Learning foreign languages to high levels of communication proficiency was the first adult learning challenge I took on. I majored in Chinese at university and worked for quite a few years as a Chinese-English interpreter and translator. I'll back up what pg said with a data point from academic research. The online article "How to Become a Good Theoretical Physicist,"
by a Nobel laureate in physics who is a native speaker of Dutch, makes clear what the key learning task is to be a good physicist: "English is a prerequisite. If you haven't mastered it yet, learn it. You must be able to read, write, speak and understand English." On his list of things to learn for physics, that even comes before mathematics.
I like to share advice on language learning, because this topic comes up on Hacker News frequently. I hope the FAQ information below helps hackers achieve their dreams. As I learned Mandarin Chinese up to the level that I was able to support my family for several years as a Chinese-English translator and interpreter, I had to tackle several problems for which there is not yet a one-stop-shopping software solution. For ANY pair of languages, even closely cognate pairs of West Germanic languages like English and Dutch, or Wu Chinese dialects like those of Shanghai and Suzhou, the two languages differ in sound system, so that what is a phoneme in one language is not a phoneme in the other language.
But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.
It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than * "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).
Most software materials for learning foreign languages could be much improved simply by including a complete chart of the sound system of the target language (in the dialect form being taught in the software materials) with explicit description of sounds in the terminology of articulatory phonetics
Good language-learning materials always include a lot of focused drills on sound distinctions (contrasting minimal pairs in the language) in the target language, and no software program for language learning should be without those. It is still an art of software writing to try to automate listening to a learner's pronunciation for appropriate feedback on accuracy of pronunciation. That is not an easy problem.
After phonology, another huge task for any language learner is acquiring vocabulary, and this is the task on which most language-learning materials are most focused. But often the focus on vocabulary is not very thoughtful.
The classic software approach to helping vocabulary acquisition is essentially to automate flipping flash cards. But flash cards have ALWAYS been overrated for vocabulary acquisition. Words don't match one-to-one between languages, not even between closely cognate languages. The map is not the territory, and every language on earth divides the world of lived experience into a different set of words, with different boundaries between words of similar meaning.
The royal road to learning vocabulary in a target language is massive exposure to actual texts (dialogs, stories, songs, personal letters, articles, etc.) written or spoken by native speakers of the language. I'll quote a master language teacher here, the late John DeFrancis. A few years ago, I reread the section "Suggestions for Study" in the front matter of John DeFrancis's book Beginning Chinese Reader, Part I, which I first used to learn Chinese back in 1975. In that section of that book, I found this passage, "Fluency in reading can only be achieved by extensive practice on all the interrelated aspects of the reading process. To accomplish this we must READ, READ, READ" (capitalization as in original). In other words, vocabulary can only be well acquired in context (an argument he develops in detail with regard to Chinese in the writing I have just cited) and the context must be a genuine context produced by native speakers of the language.
I have been giving free advice on language learning since the 1990s on my personal website,
and the one advice I can give every language learner reading this thread is to take advantage of radio broadcasting in your target language. Spoken-word broadcasting (here I'm especially focusing on radio rather than on TV) gives you an opportunity to listen and to hear words used in context. In the 1970s, I used to have to use an expensive short-wave radio to pick up Chinese-language radio programs in North America. Now we who have Internet access can gain endless listening opportunities from Internet radio stations in dozens of unlikely languages. Listen early and listen often while learning a language. That will help with phonology (as above) and it will help crucially with vocabulary.
The third big task of a language learner is learning grammar and syntax, which is often woefully neglected in software language-learning materials. Every language has hundreds of tacit grammar rules, many of which are not known explicitly even to native speakers, but which reveal a language-learner as a foreigner when the rules are broken. The foreign language-learner needs to understand grammar not just to produce speech or writing that is less jarring and foreign to native speakers, but also to better understand what native speakers are speaking or writing. Any widely spoken modern language has thick books reporting the grammatical rules of the language,
I wanted to add that while in my PhD program I was studying this effect for a little while. In studies on ferrets scientists have discovered that the second auditory cortex, A2, tends to collect sonic motifs—things like a quickly rising pitch beginning near middle C, or any kind of warbling, or clear, constant tones at various pitches. Computationally, these motifs can be adapted to a particular corpus in order to improve detection and prediction rates while using a smaller bank of motifs. There's also lots of investigation into how these motif banks can improve robustness to distortions and noise.
As far as I know, it remains speculation that this effect occurs in humans, but it seems by your experiences (and my own learning Mandarin as a second language) plausible that the human brain itself "prunes" less useful sonic motifs in early life improving your ability to rapidly understand your primary language(s) even under shifts in accent or other distortions. This would likely come at the cost of literal inability to be attentive to motifs that haven't been stored. you would perceive them in A1, but they would have less resolution and perhaps semantic meaning (this is as far as I know quite wild speculation, mind).
I remember that it took almost an entire 6 mos of study before I really had a clue what tonality in Mandarin meant—I could hear it, but never perceive it as a linguistic phenomenon. After 6 months it appeared to almost overnight become something sensible to me at which point I had to relearn almost my entire vocabulary including the tonal information that I'd been unknowingly ignoring.
I want to add an interesting personal experience. My native language is a Northeastern dialect in China. The dialect doesn't distinguish well the sounds between /z/ and /zh/, between /c/ and /ch/, and between /s/ and /sh/.
I went to Beijing for college, started speaking Mandarin, and picked it up quickly. But until now, I still regularly make the mistake between /z/ and /zh/, and the other two pair. I am able to easily tell the differences between the sounds themselves. If the sounds are included in a sentence, however, I simply can't tell which is which.
Here is the interesting part. I have no difficulty in distinguishing these sounds in English. I can clearly hear the differences between words like 'sip' or 'ship', no matter if they are spoken as single words or are part of a sentence. My ears will immediately catch the difference. But if it is Mandarin, i will get lost between words like 'ziji' and 'zhiji'.
Yeah, I personally feel that there's a great deal of "modality" in the sonic motifs we are attuned to. It can be remarkable how palpably different "listening in English" is from "listening in Mandarin".
warning: anecdote of 1 here. but one time my native Japanese roommate and I were playing with a real-time audio spectrum analyzer and I was demonstrating the difference b/t "l" and "r" and she simply could not hear the difference.
As tokenadult mentions, it is brutally hard to learn these distinctions. perhaps that is why successful founders push their way past accent problems; they are successful as pushing through brutally hard problems.
'l' is made with the tongue starting at the top of the mouth and striking the bottom, 'r' the tongue stays at the bottom, and the Japanese 'l/r' has the tongue at the top but touching the back of the teeth and it pulls away but it doesn't hit the bottom of the mouth. If you put your finger in your mouth and hold your tongue down you can still make an 'r' sound, but 'l' is impossible, as is 'l/r'.
I can't speak to the articulation of ら &c, but I don't agree with aspects of your description of English articulation.
When pronouncing an 'l' (alveolar lateral), my tongue stays on alveolar ridge of my mouth (the roof, right behind the teeth) for the entire time. When the 'l' sound ends, my tongue leaves the roof of my mouth, but it never "strikes the bottom" of my mouth. If there's a vowel next, it moves to a neutral position for a vowel. If the 'l' was the end of the speech, it just kind of sits in place for a second after the noise stops. If it's followed by another consonant, it moves for that articulation (e.g. when saying "all the sounds", it moves directly from the alveolar ridge to the teeth for the dental fricative).
When pronouncing an 'r' (alveolar approximant), I, and I think most English speakers, roll the tongue backwards to some degree (although not enough that the point of articulation is the bottom of the tongue). I.e. the tongue does not "stay at the bottom". Yes, it is certainly possible to pronounce an English 'r' with the tip of your tongue held down (unlike 'l'), but I think most English speakers would find this "impossible" at first, and then with a minute of practice would realize that it was possible but difficult. In English, these two articulations are perceived as the same phoneme; I assume that some language somewhere differentiates between them. I notice that often when I speak (English) to natives of India (whose first languages I have not identified), I get the sense that they have a richer complex of 'r' noises than I do.
In summary, "l" does not involve "striking the bottom [of the mouth]", and "r" typically does not involve the tongue staying at the bottom of the mouth, although it can.
There are five Japanese l/r sounds: ra (raa), ri (ree), ru (roo), re (ray), ro (roe) - sorry, not a linguist. For each of those, if I pronounce them in English, my tongue doesn't touch the top of my mouth. If I pronounce la (laa), li (lee), lu (loo), le (lay), lo (low) in English instead, my tongue moves from top to bottom. Specifically, the tip of my tongue starts by touching the gums behind my front teeth and at some point touches my gums behind my bottom teeth. Whereas in Japanese it touches the front teeth and doesn't touch behind my gums at the bottom.
Is that more clear? I agree that there are other r and l sounds in English, but there aren't in Japanese, there is a fixed set of phonemes. I'm trying to explain how each Japanese l/r sound is clearly split into a different l and r sound in English. Of course, there are many English l and r sounds that are badly approximated by the five l/r sounds in Japanese.
My Japanese training is very limited (I know the hiragana alphabet, but I'm sure my pronunciation is terrible), so I won't pretend any confidence there. Of course, we both agree that English "l", English "r", and the five Japanese "ra/la" sounds (ら, り, る, れ, ろ), are all different sounds. We all know it's a bad approximation to say that "ら" is "la" or "ra", but it's the best approximation available. (I'm told that whether it's more like "la" or like "ra" depends on where you are in Japan, to some degree). Indeed, this one-to-two mapping problem is so well-known, that there are demeaning "jokes" about saying "lice" when one means "rice", and so on.
Anyway, my point was this: your description of English articulation had some minor errors in it, which I tried to improve upon.
> If I pronounce la (laa) ... in English, my tongue ... at some point touches my gums behind my bottom teeth
That may be true for you, but this is not typical. Or at least, it's not the the "L" that's doing that. If you say "raaaaaaaaa" in English, you'll find that the "aaaaa" noise puts your tongue on the bottom of your mouth just as much as it does for "laaaaaaa".
And if you put your finger on your lower gums, you can learn to say "la lee loo lay low" without your tongue ever touching your finger, much less your gums. Just like how many English speakers curl their tongue to say English "ra ree roo ray roe" but they can learn to leave the tip of their tongue down (with practice).
Well, I'm certain of two things: 1) there is a clear difference between l, l/r, and r and it's easy to say all three if you know what you're doing; 2) I'm doing a bad job of explaining the difference.
I'm pretty sure I know what my tongue is doing in English, but alright it may be due to the vowel instead of the consonant. The problem in Japanese is there's no distinction between vowel and consonant.
Yes, it could be that touching the bottom of the mouth during the vowel part is not as important as the position of the tongue initially. l: relaxed, some sliding, top of mouth; l/r: tighter, as for a rolled r, more forward, top of mouth; r: does not touch top of mouth. loo and roo are both incorrect pronunciations of ru.
The simple description you'll find in most linguistic descriptions of Japanese is that the Japanese r is what is called an alveolar tap and written as [ɾ] in the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is also the Spanish r in pero (not the trilled r in perro). The reality is more complicated because Japanese only has one liquid phoneme. The fact that there is no separate l sound in Japanese means that there is a bigger phonetic space that the r sound can occupy. What ends up happening is that the Japanese r can be lateralized, that is, part of the airstream is through the sides of the tongue rather than through the middle of the mouth. A lateralized tap which results in this case is written as [ɺ]. This ends up sounding like l, which is technically known as a lateral approximant because the airstream is only through the sides of the tongue.
The more complete description of the Japanese r is that it is a tapped alveolar consonant that can range between a completely central [ɾ] and the lateralized [ɺ], with different degrees of lateralization. All will be interpreted as the Japanese r, and speakers tend to use [ɾ] after vowels, with lateralization likely to creep in if the r comes at the beginning of an utterance or after an n.
I'm a native speaker of Korean by the way, and while at the abstract phonemic level we also have a single l/r sound represented as ㄹ in the Korean alphabet, we do distinguish [ɾ] and [l] between vowels. 아리 ari uses the tap [ɾ] and 알리 alli uses [l] because that's how double ㄹ is pronounced. It's a similar distribution to the tapped and trilled r's in Spanish, where trilled r's between vowels can be analyzed as double r's.
The Mexican Spanish "r" is close to the Japanese r/l. You don't say "bulito" or "burr-ito" like a burr of metal. You say "burrito", and know that people who can speak it add a tiny bit of a roll to the "r". The Japanese R is not rolled, but it's like just starting the roll.
