnedine Zidane or Ronaldhino coming to your team. These are some of the best footballers in the world, all speak different languages but can walk on a field in England and beat an offside trap, request a pin point pass through top rated defenders at a speed of 100mph. Most people just don't want to take the time to try and understand someone because the expectation is that you are in America and you must speak english.

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.

Most people just don't want to take the time to try and understand someone because the expectation is that you are in America and you must speak english

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.

I'm guilty as anyone of being a xenophile, but the analogy doesn't hold for scale reasons:

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.

Is there an aspect of association football that depends on language like a CEO in an English-speaking industry does? My impression is that the majority of success-oriented communication in soccer is nonverbal.

"My impression is that the majority of success-oriented communication in soccer is nonverbal."

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.

Sir Bobby Robson spent a good deal of his management career at Sporting Lisbon, Porto, and Barca without speaking Portuguese or Spanish. You might have heard of his translator--Jose Mourinho.

Other interesting tidbits...

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:


I'm still not convinced it's an apt comparison.

Communication is a primary requirement in a team sport and especially football.

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.

Perhaps? Since football is entertainment, it involves building a public image to draw crowds and sell merchandise. This BBC video talks about how Beckham's accent has become more posh over time.


I'm fairly sure all four players you mentioned could make themselves understood in Spanish on the pitch without much trouble. But being a CEO is all about communication and not at all about what you can do with a ball at your feet. Remember, it's fine if the CTO has a thick accent because he can back it up with hacking skills, but the CEO is a professional conversationalist.

How many sales meetings a day does an average football player take?

According to this article, 14% of the top 500 CEOs are non-native to the company's homeland.


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.

That statistic is meaningless. As pg said explicitly, the problem is not being foreign. The problem is having an accent so thick no one understands you when you speak.

I don't think I disagree with what you have mentioned and pg has concluded. My point was, it is possible to find a dataset where the audience actually doesn't need to stop the speaker because they can tune in to the way english is spoken.

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:


it is possible to find a dataset where the audience actually doesn't need to stop the speaker because they can tune in to the way english is spoken.

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)

PG: I wonder how well you account for the fact that even though you have 564 data points, you end up having much fewer data points for each type of subsample - and since startup data is by definition highly non-linear and non-normally distributed, you could end up reaching sweeping conclusions from way too few data points

>But 564 startups is enough to see patterns

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?

Do you keep any startup analytics?

Having now gone publicly on record with this, I wonder what kind of lawsuits this might lead to down the road. I could imagine that any company pg sits on the board of would now have their lawyers scratching their heads how they are going to minimize their risk.

Not that I want to supply more oxygen to this deeply silly thread, but is it even possible to sue an investor for discrimination? Would not the premise of such a suit be that there are cases when an investor can be compelled to make an investment of some sort? That sounds crazy.

It does sound crazy. But is it much different from an employer bing forced to hire a certain sort of employee?

Yes, it is much different than that.

What is the difference in your view? Very interested to hear this. The sums involved in this case ($20000) are less than those involved in most employment scenarios.

I can help you with both. This will lead to no lawsuits. The legal counsel at any company of which PG is a director will not have to worry. In the remote chance someone believes this is an issue, PG would only need to abstain from a matter involving a person with a foreign accent. Again, this will never have to happen, but it is an easily solved matter.

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