You'll enjoy learning some articulatory phonetics and finding out about the great variety worldwide in /l/ and /r/ sounds. I particularly like the final sound in the word "Tamil" as spoken by speakers of that language.
That's a really interesting observation. I've got hearing damage in the high frequencies, so I'm incapable of hearing the difference between an 'f' and an 's'. Fir and Sir sound identical to me, and I can only infer from context! However, I can -speak- them due to the difference in mouth and tongue placement + av therapy.
A small correction here - A2 is a secondary auditory cortex (as in 'secondary stage of processing').
[it's just that the phrase 'second auditory cortex', especially in the context of discussing a process of acquiring a second language sounds suggestive of a development of another separate part. and A2 is definitely not that.]
Extremely interesting. Some other commenters mentioned this is off-topic; I think it's pertinent to understanding what's behind the empirical evidence pg presented.
This paragraph in particular:
It is brutally hard for most people (after the age of puberty, and perhaps especially for males) to learn to attend to sound distinctions that don't exist in the learner's native language. That is especially hard when the sound distinction signifies a grammatical distinction that also doesn't exist in the learner's native language. For example, the distinction between "I speak" and "he speaks" in English involves a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable, and no such consonant clusters exist in the Mandarin sound system at all. Worse than that, no such grammatical distinction as "first person singular" and "third person singular" for inflecting verbs exists in Mandarin, so it is remarkably difficult for Mandarin-speaking learners of English to learn to distinguish "speaks" from "speak" and to say "he speaks Chinese" rather than "he speak Chinese" (not a grammatical phrase in spoken English).
One thing I've noticed is that there seem to be relatively few super-successful Chinese immigrant founders in the USA. Fewer than Indians for example, even though both are large immigrant communities. My wife is Chinese and her theory is that Chinese aren't really good at teamwork. I think it has more to do with their difficulties in catching the subtleties of the language as described above.
It is not quite a problem of them not communicating their message well, I think. Most of the time they do, although it may not aesthetically be very pleasing. It is more an issue of them missing alot when you speak to them, unless you conciously try to adapt to your audience.
My parents are from Taiwan, I was born in the U.S. I have reflected on this topic, and my thought was that South Asians, due to British colonization, appear to adapt more easily to American culture. Comparing immigrant parents from South and East Asia, (anecdotally) I have noted that South Asian parents speak English with greater facility than East Asian parents, which I have attributed to the effects of the British Raj.
I also have noted that South Asians have a strong culture that resists rote Westernization, which I attribute to native Indians (etc.) learning over time about what to sustain and what to adopt from the culture of their British overlords. So I conclude that when South Asians emigrate to America, they have a "leg up" in adopting to American culture, while East Asians experience culture shock to a much greater degree. Not only is the language more unfamiliar, but East Asians don't have the historical/cultural experience of keeping their culture separate from a Western culture as South Asians do. As an example, look at the relative interest of children of immigrants in the USA's National Spelling Bee.
I therefore think that because of these reasons, and because I think East Asian immigrants are as bright as South Asian immigrants, that we will observe a bolus of super-successful East Asian immigrants one generation later than when we observe a bolus of super-successful South Asian immigrants.
Now obviously these observation are generalizations, but I suspect that the "strong accent" observation of PG is not just a proxy for facility with English but a measure of cultural adaptation than may be helpful in becoming successful in the USA.
Interesting, but a couple of points worth considering.
It is more an issue of them missing alot when you speak to them
Language grasp =/= communications skills.
(1) Plenty of studies on body language and other forms of cognitive bias back this up. Attractive people are deemed more trustworthy etc.
(2) There are huge swathes of social interactions and nuances that cultural signals. 'Westenized' children educated for example in the us or uk grasp intuitively things completely alien to their parents or to similar kids brought up in the east. Such examples of ""comprehension has noting to do with wether or no the kids have accents or their "language skills".
(3) A regional welsh, working class, or a northern uk dialect is almost indecipherable to many americans. But such would not likely be a signal that this person won't be able to pick up westernized social cues.
The cold truth about learning another language is that you will not learn much when you are not living in a community(country) that speaks that language.
This is verifiably true, by an experimental test of Chinese-language proficiency, of the foreigners who learned Chinese in my generation. Harvard and some other elite universities wanted to develop a test of Chinese as a second language to find out which Americans were learning Chinese the best. During the norming study for the test, someone thought to include foreigners at the Mandarin Training Center of the National Taiwan Normal University ( 國立台灣師範大學國語教學中心 ) in the norming sample. My fellow students and I who were there at the time "wrecked the curve" for all the graduates of Chinese language programs at United States elite universities who had not spent significant time overseas. Further development of the proposed test was scrapped after that was discovered.
That said, English is more learnable in-country than most languages because of its extensive use as an interlanguage. I lost count early of the number of different native language pairings I would see among foreign students in Taiwan--mostly in Taiwan to learn Chinese--who would converse with one another in English, because English was their strongest language in common. English-language movies, books, and other authentic examples of use by native speakers are also pervasively available around the world in a degree unmatched by materials in any other language.
This is commonly "known", but actually, I don't agree. It's all about exposure. I learned English in class, but most of my learning came from watching TV/movies and reading books in English, and posting on online forums. By the time I came to the US, some people confused me with being a native once in a while, even though I had never actually spoken English to a native, or spoken it much at all really. Of course my vocabulary is/was not as great as natives, but I made a concerted effort to try to sound American from the start. Most people in my country don't try to sound American, partly because it probably feels silly/fake to them, and partly because British English was what was taught in school.
My point is, if it's not true for English, then it's not necessarily true for other languages either. You just have to be interested in the culture, and expose yourself to media during and after taking classes.
When learning English, the easiness with which one learns also depends on your native language. For example, speakers of latin languages learn English much easier than speakers of slavic languages.
Also, many languages leave their mark on their native speakers in many cases being very hard to get rid of your native accent.
I was lucky to have Romanian as my native language, as it doesn't leave such a big scar on your pronunciation. I almost speak American English correctly, in spite of not living in an English-speaking country and I've got friends that speak perfect British English, French or Spanish (giving these as examples, as these have thick accents). True story - Microsoft has a support center in Bucharest, with one reason being our linguistic abilities.
What you describe as a "scar" is the same effect the top comment refers to. Romanian, much like my native language (Portuguese) is a peripheral language. Those don't evolve as much and so have not simplified as much as languages from central countries (think central Europe for comparison). The end result is that they are more complex and, to our advantage, use many more phonemes, easing native speakers learning of foreign languages.
To this day, I'm still baffled that Spanish does not distinguish between 'v' and 'b'.
Really? I thought that Spanish does distinguish between 'b' and 'v', but the South American Spanish has the sounds the other way around than continental Spanish?
Interestingly, my native language is Czech, and it makes it rather easy to learn English and Spanish, because the only sound that's missing is English 'th' in three or think, which people here pronounce like 't' or 'f' and "I fink" sounds pretty horrible :)
I understand that Spanish has to be really hard for English speakers, because of things like words changing shape because of gender, and stuff, but the usual English/American pronunciation of Spanish 'j' (or 'x') is terrible. I had to laugh at Lady Gaga singing about some Alexandro, making up about three different ways to pronounce it, not a single one correct. It's not difficult sound!
Talking about difficult sounds, try this one:  it's fun :)
Interestingly, my native language is Czech, and it makes it rather easy to learn English and Spanish, because the only sound that's missing is English 'th' in three or think, which people here pronounce like 't' or 'f' and "I fink" sounds pretty horrible :)
You forgot people mixing up v/w, and being funny with r. ;-)
Have to second this. One of the artists I sometimes contract with for game development is Romanian, and while I sometimes notice idiomatic issues there's absolutely no issue understanding her. Her diction's as good as many native speakers I encounter on a regular basis.
Well, active interest helps as well. I started learning English in school at 10 (German native speaker, 29 years old), and starting at the age of 14, I became actively interested in watching US-American movies (well, the usual mainstream) in English (this coincided with the widespread availability of DVD players and DVDs with English-language audio tracks). My perception has been that it immensely helped me with both my listening comprehension and my vocabulary. That turned out to be an advantage when I worked in companies with English-speaking colleagues.
My only imperfections that I and my GF (who is from the UK) recognize are things like my US-centric pronounciation and vocabulary ("boot, not trunk!", "lift, not elevator!", etc.) and my tendency to mispronounce words that I've only ever read but not heard. And when I'm tired, my accent sometimes slips and I suddenly stereotypically sound like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The person who wrote this blog would disagree with you: www.alljapaneseallthetime.com . It's harder, no doubt, but most people can't give that excuse because they don't go 100% into immersing their lives into the language. Which means listening to audio, TV shows, anything in that language at least 12 hours a day even at work, and even sometimes when you sleep (a lot i know, but if it was that easy, everyone would speak 3+ languages).
Plus, if you live in NYC or any ethnically diverse community in the USA, you'd meet plenty of people who've lived here 20+ years, yet can't have a conversation with you in English - I know many Chinese immigrants like that.
I tend to disagree.
Specially the Indo-European family of languages and even more with the ones which are mostly phonetic. Most of the these languages have rules which you can mug-up and get used to in no time(ok a few months). I would assume learning a language which is pictorial in nature probably will be way more difficult and requires you to completely immerse yourself into it. The ruleset of all Indo-European languages is surprisingly common with varying degrees of sophistication but if you know one of these languages, then it is easier to learn others. But yeah, it probably wouldn't work if you speak none of these langauages.
I wish I had internet and wikipedia when I was in school.
he chose the word "community" precisely to indicate that you don't have to live in an English-speaking country to learn good English (or a Chinese-speaking COUNTRY to learn Chinese, etc.). But massive "real-world" exposure to a language outside required school lessons helps immensely, as many research studies on language acquisition around the world have shown.
English has the network advantage of being the "community" language of people who have no other common language, all over the world.
But a speaker of one language who is past the age of puberty will simply not perceive many of the phonemic distinctions in sounds in the target language (the language to be learned) without very careful training, as disregard of those distinctions below the level of conscious attention is part of having the sound system of the speaker's native language fully in mind. Attention to target language phonemes has to be developed through pains-taking practice.
There is a simple and effective technique to help adult learners to perceive difficult phonemic distinctions, called HVPT (High Variability Phonetic Training). It consists of listening to several native speakers produce the phonemes in question and being quizzed on which phoneme is used in each case. You receive immediate feedback whether you were correct or not. This turns out to be much more effective than simply listening to a single speaker pronounce the phoneme pair and being asked to hear the difference (multiple speakers are crucial in helping you generalize what the salient differences are for a range of pronunciations).
Unfortunately, I don't know of any actual implementation of HVPT, and it doesn't seem to be used much if at all in language learning. Surely there is an opportunity there for someone to design a web-based HVPT system.
I had similar thoughts a few years ago, and prototyped such an app. It ended up reinforcing what research on the topic already says: HVPT helps, but not enough. It's semi-effective - better than nothing.
I'm now working on creating something better. In the meanwhile, getting a book with good phonetic descriptions of your target language (including lip/tongue diagrams) and recordings, and doing phonetic transcriptions is a better bet than HVPT. Being able to correctly produce the sounds goes a long way towards being able to distinguish them, though it seems to be a two-way feedback loop.
HVPT is of course only part of the solution; I hope I didn't make it sound like a cure-all. Being able to distinguish the phonemes that you hear is just the first step, and it should logically be followed by learning to produce the sound distinctions in question yourself. And it is definitely a two-way feedback loop in that the better you hear the differences, the better you produce them, and vice versa, just as it is for infants learning their native language. So a more complete training method would combine HVPT with ways to have your own pronunciations scored to see how well you are producing the sounds of the target language.
This is I feel a relatively neglected part of non-native language education, and it is very common for people to have spoken a non-native language for years without learning to distinguish native sound pairs. So good luck with your efforts to help people learn better, and I hope you share the results with us.
This is completely tangential and I'm not sure if this is off-topic enough to be considered breaking the rules, but you are by far my favorite commenter on HN, and perhaps even the internet. Every post you write is a joy to read, and I know that when I see a comment by "tokenadult" I am in for an informative and thorough break-down of the subject matter. Thank you, and please keep posting.
His comment was specifically about learning how to speak a foreign language with a reasonably "native"-sounding quality — i.e. what the stumbling blocks are that lead to hard-to-understand accents (and/or difficulty understanding native accents) and how to get past them. It seems pretty relevant to me.
"English is a prerequisite. If you haven't mastered it yet, learn it. You must be able to read, write, speak and understand English." On his list of things to learn for physics, that even comes before mathematics.
You could also say that learning to use a computer is key to become a programmer. That's obvious and not very telling about what is specifically required to be a programmer.
For all his discussion about "strong foreign accents" being a big weakness, it is interesting that pg doesn't seem capable of recognizing his own huge weaknesses (and almost all of the 200+ comments - particularly the top-ranked ones - seem to miss that too)
1. At best, pg badly miscommunicated what he was trying to say. He could have just said something like 'founders who cannot communicate well' or 'founders who can't be understood' etc. - but he chose specifically to refer to "strong foreign accents".
Arguably, some Americans might find it easier to understand some foreign accents (strong British accents, some Indian accents etc) than some American accents (e.g. some rural southern accents). More to the point, some folks with foreign accents can speak much better English and articulate their ideas (and make themselves understood) much better than many people speaking in a mainstream American accent. However, pg chose to use the "strong foreign accent" criterion instead of the more correct "communicate well" criterion.
2. imo a stubborn refusal to acknowledge mistakes/errors is a big weakness and pg is demonstrating that weakness with passive-aggressive pushbacks like the one on Twitter "Don't say things people want to misunderstand."
Sorry, I think pg's statement was either blatantly wrong or badly expressed/communicated, but that doesn't amount to me being a part of the alleged "looking-for-reasons-to-be-offended patrol" that one of the commenters below talks about. pg (and his defenders on hn) will be better served by trying to understand the criticism instead of making up false motives for the critics of his statement.
<edit> Ten minutes after I posted the comment, it was at 3 points. Thirty minutes later, it was at ZERO points, one hour later at -1 :) In addition to showing the net-points for each comment, I wish HN also showed the total number of upvotes and downvotes each comment receives.
> He could have just said something like 'founders who cannot communicate well'
He could have, yes. But its certainly possible that such a statement would have been lying. "Communicates well" can be a hard trait to pin down. It is contingent on a lot of factors, and may vary widely between listeners. Meanwhile, "strong foreign accents", while somewhat subjective, is something that him and his colleagues can easily agree upon.
Since "strong foreign accent" is so much easier to measure, that's the trend they noticed - and thus the one he mentioned. His actual statement was clear enough that, without removing context, it is completely clear that it was not xenophobia.
Yep. PG's advice as given is clearly more actionable than "communicate well".
The problem with people that are easily offended is that avoiding offense forces you to use vague, non-specific language. PGs said what some founders need to hear, and it will make them better off. Most likely, they will appreciate the advice and use it. They probably aren't the same people getting offended.
Yep. PG's advice as given is clearly more actionable than "communicate well"
Really, do you really believe (and/or have any research to show) that "fixing" one's accent as an adult is "actionable" advice in any meaningful way.
Pg just fucked up communicating what he wanted to communicate. Everybody does once in a while. No big deal there. But this blind defense of everything done by one human being is more disturbing by far.
An aside: I wonder if an Australian accent is a plus or a minus in the States?
P.S. I spoke to someone from Apple support last night, she was from Connecticut (I asked). greatest accent ever. She basically told me to do a hard reset on my iPad and I thought it was the greatest tech support I've ever received :-)
I've only ever found it to be a plus - good ice breaker, people seem to love it. That said, often people assume it is a British accent, not an Australian accent.
I think because people from outside Australia often have the preconception that Aussies should sound like crocodile-dundee, or as we call it - 'okka'. What they hear from most Aussies is what they associate more closely with a British accent. Although it isn't quite right, it is so far from the preconception of what an Aussie sounds like, British is the closet thing they associate it with.
Never explain yourself to people who misunderstand you on the internet. They'll just use it as an excuse to misunderstand you again, which is worse because not only are you a terrible monster who said those terrible things, but now you've had the unmitigated gall to defend those terrible things.
It's a universal truth of saying things in public. No matter how clearly you say things, somebody will take it the wrong way. The only approach that doesn't make things worse is to simply ignore those people.
Anyone who accuses PG/YC of being xenophobic is laughable. It's especially laughable coming from the press -- they've been at YC offices many times, and the sheer number of founders with accents is staggering. YC even got involved in the political process to make getting founder visas easier!
I have a really strong Russian accent that (hopefully) doesn't border too much on being not understandable, and I've never felt discriminated against at YC or elsewhere in SV, not for a millisecond. This is corroborated by dozens upon dozens of founders whose accents are even stronger than mine.
If you want to do business in a country and raise millions of dollars from people, you have to be understandable. If someone made this claim in France, or Germany, or Japan, nobody would even blink. The very fact that PG is getting criticized for it is almost indicative of how meritocratic Silicon Valley (and YC in particular) is.
... or just indicative of a very delicate and typically American rule: thou shall not speak ill of ethnic communities you don't belong to. It's a very civilized norm (which I also follow), and I'm sure it helps keeping together the most multi-ethnic cities in the world, but occasionally it gets in the way of honest discourse.
I wouldn't say that was typically American by any means. I would say that hyper political correctness is a reaction by a subset of the population to the overt ethnic discrimination of much American dialogue, policy, and action.
A quarter of the country belongs to an evangelical church. Those people discriminate against anyone that isn't Christian, because that's what being evangelical means. A third of black males born today will go to prison. There is a war on anybody that is vaguely middle eastern, even at home. The Jews controlling Hollywood and Wall Street are reviled. It goes on and on and on.
No kidding. I had a couple professors in college with accents truly as thick as molasses. I would leave every lecture mentally drained, and during the lecture my brain would run anywhere from 1-3 sentences behind realtime as it struggled to comprehend what had been said. It took me weeks to get used to "wahriable" (variable).
I read that extra politeness as fake, and indicative of phobic behaviour. If you treat black people as equals, then you don't see anything bad about describing someone as black. Instead, for politeness you have to say "individual of color". Newspeak that tells a lot about the society as a whole.
Anyone who accuses anyone of being X-phobic is laughable. Rational people ought to be able to debate - sparring through facts, hypotheses, and argument - without walking on eggshells. Dispassionate debate is a far better mechanism to find truth than name-calling.
If you're right, then why do you have to resort to attacking the motivations of the other speaker to win? Correct opinions ought to be able to walk on their own without relying on such crutches.
I'm criticizing the people claiming that PG is xenophobic. I'm on your side on this one. I hate argument by insult - it shrinks the range of acceptable thought, thereby enstupidating the public mind.
It's straight out of the 1984 playbook. Language becomes vaguer and mushier, less communicative. We can no longer tell founders that "thick foreign accents will hurt your startup", instead we must say "have good communication skills", which is a far less useful statement. It is like the substitution of "ungood" for "bad" and "plusgood" for anything more extreme than "good".
Why should we talk to each other anymore, when a tiny handbook can contain all the thoughts we are allowed to express?
The word xenophobic isn't name calling when it accurately labels an emotional response, namely the fear of strangers. America is xenophobic with respect to Muslims, for example, especially so since Islamist terrorist actions instilled that fear.
In this case, I would say yes PG is xenophobic when it comes to people with strong foreign accents, because he's afraid based on his experience that they'll lower the value of the companies he's investing in.
You've taken all the meaning out of the word. Founders with thick accents should also be afraid that their speaking abilities or lack thereof will lower the value of the companies that they are founding. Would that make them... "xenophobic"... about themselves?
I was actually trying to clarify the meaning of the word to take the pejorative bite out of it. A fear of strangers makes sense in some contexts.
Of course foreigners cannot be xenophobic about themselves, they aren't foreigners to themselves. Agreed that if you have a strong accent it makes sense to worry about it; this is the pressure that drives assimilation.
Dispassionate debate is a good way to find the truth, but does seem a bit odd to debate whether somebody is xenophobic when you can just go talk to them and see what they are like.
Debating theories and facts or interpretation of facts makes alot of sense for things like science experiments , it seems a bit like indirection when talking about what a certain person is like.
You can just go find out what that person is like, instead of relying on hearsay.
Regarding Slava, I wouldn't say that he is doing the name calling.
Accusing somebody of being xenophobic is much closer to name calling, I find that even the act of accusing to be pretty weak, why not just make a statement as opposed to an accusation.
I agree with Slava's statement, if anyone would make the statement that YC/PG is xenophobic after having met them I would say that is pretty laughable.
I don't need to debate this, it's merely my opinion based on factual experience.
(also, opinions don't need to be correct, they are just opinions. Facts on the other hand can be incorrect or correct)
If you think otherwise without meeting YC/PG, then you are making an opinion without any experience.
(a situation you can correct)
As an aside, you don't even need to walk on eggshells around PG.
You can just ask him if he is a xenophobe, he will answer no.
i still remember one of your rehearsal presentations for demo day,
it was something along the lines of
"this graph is bad"
"this graph is good"
i even thought you were playing up your accent for added comedic value.
(for context, he was showing a performance graph of rethinkDB vs. mySQL, and the graphs were practically inverted. rethinkDB was performing so much better it was comical how much throughput it was doing)
> Never explain yourself to people who misunderstand you on the internet. They'll just use it as an excuse to misunderstand you again, which is worse because not only are you a terrible monster who said those terrible things, but now you've had the unmitigated gall to defend those terrible things.
This has been the exact opposite of my experience. Usually when I approach people directly and in a forthright manner and try and correct and clarify (and of course, apologize if my position offends and offer to listen to a counter-argument) then people seem to positively adjust their opinion of me.
I can't help but feel like your advice smacks of elitism. When I read your post I get a subtext of, "Everyone else is dumb if they don't get what I'm saying. At best, that is! Usually they're trying to shoot me down! I don't negotiate with terrorists."
I'm not sure how I could wake up every morning if I felt that way.
The Internet is filled with every type of person with many different motivations. Many of those people have a different motivation than "understanding" you. They are people that get social currency from signaling that they are anti-racist, they are people that monetize outrage, they are people for who arguing is a bloodsport, they are self-avowed trolls. Why bother? The people who make the attempt to understand you will treat what you say charitably, they are self-selecting. The rest you can ignore.
Well, recent events suggest that unfortunately there is a grain of truth to that assessment.
A lot of the noise in blogs and twitter has been along the lines of "PG is an evil monster who hates women and foreigners and people of color and doesn't ever want to invest in their companies". None of which he said or implied, but that doesn't seem to have stopped the attacks.
> "PG is an evil monster who hates women and foreigners and people of color and doesn't ever want to invest in their companies".
There are long-standing complaints with the structure and the predatory nature of YCombinator. It is very unusual and complaints center around how HN is essentially a very high-pressure situation designed to try and sell kids on the value of PG & YComb as investors on very small funding events.
Personally, I don't think this article really justifies the behavior that has been consistently (if not as high-profile) that PG has had. His reported castigation and refusal to see people who have Indian accents is troublesome. It's very difficult to take his claims seriously when he affects fake russian accents while proclaiming his innocence.
There's no question that YC has benefited greatly from PG's "propaganda" - and vice-versa. (That is, the success and growth of YC has given PG a lot more tangible stuff to write about, as opposed to 'thought experiments'.)
I'm far from an insider so I can't speak to whether a person or team should go for YC funding or not. Or whether the system is biased against people with Indian accents (your comment is the first I've heard of that, actually).
Clearly, a team with potential success ahead of them ought to consider their options carefully and see whether applying to YC is right for them. And, if they get in, whether doing the program is the most valuable use of their next few months. A founding team needs to look beyond the hype and headlines and determine what the best deal is - but that's hardly YC's fault if they present themselves in the best possible light.
> Clearly, a team with potential success ahead of them ought to consider their options carefully and see whether applying to YC is right for them.
It seems like this step is precisely what the YCombinator process is meant to complicate. The entire structure is designed to make it feel like a competition for PG's attention. By structuring it this way, it makes it much more likely that the people who "win the competition" will say yes to YComb.
And YComb moves fast! People tell me there isn't a lot of time to think. Implicit in YComb's structure is the statement, "There are a dozen people in line behind you that will take your place." It's all very American Idol.
It seems like this step is precisely what the YCombinator process is meant to complicate. The entire structure is designed to make it feel like a competition for PG's attention. By structuring it this way, it makes it much more likely that the people who "win the competition" will say yes to YComb.
I suspect that vibe emerges from the scaling aspect of things - if a regular VC firm invests in N deals a year and YC does 10N , then there is no need to 'create' a competition for the attention of PG and the other principals. It will just emerge out of the large number of portfolio companies. (And this is not unique to YC, but may be exaggerated - VC firms are notoriously busy for the same reason.)
And YComb moves fast! People tell me there isn't a lot of time to think. Implicit in YComb's structure is the statement, "There are a dozen people in line behind you that will take your place." It's all very American Idol.*
Again, this sounds like a scaling issue. If you're investing in fewer companies, you can spend more time hand holding with the teams of each one. HUman attention is the thing that doesn't scale, so it makes sense that it is the thing in short supply.
It sounds to me like teams need to precompute their responses to lots of possible situations. And get as much information about the downside of participating as possible, beyond the headlines and the hype. But this is the kind of suggestion that I'd give anybody considering YC (or a job, or the military, or a college, or a grad school, or a training program).
[*] I don't know if these numbers are accurate, but the point is that YC is well known to do many more, smaller deals than VC firms.
> Again, this sounds like a scaling issue. If you're investing in fewer companies, you can spend more time hand holding with the teams of each one. HUman attention is the thing that doesn't scale, so it makes sense that it is the thing in short supply.
Isn't human coaching the primary asset that YComb offers though? It's certainly not money, HN seed rounds are not exceptionally large, and they aren't unusually early.
There are long-standing complaints with the structure and the predatory nature of YCombinator.
It seems like a "good deed never goes unpunished"-type situation. YC partners are both independently wealthy and brilliant. They could choose to do anything they wanted with their time, or nothing at all, and they'd still be fine. Instead, they chose to dedicate themselves to coaching people and sharing their expertise to teach people to build companies. Men, women, foreigners, everybody. The selection process for getting into YC is the most open you'd ever find anywhere. The paperwork is open-source for heaven's sakes! Could you suggest a couple of things they could do to make the process less "predatory"?
> Instead, they chose to dedicate themselves to coaching people and sharing their expertise to teach people to build companies.
You know, most of the good venture capital firms and angels who enter in on seed rounds do this.
> Instead, they chose to dedicate themselves to coaching people and sharing their expertise to teach people to build companies. Men, women, foreigners, everybody.
I'd love to know the ratio of male founders who apply to the number that get funded vs. the ratio of female ones. Did PG publish this data?
> Could you suggest a couple of things they could do to make the process less "predatory"?
Not structure it like American Idol, for starters. With the possible exception of pre-everyone-goes-on-summer-vactation, most agencies don't structure their funding around some kind of audition structure. They make appointments and develop leads as they see fit, trying to talk to companies when they're actually read to do funding.
Of course, many venture firms out there are sleazy and lots of people are working on ideas that won't interest the top tier firms. But personally I've always felt like everything about the YComb process was design to fool young Stanford undergrads into taking what, honestly, is a kinda mediocre funding deal unless YComb is basically the biggest value-add ever.
> I can't help but feel like your advice smacks of elitism. When I read your post I get a subtext of, "Everyone else is dumb if they don't get what I'm saying. At best, that is! Usually they're trying to shoot me down! I don't negotiate with terrorists."
I don't think it was meant to be elitist. I believe it was directed towards those who are going to find a problem with anything you say, regardless of what you say.
I am elitist against people who judge ideas on the scale of which one is most politically correct.
I don't understand how they get anything done in life without giving their brain room to think. For example, a founder having trouble raising funds could consider Paul Graham's advice on accents and see if it applies to him, but not if he censors his own mind to avoid it.
That is not what's at play here. There is a systemic problem in Silicon Valley and San Francisco in startup culture. Berating founders for their accent publicly (as has been reported) is an excellent example of the problem.
That is not polite, cordial conversation between equals. That is not the behavior of two equals talking business. It's not acceptable behavior in a civilized venue. This is not because it's "politically correct," but rather because of the profound implications of antagonizing someone for what they are and where they were born.
PG is in the business of giving business advice and teaching startups how to grow and prosper in the world as it exists. He has stated that he writes publicly in order to scale the process of giving advice. By putting it online, it is precisely where founders who most need the advice are most likely to find it.
It makes you upset that PG is giving this advice. But if it is true advice, then founders will be better off for hearing it, regardless of your feelings.
It is easier for founders to modify their behavior than it is to teach all the VCs of the valley to understand lots of accents, so PG's advice passes the sanity check even though we may wish the contrary were true.
> PG is in the business of giving business advice and teaching startups how to grow and prosper in the world as it exists.
Quite untrue. PG is in the business of giving very small seed rounds to mostly small, low-effort consumer plays in the web and mobile space. He does fund things that do not meet these criterion, but they are in a notable minority.
His writing and website and other aspects are part of his overall plan to engage with the tech community. This is the added value (beyond cash, of which everyone's int he same) he proposes to add as an investor. Have you ever done YComb or gotten seed/A-round funding before? You know how this works, right.
> But if it is true advice, then founders will be better off for hearing it, regardless of your feelings.
It is clearly true that PG will be less likely to fund you if you were not born in the parts of the world he is familiar with, consequently speaking the language and dialects that he is comfortable with. His arguments that only western-sounding people succeed in the world of tech business is absurd (and poorly sourced).
> It is easier for founders to modify their behavior than it is to teach all the VCs of the valley to understand lots of accents, so PG's advice passes the sanity check even though we may wish the contrary were true.
Yeah dude, I just made walked into the doors of basically every top tier VC in the Valley, sat down, gave a presentation, then left. I heard people prepping for presentations with thick accents in nearly every office. I'm pretty sure it is "okay" to be not born in the US.
Especially since it's entirely possible to, you know, employ someone to help you with this part if your English skills aren't up where you need them to be.
So I am not only upset that PG is mockingly affecting accents to tell people what not to do, but I'm upset that these are his criterion. I'm a bit upset because this diminishes the slowly tarnishing image I have of my former Lisp idol, and because the Valley has a systemic problem with women and certain ethnicities.
This is another example of that coming into play, and I'm mad because the engineering part of my head demands I try and fix it if it bothers me. But I can think of no solutions that don't involve putting people who say things like this in a shock collar. So now I am more upset because my irrational and pervasive desire to fix things is thwarted by brute feasibility.
Pg is the equal of very few of the people with whom he does business. He has more money, power, knowledge and experience than almost anyone he deals with on a regular basis. YC applicants are not equals, they are supplicants. His equals are VCs, super angels and C-suite executives from big software companies. People who are not equals can have mutually beneficial relationships, but treating rhetoric about people being equal in dignity or legal rights with an accurate description of the world is a mistake.
> People who are not equals can have mutually beneficial relationships, but treating rhetoric about people being equal in dignity or legal rights with an accurate description of the world is a mistake.
Except that PG's continued fortune is dependent upon the success of these "supplicants" approaching his business for money. And if he does his job well, the winners will become his equals. So... yeah. Unwise to play the "I am better because economics!" card.
Certainly, PG is not the equal of most of these people in engineering ability. He's so far out of the game that it'd take him 1-3 years just to update his vocabulary.
That's a little bit paranoid. Sure, there are some people out there who just don't like you and will bend whatever you say against you. But sometimes, people may be rightfully calling you out on your assumptions. If you're not open to any criticism on what you say or how you say it, you will never get any better at expressing yourself.
When I respond to people who are being unreasonably critical of things I've written, I'm usually not just responding to them for their sake, I'm responding so that everyone else who's following the conversation can look at both sides and decide for themselves who's being reasonable. Over time, being earnest about responding to criticism, even unwarranted criticism, has gained me respect in my social circle. Of course, one has to decide how their time is best spent, but on the whole, I think it's a bit thick headed to always take the "yeah, I said it, so f' off" approach.
Yes, this is the operative point. There may always be some who wilfully and loudly misinterpret you for their own reasons, but the majority will be reading along silently, trying to decide who's most credible. Those are the people you're really speaking to.
* The only approach that doesn't make things worse is to simply ignore those people. *
I appreciate your overall sentiment, but I respectfully disagree with this point. I think founders need to consider whether or not their critics matter. In other words, will a critic's derogatory statements affect your business and reputation?
For example, if PG were to ignore a New York Times reporter, there's a big risk that the reporter could have created an even more negative story that had a lot of traction because of the newspaper's cachet. Was talking to the reporter a perfect solution in this case? No, I don't think so.
But having been a reporter and worked with journalists as a public relations professional, I've seen clients achieve much better outcomes by making themselves available for comment. It gives the clients an opportunity to shape how others perceive them, particularly in times of crisis.
A distinct lack of response by pg on this issue would not have sent an effective message. I think that the audience that reads these misunderstandings is large enough, and of a wide enough spread of interest/knowledge in the issue, that most would not interpret this lack of response as an attempt not to step down into muddy water.
Seems like pg made a good choice to me. I don't think that people will focus on attacking him in similar ways in the future- his self defense was clear and reasonable, and it doesn't really appear that he is defending a sort of terrible racist agenda at all. It also seems that his publicly stated opinions are reasonable enough, in general, that future attackers would be dissuaded from attacking him by the sheer fact that most attacks on pg's opinions/statements would be hard to back up when pressed.
He acknowledges this. Then explains: he did the interview and made the statement to help founders, and this clarification will help founders. I'm all for not engaging in this type of situation, but I admire his reasons for responding.
..."accents so strong that people can't understand" is the key here. An obvious truth well known to everyone frightens people sometimes. He does not tell, he uses that as a standalone parameter in screening applications. In addition to 'accent', lack of communication skills is a problem even for natives.
That said, instead of 'accent', I would use there 'problems in communication skills', which implies native speakers too. Otherwise a lot of people don't understand PG correctly.
This would have eliminated the backlash. However, I like that PG seems to live by what he wrote about in "What you can't say" and strives for perfect accuracy in his observations. While problems in communication might be the root cause (I'm almost sure they are, why is it surprising that if you can't communicate you'll do worse? Change "accents" to "can't speak English - the language of the country they are in" and no one would argue), PG was perfectly accurate in describing his observations in the data. Isn't it better to be open about this, along with him noticing his selection bias? Being aware of biases is better than ignoring them.
...You are right, it's always better to be open. He does not speak a diplomatic political language, he states the knowledge he acquired through thousands of interviews and other experiences. That way, he would share how race, religion, gender are affecting success too. But I suspect that would result in an even bigger backlash.
I disagree. Simply phrasing it as a suggestion to fix problem communication skills is too general to really be helpful. Most people who speak English who are terrible communicators don't realize it so they won't think it applies to them. Meanwhile, foreign founders with strong accents won't understand that it is really them he is speaking to.
I think it is much more helpful to tell somebody plain as day: if you are bad at X you aren't likely to be successful until you fix it. These are facts. Ignore them if you choose but that doesn't change that they are supported by very strong evidence from somebody with loads of experience.
I do agree with the previous comment that he shouldn't have responded, though. It's a losing argument because those who are choosing to misinterpret a statement that is pretty much crystal clear are doing so because of inherent biases. You won't convince those people to consider logic so it doesn't pay to expend time and reputation having a public discussion with them. The people who agree will say so or say nothing and choose to take the advice and act accordingly.
Yes. For an example of why, observe the situation we're discussing.
If you read the original piece, it's perfectly clear what was meant, and there's absolutely no room for anybody to misunderstand it. Still lots of people did. And they were quickly corrected in the previous thread.
And if you read this very thread, you'll see people responding to his even more carefully written clarification who still hold their initial misunderstanding and are writing angry replies as though their mistaken reading of the piece was what the author had actually said.
Seriously. There's no fixing those people. The only winning move is not to play.
Seriously. There's no fixing those people. The only winning move is not to play.
Agreed. Going on record to defend yourself without provocation (he doesn't specifically refer to someone asking him for an official response) generally means there is something deeper at hand here. PG did respond originally to provocation and should have kept it to that.
This is akin to when someone goes out of there way to explain why things "aren't their fault". If it wasn't your fault, you state the case and be done with it. People at fault generally go beyond their means to make sure people think they aren't at fault.
If I could interject a brief modification— People who feel that they're at fault go beyond their means to defend themselves. And there isn't necessarily a correlation between someone who feels guilty and someone who is guilty.
It should be obvious to anyone who has participated in a karma based discussion board like reddit or HN.
First, all the karma goes to the first explanation. Everyone understands it when the idea is explained. Replies to a naysayer usually get 1/10th of the original reward because new information isn't usually provided with the updates.
Next, there are many people who can only interact with ideas by contradicting them. Without putting a value judgement on that behavior, it isn't worth continuing a public discussion with them to enlighten them, unless they make you realize something you're missing.
Finally, controversy competes with truth, understanding, and imagination in the human brain. By replying to someone creating controversy, all the positive effects of your idea are diluted, and all people take away is the fact that there was a controversy surrounding what you said.
Anyway, these are my experiences. I'm open to the possibility that there is a way to reply to controversial disagreement, but unless it's a private message, I'm not aware of it right now.
Scott Adams has a nice dismissal: I agree with your analysis of your hallucination.
(and, to defend the pg, he says he would have let it all just go away, but it's a really important point and he doesn't want the meaning co-opted by people with any agenda other than helping people grow companies better.)
I couldn't have put this better myself, it's exactly the first thing I thought once I came on HN and saw this essay. It's just more fuel for the fire, which is a good thing when that's what you want. PG never struck me as a shock jock so I was quite surprised.
Within the US there are various accents and sometimes people from one area have a little trouble understanding people from another area. If a strong foreign accent is a big roadblock to start ups then it's understandable, said and done. Now with this follow up I have to revisit the whole thing to see why it is the biggest challenge. Since we're all into solving problems why not have a hot blonde take care of all the public interaction if it's that big of a deal (that's what I would do)?
Actually, if you look at what PG and YC are trying to achieve, this is a great strategy. What an efficient way to filter out people who focus on soundbites and refuse to think more deeply and clearly about what the author is trying to say.
Don't worry about it, PG, you just had a run-in with the looking-for-reasons-to-be-offended patrol. I actually thought this would happen when I read the post, but I also understood what you mean. It's a fairly benign point if we're honest and give you the benefit of the doubt: communication is important for a startup. Heavy accents are a barrier to effective communication.
I speak a foreign language that I learned later in life, so I speak it with an ugly American accent. People sometimes have trouble understanding me when I speak, and even though I know all the words native speakers use, I know I'm missing the subtleties and undercurrents in language. We take these things for granted in our native language, but understanding the associations with common phrases and subtle connotations of words takes many years to learn. Many native speakers miss these subtleties from time to time.
I would never (at my current skill level) try to start a company where I'd have to rely on my foreign language skill. I'm fluent in the language, but nowhere close to native skill. I wouldn't trust myself to explain a product - especially a technical product - in a clear and convincing manner.
"Offending people is a necessary and healthy act. Every time you say something that's offensive to another person, you just caused a discussion. You just forced them to have to think." Louis C.K.
I'm the American-born son of Indian parents, so I don't have any hint of an accent (although I did when I was very young). Three years ago, I tried to start a company in India, and my "American-accent" Hindi was indeed a hindrance to my communication and, by effect, our success.
Maybe I can offer a viewpoint that'll really drive this message home.
I work at a hospital full of the most brilliant foreign doctors, but many of them have accents too, too thick to accurately relay and discuss very complex and critical medical information. That is not in any way a reflection of their intelligence or work ethic in the least. They are smart, and they've proven that with numerous tests and years of training. But when effective communication is hindered, there is damage to confidence, mutual understanding, and progress. Confusion amongst doctors and nurses hurt patient management. Families who don't understand what they're being told feel less confident in the physician caring for their loved one because no clear direction or assessment is articulated.
And PG here is saying no different. Communication is just as essential in running a startup as it is in managing a patient. Your investors rely on your communication abilities to accurately assess the state of your company. Cofounders need to understand you for decisions to be made. Employees need to feel confident in their leader and the direction they're moving in.
This isn't xenophobic at all. Foreign accents, here in America, probably make up the majority of communication issues. I'm sure PG would've mentioned stammering and stuttering if it were significant in his data, but it likely wasn't. How many people do you know with thick foreign accents and how many with other communication hindrances?
I think the problem really arose because he said foreign accent. So if it was someone American with an incredibly thick and hard-to-understand accent that would be fine? It wouldn't, if what he really cares about is comprehension.
> I'd thought of just letting this controversy blow over.
A common PG tactic, this (see also the "HN mods wilfully ruin submission titles" storm). But probably not a great one to emulate: time and again here we've seen startups badly burnt by the "fuck up in public and don't say or post anything hoping it will blow over" stance.
Even if it does blow over, you've damaged your image. People might treat you the same, but they'll long remember that time you ran away and hid when people expected better of you.
>American with an incredibly thick and hard-to-understand accent
Is there an example of this that can be pointed out? A nearly unintelligible American accent held by someone working in technology who is trying their best to be understood?
It's exceedingly easy to find an example in people who are speaking English as a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th language, and isn't a reflection of their worth as a person, but a sign that they may have a problem in the English speaking startup world.
Most educated Americans with any type of accent can usually alternate between standard dialect and their regional accent. Politicians especially are good at this. Kevin Spacey nails this in "House of Cards", but there are examples of Obama, Bush, and Clinton doing this as well.
A sole person in the country would do as an example, right? And I'll bet with 300 million there's at least one tech-inclined American with English as the first language that has trouble being understood.
Likewise, if foreignness isn't really the issue, disabilities will surely also count? Are there disabled people in tech who have a hard time speaking English? Would Stephen Hawking pass as a Founder for PG?
A couple of years back, I met my friend's grandma down in the bayou on the border between Texas and Louisiana. I had absolutely no clue what that woman was saying to me. I had to look at my friend for a translation every time she spoke. He assured me that she was speaking English.
Plenty of Singaporeans or Indians are, in fact, native speakers with accent and dialect differences that can stymie other English speakers. I've had people complain New Zealanders speak too quickly for foreigners to understand (as well as our flattened vowels). And get back to me after watching Taggert.
(The most incomprehensible language I've ever heard from a native speaker personally wasn't Glasgwegian, but rather two 60+ folks demonstrating Black Country English.)
I would say that depends on the southern accent in question. I (native english, mid-east coast) have never had trouble with Texan accents at all, no matter how strong, but have had a lot of difficulty with rural accents from people in South Carolina. A few weeks ago I was down there visiting and tried to buy some shrimp from a native South Carolinian. I had to resort to hand-gestures; he seemed to have as much difficulty understanding me as I did him.
Listen to some "native English speakers" in Glasgow - I understood them reasonably well after a week, but when I arrived the cab driver might as well have spoken chinese, I had to write things on paper to get where I wanted...
I am Indian, but a native English speaker. When I went to Northern Ireland, I took a long cab drive to meet a customer. For the first 15 minutes of that drive, the driver and I were trying to calibrate accents. I certainly couldn't understand a word he said. After a while, things magically started making sense.
I occasionally have—some Newfoundlanders, people from certain parts of the UK, and so on. There's a whole lot of variation in the English-speaking world, and the line between dialect and accent isn't well-defined. There's even an island off the coast of Virginia (I think) where people speak 18th-century English!
I don't know what island you're referring to, but there are a lot of claims out there like this - a lot of people claiming they speak the "Queen's English". Every claim I've heard, much like Eskimos and snow, turns out to be a myth:
The "18th century" thing stuck in my mind from some media piece, and now that you mention it, does sound rather obviously like a myth. But the place exists—I think it was probably Tangier Island , and the accent there is indeed archaic:
To an England-born person now making his home in Northern California (PG), some extreme American accents would also be "foreign". Indeed, in idiomatic English, "foreign" doesn't necessarily mean "from another country" but can also mean "from another place/region" or even just "strange and unfamiliar".
(I'd bet a sensitive-enough analysis would show that even North American accents "foreign" to northern California have a very slight disadvantage in the bay area startup community. The tiniest of things can send signals of mutual-understanding and shared-goals, fairly or not.)
Focusing on the "non-United-States" sense of "foreign", in order to take offense here, is thus yet another example of why a shared, subtle, native-like understanding of the nuances of language is so important.
Appreciating the whole range of senses of "foreign" makes it easy to interpret the PG quote sympathetically, as being about practical comprehension. Focusing on just the primary sense of 'foreign', as if the word only meant "other-country-origin", leads to time wasted on misunderstandings and taking-offense.
I think most Americans would regard different regions of the US "not foreign" and British or Australian accents as "foreign". This is entirely justified. Those of us who grew up in areas with nonstandard American accents grow up with enough American media to know what Americans are "supposed to" sound like. While there is still some regional variation, there is no place I know of in the US where it's socially acceptable for an educated person to speak in a way that educated Americans from other regions would have any trouble understanding them. In fact, it's quite the opposite; the strongest American accents tend to mark you as a member of one of the lower classes.
As a result most of us either eliminate our accent as much as possible or learn how to switch as needed (as philwelch below pointed out). The bar to get past the prejudices of other educated Americans is so high that we get past the point of comprehensibility by default.
Someone from another country doesn't have the same influences. An adult from an outside English-speaking country may not be able to sound American simply because they've never tried. That's not going to be the case for someone who grew up here, even for an unusual value of "here".
People who are focusing on the "non-United-States" sense of "foreign" are reading the statement as it was meant.
Could be an effective strategy or could be a technique employed by people with a low threshold or tolerance for adversity (as hard as that is to believe) or experience higher than normal levels of frustration when people don't agree with them.
You sometimes see this in people that normally are tops at something and where things come easy to them (vs. "normals"). So they are not used to having to put in much effort to defend themselves and the practice of having to do so feels foreign and distonic to them.
If you've ever attended a top school you see this in some of the students there. The ones who skated through high school and were tops find it hard to operate where they actually have to work very hard and study so much (because of the competition). The ones who struggled and had to work hard to get in take the "b's" in stride and continue working hard and aren't as bothered by setbacks. Because it's always been like that.
A generalization, based strictly on my observation.
PG rarely engages in long back and forth's with comments on HN. He makes comments but I don't normally see much of him replying to a reply. I remember recently where he actually told people it was time to "get back to work" just like a parent would tell you that you are being silly and to grow up.
Look, I respect PG as much as the next person so this is not a slight against him since I feel HN far too often comes to his defence as if protecting their newborn. Having said that ...
I don't understand how a man of his stature and someone in his position can allow himself to make those statements about accents (or anything that sounds remotely xenophobic). I say that because even his blog post says the following:
"A startup founder is always selling. Not just literally to customers, but to current and potential employees, partners, investors, and the press as well ... there is little room for misunderstanding."
That statement doesn't just hold for startups but for anyone in business. His initial statements left plenty of room for misunderstanding. Furthermore, I would also find it very difficult to believe that his inclination towards avoiding "excessive" accents does not also subconsciously lead him to have a slight bias against founders with a "slight" accent. That's how biases work - the threshold for when your brain decides to evoke that bias is not black-and-white.
Read the rest of the comments in this discussion on HN and you should quite easily be able to see how he can allow himself to make this kind of statement. There's a huge amount of people willing to portray anyone who interpreted his statement differently from how he said it should be interpreted as malevolent, as part of "the looking-for-reasons-to-be-offended patrol", of only caring because it's in their "business model to generate politically correct controversies".
I have read a fair amount of this thread and I still stand by what I said. Furthermore, for obvious reasons, I don't believe HN is an objective place to discuss the merits of PG's statements past & present.
Oh, HN's definitely not even close to objective when discussing the merits of PG's statements, but in a way that's beside the point. So long as HN comments represent the subjective viewpoints of the kinds of people that can affect PG - startup founders and employees, venture capitalists, etc - they're a good demonstration of why PG will have no problems making these kinds of statements. I suspect HN is probably a good representation of their viewpoints, at least on this topic.
He's getting some slight blowback from the press, but sadly they have a short attention span.
I am not a native english speaker (indian) even though I moved to the US at the age of 16. I am 32 now. I have a fairly "neutralized" accent according to my native speaker friends. How did I get there ? Over 16 years of practice by listening to music, watching movies and most importantly, how my co-workers/colleagues communicate and express themselves. I still do that today when I can. Just a habit.
I am not interested in commenting whether PG should have said what he said or not but I do think that if you have a thick accent, you need to work on it and not just assume that people understand what you are saying even if your grammar is great.
My advice as a non native speaker.
-Talk slow. Lot of foreign languages are spoken fastly and hence when they switch to english, they go at the same pace. Don't do that. Try and space out the words.
- Ensure that the each word is spoken clearly and not mixed together. Instead of saying "how'r you", start with "How are you" ? Once you get a hang of it, you can switch to the faster version.
- Just working on specific letters can make a lot of difference. For example, the letter 'T'. In Indian languages, people hit that letter really hard. So when they pronounce something like "want", it sounds like "wantttt". The tongue rolling should be minimal here.
- Watch english shows, movies, listen to music, radio whatever. Dont just stick to your own language. Socialize with people who don't speak your native language. Observe them and learn.
- Most importantly, understand that just being able to speak english with perfect grammar is not enough. You need to do more. Nothing wrong with admitting this fact and working on it. Just my 2 cents.
I am a native English speaker from India (for all practical purposes I am monolingual). I also have what you would probably term as a "neutral" accent, but it's definitely Indian.
The tips above are not unique to non-native speakers, but to anyone who cares about proper public communication. The recommendations might make it easier for non-native speakers, but I feel that PG would put someone like me (who has always spoken English) into a convenient bucket just because I sound different.
Going slow is very important. I'm from New England where we apparently speak very quickly, and in the South I'm often asked to slow down because people can't understand me. And this is between native American English speakers.
Here's a startup idea: help people speak English well. I live in France, my kids don't speak English at all. I send them to the "American School of Paris" on weekends for a so-called "immersion program" where most kids are French. Results are a little disappointing, and the thing is quite expensive. Yet the waiting list to get in is immense, people are willing to fight to get in.
I'd pay a very high price for an app or a program that young kids would love / do willingly, that would result in them becoming fluent in English.
Okay, but this seems to make the same mistake as the French education system, who talks about foreign "languages" in general.
But most non-English-speaking people don't want to learn "languageS" as if those were all equivalent and there was some general quality to be gained by speaking different tongues. They want to learn English, as the only international language.
I want my kids to speak English not because they'll have a better mind if they do, like I try to have them learn music, but because not speaking English in today's world is like missing an eye (or more probably both).
As for why English-speaking people want to learn a foreign language, I have no idea, but I suspect their motivations are wholly different. It's interesting to speak Spanish, it's mind-opening to learn Chinese, but it's not vital.
So what I'm looking for is a "system" aimed at young / very young kids, specialized in teaching English (and only English).
To succeed it needs to be playful, maybe addictive, not require one to already know how to read -- and in general not look or sound like anything "school-y".
Somebody (was it John Holt?) said "if we taught kids how to speak, they would never learn". Yet that's exactly what we're doing with foreign languages.
We are building a real life language service marketplace. We are Italians, with strong accents. Sometimes I am under the impression that our non being native may be a competitive advantage, mostly in terms of broader perspective over language learning. I would test if positive correlation between strong accent and lower rates of achievement may primarily have something to do with trust, more than to the ability to get understood. Telling your story as a foreigner speaker is a relatively easy task. Convincing somebody you deserve credibility, even though you talk like a native 10 years old, is a whole different pair of shoes.
I tried http://verbling.com quite a few times, it seems a great idea and use of technology. Maybe Verbling's founders, would make a deal for all YC applicants. For example, X hours of free 1-to-1 accent crash course with the appropriate tutor. Or, Y hours of free courses for foreign YC founders as part of the offering.
How can they allow you to sign up with an email address and then require connecting G+ before allowing me to join a class? Much better to just require G+ as the login (or at least tell me up front). This conversion flow is irritating.
Watching TV shows in English (with English subtitles) is a great idea, but I'm not so sure about The Simpsons. I speak English fairly well and I still have some trouble understanding the Simpsons (Homer especially). There are other shows that are much easier to understand and better suited for beginners.
For example, I would consider Breaking Bad much more suitable for beginners in English (most characters speak very clear), but it might not be an appropriate show for kids.
My younger brother speaks amazingly good English, and I actually think he picked it up playing Counterstrike (or some similar game where you can communicate with the other players with a mic and earphones).
“Milao is a unique virtual environment that offers language learners on-demand opportunities to interact in a target language through text-based conversations that closely mimic real life situations. [They] have created an Artificially Intelligent Native Speaker, that will allow learners to develop and improve their communicative skills in the language they are trying to learn anywhere and anytime.”
(I know one of the team members; this was copied off their LinkedIn profile.)
There are "things you can't say". You can be right, and your message can be harmless but the way you communicate it comes so close to a cultural taboo button that it requires too much extra effort not to be misunderstood. You just probably shouldn't go there. It will cause misunderstanding. Its kind of like having a thick "cultural accent".
For example, I used to, but do not now, ever use the word "niggle". Its just too much work.
A friend of mine got hung up by a vendor because the friend said they were being ``asinine''. (No, it wasn't because they offended at being called stupid, but rather they thought it was a naughty, posterior related word...) Good times.
One of the things that hastened Larry Summers departure from Harvard is the general public's sudden inability to comprehend the difference between average and standard deviation in reference to male/female intelligence.
> One of the things that hastened Larry Summers departure from Harvard is the general public's sudden inability to comprehend the difference between average and standard deviation ...
Yes, but I would have said chronic and acute inability. What Summers offered in that unfortunate address was a perfectly reasonable explanation (concisely, same mean value but differing standard deviations), one that has a certain amount of circumstantial evidence and that in no way disparages women's intelligence or abilities, but all that followed from it resulted from innumeracy, not common sense.
So the message is, 'It helps if people can understand you'.
Um. Ok. ...and I appreciate that PG wanted to make this clear as the press loves to make a story where there isn't one. But do we really need to vote this up like crazy to guarentee it is the top story for the next 48 hours? Are there really that many people here who will benefit from this lesson?
The reason for voting this up isn't so people know that it's good to communicate well. The reason for voting this up is to correct a misperception with what was said. Corrections rarely ever get the publicity that they deserve.
"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."
He is talking about strong accents as a superficial data point. You would have to make shit up to infer anything beyond that.
I actually think his second suggestion (a lack of a critical kind of sensibility) is the deeper and more meaningful one.
Yes - it's the type of thing you have to jump on quickly before the negative PR spirals. And unfortunately, corrections and clarifications rarely get the hype that original articles or misquotes get in the first place.
I agree to some extent. I'd love to have heard how he approaches the sensitive subject of telling someone he can't understand them because they're speaking with an incredibly thick accent or considerably stilted english. I know many people I work with or interview that I would love to convey this to, but I can't think of a way to say it that wouldn't either run afoul of their feelings or Human Resources.
I don't see how this is a discussion. His point is completely valid, and holds true for many things.
If you were to become a public speaker/motivational speaker in Canada, then not being able to be understood in either English or French would affect your career.
It seems to me like everybody is caught up in the semantics of whether pointing this out is politically correct or not. I personally think it doesn't matter, and if you're truly committed on creating a startup in the US, you'll have to just persevere regardless of the opinions, as this is just a remark on data.
And he was successful in the USA. (Edward Teller was similar they say.)
But it is different than it is for most people:
1. They were so good that they could not ignore them.
2. Science is different than business.
So for the rest of us it is extremely important to learn English well. I am sometimes almost fustrated that I cannot express myself in a sophisticated way in english.:( And I know that it never will be perfect. A Hungarian writer Sandor Marai only wrote in Hungarian despite speaking fluently in several languages (English, German, French and who knows in what other languages), and living as an emigrant in at least half of his life. (He emigrated from communism at the half of his life) He said he cannot 'write' (as a writer) in other languages (by his extremely high standards).
The key difference is that the majority of math research is communicated in writing (journals, etc). Erdos wrote and co-wrote so many excellent papers that his reputation was off the charts. He was unique.
Beacause of this, most working mathematicians would have walked through fire to collaborate with Erdos. (He also made it easy for others by randomly turning up at their houses to work long days on math.) His quirky and accented English was a small barrier compared to his singular reputation in his community.
Compare this to two competing and somewhat interchangeable startups, both trying to do "the Youtube for Cats". In this case, you're not selling to a market that already knows you - you need to speak and communicate to build credibility and reputation fast.
Pronunciation is absolutely a part of spoken language. You could probably make a decent argument that somebody who can't pronounce the spoken word in such a way that other people understand them doesn't completely know the language.
>The range of accents between native speakers of English even in the US is large now.
Sure, if I plot all the accents in the United States on a graph there's probably a lot of divergence. I would think that the accents that impede understanding are outliers though. (At least among native speakers.)
I can say, from experience, that native Texans and Australians can have difficulties understanding each other.
See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fChqXqvvmg8 for an example that I enjoy of a song, in English by native English speakers, than many English speaking people have trouble understanding. After you've seen the words written down, native English speakers usually can then understand. But if English is a second or third language, then good luck!
>I can say, from experience, that native Texans and Australians can have difficulties understanding each other.
(On a pedantic note, I did specifically say US accents.)
I have to wonder if this is purely caused by pronunciation or other aspects of dialect. After all, the stereotypical Australian 'accent' (Ex. "Shrimp on the barbie") is usually accompanied by more than just a change in pronunciation. Obviously the international case is different than the local one. It's probably more accurate to say that somebody who has trouble getting people who speak a dialect of English to understand them doesn't know the dialect.
I've found myself unable to understand a native-born American English speaker within 75 miles of where I was born and raised.
Inner-city ghetto dialect can be very difficult to understand.
Among educated classes, you'd generally have to get into professional jargon to have similar difficulties (ask a set of biologists, anthropologists, and literary scholars to discuss "starting a culture", for one example).
I don't know about that. I don't know you from heck but I am prepared to bet that my depth of knowledge of the English tongue is as good as yours ( Presumably you are one of those 'native speakers'). English was the first language I learnt. However, the people around me that spoke it were all non-native speakers. This means that most of the way I picked up words came from books. Again, I was never a child obsessed with phonetics so my pronunciation of things is weird.
Why not just narrow it down to communication barriers? It has really nothing specifically to do with accents. Two people with the same heavy accents may perfectly understand the other - or maybe not at all. That still comes down to issue with communication. How about making the statement that 3 year olds are terrible CEOs - they're terrible at conveying a story, and I'm not even sure they're speaking English when they make sounds!
Spoken language is an strong indicator of education and class. I'm guessing that native english speakers with poor communication were hardly ever accepted to YC, while non-native english speakers with good educations were. That would explain pg's data, at any rate.
"Communication skills is an strong indicator of education and class." is probably what you meant to say - though I'd disagree, and say it's more experienced based. You last sentence suggests that the non-native English speakers were accepted only because they had good educations, though again I'd imagine that someone could have a strong accent - and still be highly educated.
> "Communication skills is an strong indicator of
> education and class." is probably what you meant to
No, actually, I said exactly what I meant to say: The accent you speak with is a social (class) marker. I refer you to Oscar Wilde's Pygmalion  for a humorous introduction to the concept. Those with "low class" accents are often presumed to be uneducated, whether they're brilliant or not.
> You last sentence suggests that the non-native
> English speakers were accepted only because they had
> good educations, though again I'd imagine that someone
> could have a strong accent - and still be highly
Not quite... I'm suggesting that despite their strong accent (and their difficulty in making themselves understood), their other credentials, education included, gained them acceptance to YC, whereas the native speakers with "low class" accents weren't accepted in the first place. Hence the data makes it look like this is about strong foreign accents when in fact it's just about poor english communication skills. (The non-native speakers may be William bloody  Shakespeare in their native language.) Again, this is just my hypothesis about why pg's data looks like it does. Feel free to make up your own.
 For the humourless pedants: This is a joke. I know
that Shakespeare's middle name was't "bloody."
I agree, I was about to post this same sentiment. There are people who speak perfectly good English but they are simply bad at communicating, the net effect is the same, they are unable to lead because people cannot understand their ideas.
I think the reason people got slightly sniffy about it was the use of the word 'foreign' in a negative context, which, whether or not it is intended, will be interpreted by some as xenophobic. Had it been stated as '...having unintelligible accents...' it would probably have passed without note.
I think some of the folks here are casting aspersions on the folks arguing with PG - there are some reasonable arguments in there.
PG's stance (my interpretation) is - (1) Founders need to sell to be effective and (2) Having a strong accent makes it hard to communicate effectively and in turn, sell.
I get that (I have an accent myself).
People are objecting to the underlying assumption that this causation is something we deem acceptable. Here's a counter example. (1) Founders need to sell (2) Part of selling is to make the audience identify with you, so founders who look/act like their audience do better. This suddenly becomes a slippery slope, even if that's a perfectly logical argument.
It's an interesting point, what you're saying is that theoretically "be more white" is something that would make logical sense (while being repulsive). A big difference though is you can't change what you look like (which is why racism is so disgusting) -- but you can change how you speak. So his advice is quite practical: Work on your English.
I grew up in a part of California where many Chinese businesspersons entered and started businesses. Many of these businesses would hire a white man to do some sales. This was generally within communities where white people rarely exceeded 30% of the population. In many, whites made up less than 10%. It was mostly a Mexican American and Asian area.
The reason why was obvious. The local business operators, who were mostly older white people, didn't want to buy from a Chinese person.
Asian guys I knew were resentful. Not only was it racist to do that, but the whole situation was racist. It was a racist response to a racist situation, and it made racism seem hopeless.
As far as accents went, we didn't have them, by and large, unless one was an immigrant. The most common accent was a Chicano English accent.
Agreed - this is pragmatic advice. It definitely works on an individual level. But if this is something acceptable to go work on yourself, from the other side of the table, does it automatically become ok to judge people on?
There's a logical inconsistency between saying a) Don't judge people on their accents, listen to the message and b) Fix your accent.
To pg's credit I think he frames this purely on efficacy of communication ( it's similar to typing out better phrased emails) but that ignores the other reasons people with accents get judged.
Regarding your counter example:
"Part of selling is to make the audience identify with you..."
This is distinctly not what you're trying to do. Part of selling is helping your audience understand that you identify with them, and you don't need to look/act like them to do it.
Also, I do think this correlation is "acceptable" (though admittedly I'm saying this as a person with minimal discernible american english accent). It's important when competing at a high level to play to your strengths. English not a strength? Go raise money/operate somewhere else, or work on it until it becomes a strength. Language is a tool in your belt just like someones ability to write code. No one expects to be able to play Major League Baseball if they can't hit a 90mph fastball.
I recall working in a lab with a lot of foreign grad students from different backgrounds (under a professor with a bit of an accent). There were definitely times the accents interacted in interesting ways, where some would understand completely and others would have no clue what was said (even after several repetitions) until someone else said it.
Oddly enough this is a re-hash of the same types of arguments used for why engineers could never be CEO's and run startups. They didn't speak the language of business, weren't good communicators. "Go hire a 6'3" white sales guy CEO if you are really serious about this startup and raising money from VC's"
I picked up on the language of business in order to get my business going. It isn't rocket science. What you want is someone who can connect with people. Culture is a part of that but business tends to be sufficiently at arms length that cultural barriers are not fatal.
What is necessary is being understood, having a common mutually intelligible language and enough connection that things can get done. If your engineer is living in a world of machines or bits, or software, that individual cannot be an effective CEO in that mindset but language is much harder.
I am learning Bahasa Indonesia. Last time I tried to tell someone "I only speak a little Bahasa Indonesia" it ended up coming out more along the lines of "I speak a little Bahasa Indonesia" which I must have said really well because I couldn't follow a thing after that......
No it's not. A typical engineer is not a good CEO. Like Knuth said, "a good scientist/engineer is one who get to the bottom of things". A CEO is someone who gets on top of things. That is not to say there doesn't exist someone who can do both, probably better in one than the other. Bill Gates / Larry Page / Larry Ellison, etc. are (or used to be) good engineers, but they are also good businessmen and able to to communicate the language of business.
A CEO not only communicates with his engineers / manager / executive team, but also with external customers. There are also different classes of customers: enterprise, consumers; each would need a different sales pitch. A CEO who is not able to connect with people is not going to be a good CEO. And by connecting, you probably need to make references to sports, music, fashion trends or whatever that is the demographics you are selling to are interested in.
A CEO who is "foreign" to US culture / language will have a hard time running a company in US. Now if you are as charismatic/iconic as Arnold Schawazenegger then you might get by. But even Arnold worked hard on his English and he is clearly picking up some American accent :)
Disclaimer: I am a recent immigrant and have a strong accent.
You fail the analogy-off. He's not talking about stares-at-feet aspies who can't say hello to save their lives. He's talking about neurotypicals who don't see their own lingual deficiencies and how it impacts how they are viewed, understood, and accepted by others.
There's nothing more draining than being a listener trying to constantly adjust to understanding somebody who isn't quite able to communicate what they want to say.
I'm Russian and was running an ed tech company for the last 2 years. Even thought I rate my English skills reasonably high and I've finished one of the top universities in London with the top grade, once we were at the stage when we need to sell our product, I was completely lost. While talking to native people I was kept noticing how bad my accent was and I think because I've been critical to myself, I felt over time even worse about my accent and ability to fluently communicate what I was doing.
It's definitely affected our sales numbers and ability to raise capital. Our company was losing credibility in front of the customers eyes, because of inability to keep up with the conversation pace. After hiring native sales and bizdev people our numbers have grown up. I would advice non-native speakers to keep improving there accent and ability to fluently communicate by getting English tutor or personal-dev trainer or by any other means that I would be happy to hear.
I'm a native Mandarin speaker. I think the most important part is to figure out which part of the business is interface-heavy and their priority and allocate the finite resource to the most necessary. As you mentioned, channels with high local customer communication demands. Founders' time is finite. We second language learners all know how difficult it is to improve language skills from the current level. While keeping practice for a long term gain, a thoughtful resource allocation is a good thing to do to face up the short term challenges.
The crazy thing is I used to have a boss who was native to India until late childhood, and (so the story went) had taught himself English, largely by watching American TV. The guy now has zero accent. So I was somewhat skeptical. But maybe some people as part of their personality just pick up on pronunciation faster than others?
And some people don't even try. I'm fascinated when I listen to someone who speaks English with excellent syntax and vocabulary, but with consistently poor pronunciation. Sometimes it comes off as a mark of pride, like "I'll deign to speak to you, but I'm not going to put forth the effort to sound like you."
This happens because English as Second Language teachers are often non-native speakers and speak with an accent themselves. They are able to teach grammar or vocabulary but they cannot teach pronunciation. Often non-native speakers are only exposed to a native speaking environment as grown-ups. By that time your brain is already stuck in its ways and it is frustratingly tough to learn new vowels and consonants.
As a non-native speaker myself I can often hear myself pronouncing English poorly yet I find it excruciatingly difficult to pronounce some vowels the way I intend to pronounce them, even though I have been living in a native-speaking environment for a long time. Similarly, my native English-speaking (American) wife finds it very difficult to pronounce some vowels and consonants of my own native language. It took her fairly long to learn how to pronounce my name correctly. (Ironically, now that we're married it is her name as well.)
All I am saying is that I would not attribute this to pride or laziness. Pronunciation is a genuinely difficult thing to learn as an adult.
Thanks for that perspective. I certainly didn't mean that all ESL speakers exhibit wanton mispronunciation. Perhaps none do. In fact, your eloquent rebuttal has left me sympathizing with even Arnold Schwarzenegger.
ValleyWag and the whole of Gawker Media are just fucking WORST. They have a long record of doing scummy things just to generate views. I've lost all respect for them when their editor published the Brett Favre dick picks story, which was told to him by Jenn Sterger in a private, friendly, off-the-record conversation, after she specifically asked him not to publish it. Unsurprisingly, that resulted in her career being completely destroyed after that.
Stephen Hawking and Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston (aka "Mumbles") are examples of people who have experienced difficulty making themselves understood (either through medical conditions or strong accents), yet are leaders in their respective domains. In entrepreneurship, one example that springs to mind is Charles Pfizer, who started a successful chemical company a year after arriving in the United States from Germany in the 1840s. I assume he spoke with a heavy accent which may have been difficult for some employees and customers to understand, yet his company flourished.
Let's not equate "poor English" with "likely to fail at X". There are other factors, ranging from domain knowledge to soft skills, that come into play as well.
It's funny, the communication difficulty applies to PG as well. PG could be much more prominent if he had a better speaking ability. His speeches are really bad, he reads of the paper and 'ums' all the way through. I've never managed to sit one through. If it wasn't for that he could've gotten the press coverage of a major tech CEO.
Back around 1997 when I was fighting my Internet ban on First Amendment grounds, one honest journalist told me the deal. He told me that journalists are not my PR agent. They have their own agenda, and their own angle. Their goal is to get readers, not to spread the message you want them to spread.
tl;dr - Remember, journalists are not your PR agent.
Totally agree. I've been at demo days and I just tune out the foreigners who I can't understand. It's hard enough having to listen to 40+ startups in a day, and try to understand what someone is doing, why they are doing it, and how it can make money, throw in a thick accent and you are likely to give your brain a rest and just tune out. I notice that these founders are the ones with no one visiting their demo table, etc.
I still have nightmares about the accent of the TA running the linear algebra class I took in college 20ish years ago. He was a Vietnamese man speaking "perfect" English, but not in a way that could be understood by virtually anyone, and I'm usually pretty good with understanding strong accents.
I have nothing against people with accents, I'm friends with and co-worker with quite a few people who have significant accents but are still understandable. However, there are certainly cases where accents are so strong that the person is arguably not really speaking the language even if their grammer is impeccable. And I say that fully understanding that the same applies if I find myself for any reason butchering the French language or Mandarin Chinese verbally.
Having learned English, French, German, Polish, Spanish and Portoguese I am ready to share my secret to the world: read comics.
They are the only written form of the colloquial language, the one you'll need mostly.
Literally 100% of what you learn in a comic will be useful in your daily life.
Read a novel and this drops to probably 50%, read a newspaper and it's even worse.
Nobody speaks like a book or a newspaper.
We speak like comics.
I learned those while living in those countries, so I was exposed to the spoken language too. Plus, comics worked for me, they won't work for everybody.
At the end the real trick is to try several methods and find the one which suits you best.
One theory for the "why" - I find it takes a higher cognitive load to understand someone with a strong accent. As a result, I don't digest the message as well and I'm subconsciously biased against complex conversations. I wonder if there is any cognitive psych literature on this?
Advice to those with a strong accent: find a way to communicate your message so it takes minimal effort for a receiver to understand. That could be improved English, but there might be easier ways for you to hack this - concise language, use concrete metaphors, keep printed slides in your briefcase, etc.
Having lived abroad for 17 years as an American, I have found a very strong correlation between those who can not understand a thick accent, and those who can not communicate well with non-native English speakers.
No idea if this is the case with Paul, but if you have actually spent the time communicating with a wide range of non-native speakers, you are much better at understanding and making yourself understood. I think all you non-native English speakers know exactly what I mean.
Communication - a two-way street. That is why Paul's comments strike many as tone deaf!
100% agree with pg on this (and no I don't always agree with everything)...
Most problems in life are as a result of miscommunications and associated false assumptions, whether they be in business, marriages, or friendships.
Anything you can do to increase the fidelity of communication quite simply: must be done.
Before I read the news about this I was about to write my first ever blog post about the symbiosis between DNA health and pair programming - the link between the two... have a guess?! Quality of communication.
You see there is ongoing debate amongst the Agile software development community as to what methodologies are most helpful; test-driven-development, refactoring, code reviews, static code analysis...
I maintain that that start-ups have the edge mainly because there is more pairing (pair-programming / pair-design / pair-refactoring / pair-testing) than there currently is in most software shops - and the reason this is so effective is the boost it gives to communication...
Now the DNA angle you ask, well in 2009 a team won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for proving that chronic stress inhibits the brain from releasing Telomerase that repairs the Telomeres that protect the end of your chromosomes during cell-division (crossing over). Guess what causes most workplace stress - miscommunication... and in software also the fact that you are often unfortunately forced to work alone. Start-ups force you to work together and that is why you are healthier and live longer and, incidentally, write better software ;-)
I think the NYT reporter Nathaniel Rich hit on something when he commented that PG made an 'evil Soviet henchman' voice. I don't think he was intending to sound evil, but only to imitate a Russian accent. The 'evilness' comes from the NYT reporter's mind. And I think the failure of start-ups with foreigners with bad English language skills is also likely due to their recruitment efforts - you'd tend to hire only people who speak your native language if you can't speak English very well, thus your hiring pool is quite small.
I'm French and I speak english everyday since 5 years (foreign girlfriends) I just can't pronounce this language correctly, the mouth positions required are simply to far from my native tongue. And in the morning it's even worse.
I think there is an elocution max level for each of us that's very hard to pass (I suppose that would involve some kind of specific elocution training), whereas the vocabulary always grow.
I've met people living in the same foreign country for 20 years and still have a very strong native accent.
I'm originally bilingual (French and Lingala). I've been living in an English speaking country for the last 10 years, moved here as a teen. It still takes me a lot of effort to pronounce some sounds. e.g some words borrowed straight from French and words containing 'r' when it follows a consonant as in 'brother', 'prescribe', 'degrade'.
It's a shame that pg felt he had to write that, and it's also a shame that it was presented the way it was.
It could've been shorter, more positive, and to the point:
CEOs need to inspire, lead, manage, hire, sell. All of these things have one thing in common: Effective communication. If an accent is so thick that it prevents effective communication, then you have a major issue.
That it had to be any longer than that says far more about the people who read it than the one that wrote it.
Maybe I'm alone in this, but for me the controversial bit wasn't about accents and communication, but correlating a strong accents to intelligence.
"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."
It's very similar to what you would hear about geeks ten years ago.
There are many reasons for a speaker to not communicate in an understandable way : heavy accent, speech impediment, lack of articulation, inability to articulate thoughts, etc. Why focus on the cultural accent to make your point, rather than stating the root cause : lack of sufficient verbal communication skills? The fact that you seemed to put a heavy foreign accent as the main cause of bad communication does seem a little xenophobic.
Paul, the point is that you looked at a metric that has "correlation" (your words, emphasis mine) So I am not sure how you inferred "causation" from it? You could have easily looked at metrics like founders who wear hoodies are more likely to succeed.
I think that somewhere there is sublime conscious at work that is not aligned correctly.
People expected higher standards from you on this front!
I wonder if general tests of written and verbal communication skills would show the same correlation. I often notice poor word choices, confusing sentence structure, and pretty obvious typos in many of the blog posts that show up on HN. Some of these people are founders. I wonder if their companies suffer due to these sorts of errors (or perhaps they just proofread business communications better).
This implies that every founder is a frontman. That is a false statement and an opinionated interjection by Paul Graham. There are plenty of successful companies that have founders who have pronounced accents.
People underestimate the level of skill required to speak a language well enough so that it is not a chore for a native speaker to listen.
The chairman of the English Department of my local community college (College of Marin in California) told me that it takes an immigrant an average of 7 years to get good enough at speaking English for native speakers to actually want to listen to them talk.
I am an immigrant and have lots of immigrant friends with various lengths of being at in the U.S. I can confirm that it takes 7 years to speak English well enough so people really want to socialize with you.
Can I talk about this from the other direction? One of the things that I got drilled on in school was that in the real world, good communication skills are critical. However, after a bit less than a decade in financial services, I have come to the conclusion that the real take away is that understanding poor communication is critical, more critical than any other skill in your entire life (I suppose, unless you are at the absolute top of the hill from which shit rolls down).
I think we do children a disservice by asking them to read great works of modern literature. They should probably spend their time reading Chaucer in the original middle english and puzzling out half translated foreign language classics. Basically anything Shakespeare and up is too easy to understand if you really want to hone your abilities.
There is no 'fixation.' PG noted stuff in his data that was screaming to be retold. That was one thing he found. A correlation between strong foreign accents and lack of success. Blame reality, not him.
When you have a thick accent, poor grammar, and generally have trouble expressing your thoughts in English, people will perceive you as less smart - no matter how eloquent you sound in your native language.
It is ironic that a statement about the importance of being understood clearly by others , was itself not understood clearly by others, although the conversation was presumably between native speakers with no accents. My point is that foreign accents are just one manifestation of the larger problem of communication that occurs far more frequently than any of us supposes. My favorite quote about this problem is from George Bernard Shaw : "The biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."
As a founder with a very strong Latino accent, I would like to share my success with other entrepreneurs who speak English as a second language: If you want a professionally recorded voice over for your demo video, pitch, or whatever, can get one for FREE from VoiceBunny here: http://blog.voicebunny.com/2013/08/30/no-startup-left-behind...
And that's the reason I am packing my stuff and heading to London. At this very moment. I was just about to remove the legs from the table I am writing these lines on (well, I am writing them on a computer, but thats not the point). And surprise, surprise, I am moving from Central Europe. And yes, I can speak with a thick Slovak, Czech, and Hungarian (Andy Grove style) accent. If anyone had a job available for a fresh CS graduate, please let me know (email is in my profile)!
Same here. Circuits class, Chinese prof with accent. Also he sort of muttered, making a bad problem even worse. If you are in a position of giving information or instructions to others then you are responsible for clarity of communication. An obtrusive accent can hinder that.
What PG talks about is also why Linus acquired a North American accent since moving to the United States. His accent used to be strongly Finnish (Swedish?) but now he speaks American English like a native.
I had a C professor with a thick Russian accent. Apparently he had been talked to by the dean after several student complained in semesters prior to my taking the class, and after each class he sent out written notes of the important aspects of his lecture. He was a great teacher with a wonderful grasp of the English language when he wrote it down, but his accent was atrocious when he got excited during the lecture. I'm glad he was able to work around that, I learned a lot from him.
Look, it's the online click-generating, culture-destroying media firms' business model to generate politically correct controversies especially on the words of famous or successful people. ValleyWag is the latest monster to grow out of the repulsive Gawker empire. They will do what they have to do. The joke is on everyone else who even cares what is published there.
This is a case where the founder has an American accent yet people did not understand what he tried to convey correctly. I think PG should have referred to founders' elocution, diction, communication skills, etc. instead of only their accents. As we've seen here one can have no foreign accent at all and you may still be misunderstood.
Everybody has an accent! There is not a single person in the world that has "no accent"!
This may seam like nit picking but it is in fact very important. When someone in the US says they think someone speaks English "with an accent" it's actually the fact that they are not speaking English with an American accent. Who's to say that speaking English with an American accent is the correct way?
The English language is used in many parts of the world and has diverged immensely. Pronunciation has changed, spelling has changed, words have been added, etc.
So bear that in mind when you say someone speaks bad English or wonder why don't they make the effort to speak it "correctly".
Also remember communication is 2 way. If you can't understand someone due to their accent most likely they cannot understand you due to your accent.
"Who's to say that speaking English with an American accent is the correct way?"
If you're trying to found a company and get venture funding from Americans, you need to be able to communicate well with Americans. No one is saying there's a correct way to speak anything, but it's obvious Paul Graham is talking about founders going for an American market.
"Also remember communication is 2 way. If you can't understand someone due to their accent most likely they cannot understand you due to your accent."
That's just straight out wrong, sorry to say. There are plenty of cases of one way unintelligibility in ALL parts of the world, in many languages. English is no exception, just consider the stereotype of American tourists being confounded by Australian or England-English.
"If you're trying to found a company and get venture funding from Americans, you need to be able to communicate well with Americans. No one is saying there's a correct way to speak anything, but it's obvious Paul Graham is talking about founders going for an American market."
However a big part of startup accelerator is about helping the founders gain the skills needed to be successful. No reason communicating well with Americans shouldn't be one of those skills that help is given for.
"That's just straight out wrong, sorry to say. There are plenty of cases of one way unintelligibility in ALL parts of the world, in many languages. English is no exception, just consider the stereotype of American tourists being confounded by Australian or England-English."
Yes it can be mostly a one way problem but there will always be subtle problems in both directions. I'm a UK native and have been living in the US for many years married to an American wife. We still come across words or phrases that confuse each other.
If the conversation is about Americans moving to China, and appealing to Chinese investors, to build their startup, tips regarding proper Chinese manners and Mandarin speaking techniques are appropriate. When it is about startups trying to make it big in the US, it is about English and the American "accent".
What PG said is completely clear (it is...ahum...without accent), and those who purposefully try to argue this point, invent equivocacies, etc, add no value to the conversation.
What I'm attempting to add to the conversation is another perspective to communication across accents. I think understanding other people's perspectives helps break down communication barriers. Both sides can try and reach across the gap.
Such is life. This is a requirement not just for startups, but for success in pretty much any field which isn't solitary by nature. That encompasses most businesses, including climbing the corporate ladder if that's your thing.
1. having accent is ok as far as you can make others understand your point in english ...
2. bad english (i mean really bad) will be turn-off anyway with or without accent .... so it is not accent but its all about english as a language i guess ...
I've seen people with english and no bad accent but still having trouble in making other people understand :) and they are either Dumb OR they're P.hd holders (not generalizing though)...
This is one of the few cases where this is worth repeating: correlation is not causation.
PG is definitely one of the foremost researchers in the realm of entrepreneurial success factors, but it is important to step back for a moment when analyzing such things as verbal accents and "Zuckerberg likeness" correlating with failure and success, respectively.
Just as Noam Chomsky criticized Peter Norvig because of his focus on statistical methods versus fundamental models, I would suggest that inferring success based on statistical observation without an underlying model can become a confusing and unrewarding process.
Statistics is a tool to test fundamental models, not a model to explain phenomena all in itself. As such, I would guess that founder success is more likely based upon mundane traits such as intrinsic motivation, intellect, experience, access to capital and key personnel, and most importantly, luck. We see this time and time again in superstars such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, John Carmack, Bill Gates, etc.
Extremely smart people are more prone to analyzing every tiny variable, which sometimes causes them to give additional weight to trivial factors in a complex equation.
PG offered a clear underlying model in this essay. His model is that a) founders need to sell well to succeed and that b) it's hard to sell well if you can't be easily understood. You have a "guess" that mundane traits are more important for success. He has a theory and data that support his theory.
That's fine just as long as what he did wasn't the following:
see some small number of founders with a fairly strong accent, say < 30 or < 50 or < 60, then observe that those startups happened to do poorly and then extrapolate a theory from those observations to explain what is happening. I am not necessarily disagreeing with his thesis, but in statistical data analysis you have to be very careful about drawing conclusions from small samples when the underlying distribution is non-normal, with fat tails
This is an epidemiological observation, and those rarely indicate a particular mechanism. Even with giant populations and teams of scientists we have only tentative and shifting theories for why, for example, Americans are fatter than Europeans.
Controlled studies of startup founders are not practical.
But pg has a pretty good idea of the 'why' of this observed phenomena so there is your underlying model: it is fundamentally important for CEOs to be able to communicate clearly and effectively with stakeholders.
Your 'correlation is not causation' mantra seems misplaced unless you can argue that effective communication is not fundamentally important.
What? Listening comprehension is absolutely measurable. Take the same passage, have subjects in different groups listen to it as read by various speakers, and test them on how much of the content (and its implications) they understood. Of course there is an extreme where the passage isn't understandable at all. But what we're talking about is the point where the words are comprehensible, but the mental effort to decode them is quite high. That effort pushes out the higher-level thoughts that would otherwise be going along with the surface-level listening. So listeners will know what was said, but have thought and abstracted less about it.
This kind of thing is commonly done in linguistics research when trying to, for example, differentiate dialects.
You should not forget, that the result depends heavily also on the listener. Probably the hardest to understand English I have ever heard has been spoken by two native Englishmen who I met last year at a hostel in Spain. Similarly in my opinion the most clear English is spoken in Germany and the Nordic countries. It's just a matter of what you are used to.
Most bootstrappers spend a lot of time in customer development. If you build something without spending time talking to customers, your likelihood of success goes way down. You can only go so far in email-only discussions. Eventually you'll need to talk to potential users.
VC-based companies: obvious need for verbal communication.
Much respect to Paul here. I've been impressed with his willingness to engage the press in rebuttals and elaborations (and in a polite, clear way). I've made it a personal rule not to be quoted in anything controversial just because, even if the reporter is well-meaning, the editor may not be. I suspect Paul is even more aware of this and so his willingness to communicate is a sign of how important he believes his message is.
If you have a team with many different accents, a CEO who speaks with excellent "transatlantic English" (international/mixed-British-American English) will also likely be easiest for all the other team members to understand. It's about being a more central node in mutual communication/intelligibility networks, rather than a leaf node.
I cannot find it now, but I listened to a podcast (possibly four thought) with a discussion on disappearing languages. The professor had been approached by a woman asking how she could help her children, who were losing the native language as it died out. He replied if she really wanted to help her children she should encourage them to learn English and not the native language - they will benefiot more from communicating with nearly 2 bn people than with a few thousand in the locale.
(I seem to remember that Papua New Guinea has a language every mile along its northern coast - mainly it seemed to piss off the neighbouring tribes)
I was hoping for some statistics. Rather than trying to convince people, it would be a far more compelling rebuttal if there was some data to backup the comment. Without data, it's just opinion, and that reflects on the one with the opinion. With data, it's stops being personal, and in the domain of science.
> But after ranking every Y.C. company by its valuation, Graham discovered a more significant correlation. "You have to go far down the list to find a C.E.O. with a strong foreign accent," Graham told me. "Alarmingly far down—like 100th place."