Hacker Newsnew | comments | ask | jobs | submitlogin
Founders' Accents (paulgraham.com)
482 points by shrikant 231 days ago | comments


tokenadult 230 days ago | link

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,"

http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~hooft101/theorist.html

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.

http://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/Wha...

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.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10442032

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulatory_phonetics

with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.

http://www.langsci.ucl.ac.uk/ipa/ipachart.html

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,

http://learninfreedom.org/languagebooks.html

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,

http://www.amazon.com/Mandarin-Chinese-Functional-Reference-...

http://www.amazon.com/Chinese-Comprehensive-Grammar-Grammars...

http://www.amazon.com/Comprehensive-Grammar-English-Language...

http://www.amazon.com/Cambridge-Grammar-English-Language/dp/...

and it is well worth your while to study books like that both about your native language(s) and about any language you are studying.

-----

tel 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

jamesli 230 days ago | link

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'.

-----

tel 230 days ago | link

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".

-----

diydsp 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

foobarbazqux 230 days ago | link

'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'.

-----

jholman 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

foobarbazqux 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

jholman 230 days ago | link

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).

-----

foobarbazqux 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

Jongseong 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

foobarbazqux 230 days ago | link

Thanks for the thorough explanation. IPA seems useful, like the kind of thing schools should teach, but it also scares me with its complexity.

-----

wildgift 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

foobarbazqux 230 days ago | link

This is a nice and concise way to articulate it.

-----

eropple 229 days ago | link

I can't speak Japanese, but I've studied it enough to be able to read a little bit. My first Japanese book referred to it as the "tapped R" for exactly this reason.

-----

bad_user 230 days ago | link

I'm Romanian and our language is a latin one. When pronouncing both "l" and "r" my tongue first goes to the upper alveolar ridge and for "r" it stays there with the tongue trembling for a bit.

Also, our "r" is much thicker than in English. For that reason, our English accent resembles a bit that of Russians :-)

-----

tokenadult 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

joyeuse6701 230 days ago | link

Good explanation, I've used it before. Polish is similar in the lack of a 'th' sound which is usually replaced with a 'f' sound: Think becomes Fink. Was always funny growing up to me.

-----

bad_user 230 days ago | link

Hah - Romanian also doesn't have "th" and so beginners tend to replace it with "z".

-----

BenSS 229 days ago | link

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.

-----

dchichkov 230 days ago | link

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.]

-----

tel 230 days ago | link

Oh! Yeah, definitely did not mean to imply that. I was interpreting it to myself to mean "second stage in an audio processing pipeline" as that was what I had been modeling.

-----

arbuge 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

jerrytsai 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

001sky 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

wildgift 230 days ago | link

What about NewEgg? You also have to look and see if there's a brain drain going to Taiwan and China, because Taiwan decided, years ago, to focus on making PCs.

-----

msoad 230 days ago | link

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.

I started learning English when I moved to the U.S. three years ago but I speak better than those who spent 10 years learning English in my home country.

-----

tokenadult 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

purplelobster 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

bad_user 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

sergiosgc 230 days ago | link

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'.

-----

glogla 230 days ago | link

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: [1] it's fun :)

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%98

-----

gngeal 227 days ago | link

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. ;-)

-----

eropple 229 days ago | link

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.

-----

Dewie 230 days ago | link

I would much rather speak with a foreign accent rather than with something like a New England accent.

-----

_ak 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

neurotech1 230 days ago | link

Part of US Astronaut training is to live with a Russian family (I don't think it is a Cosmonauts' family) and participate in immersive Russian language training.

This is before they train on how to fly the Soyuz, and the Astronauts do serve as flight engineers on actual Soyuz missions to the ISS. There is a reason NASA does this.

-----

AznHisoka 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

msoad 230 days ago | link

That's why I said "community" not country. You can live in many modern cities and speak your mother tongue all the time.

First step for learning a language is wanting to learn I guess

-----

kops 230 days ago | link

I tend to disagree. Specially the Indo-European[1] 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.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-European_languages

-----

Dewie 230 days ago | link

> 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.

Patently false, as evidenced by the countless numbers of second language English speakers who have never been to an English-speaking country for more than some vacations (if even that).

-----

tokenadult 230 days ago | link

As the person whom you are quoting said in an earlier reply in this thread,

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6303229

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.

-----

Dewie 230 days ago | link

> 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.

Maybe the primary take-away from those findings should be that learning languages in school sucks. I can still remember being assigned 20 words to mindlessly repeat until I memorized them.

-----

seeingfurther 230 days ago | link

That's not true. I lived in Rio de Janeiro for 3 years. I frequently encountered people who spoke perfect English with American accents... and had never left Brazil.

-----

natural219 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

jt2190 230 days ago | link

I guess this is one of those cases where I wish that the commenter would submit a link to their blog, instead of posting an interesting-yet-not-really-on-topic-way-too-long comment. [1]

[1] To refresh everyone's memory, pg's essay is about what happens when founders have trouble making themselves understood, while tokenadult's comment is about how to learn a foreign language.

-----

chc 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

dasil003 230 days ago | link

I think it's fine to post a comment like this to HN, absolutely we are better for it. However it should also be posted to a blog so it's not lost to the sands of time.

-----

chris_wot 230 days ago | link

That post was on topic. He explained why it is so hard to be made understood when English is your second language, which was what pg was talking about!

-----

m_myers 230 days ago | link

Conversely, I skimmed down the page, saw the list of references at the bottom, and knew it had to be a tokenadult comment.

-----

marcamillion 230 days ago | link

Wow....just looking at his 'about' section in his profile - that's another essay with references.

Interesting!

-----

NIL8 230 days ago | link

I agree. Thank you tokenadult!

-----

Jongseong 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

langgeek123 228 days ago | link

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.

-----

Jongseong 227 days ago | link

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.

-----

ollysb 230 days ago | link

My current side project is a web app to teach you to imitate sounds in a particular language. There's some fantastic resources here that will be very useful so thank you.

-----

cgag 230 days ago | link

I'm working on some tools trying to make this extensive reading process easier, would you mind if I emailed in sometime to ask for feedback?

-----

gbog 229 days ago | link

"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.

-----

simonebrunozzi 230 days ago | link

Best. Commenter. Ever. You rock.

-----

credo 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

thedufer 230 days ago | link

> 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.

-----

crassus 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

chetanahuja 229 days ago | link

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.

-----

langgeek123 228 days ago | link

Yes, seriously improving your accent as an adult is possible. See http://olle-kjellin.com/SpeechDoctor/ProcLP98.html for instance.

-----

jlees 230 days ago | link

I have a strong foreign accent. It's British. I find it a huge advantage in America. :-)

-----

chris_wot 230 days ago | link

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 :-)

-----

shimms 229 days ago | link

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.

-----

timtamboy63 229 days ago | link

Plus. For sure. Came here for college, and almost every tech (startup) interviewer I've talked to has mentioned some family in Australia. Good thing to build rapport over :)

-----

nl 230 days ago | link

This is a specific, actionable criticism. That's a strength of pg's advice not a weakness.

-----

chetanahuja 229 days ago | link

I keep seeing how this is "actionable" advise. No it's not. There's enough material in this thread for you (and pg) to read to fix that misapprehension.

-----

nl 227 days ago | link

How do you get that?

"Learn English well enough that people have no trouble understanding you" is the advice. What isn't actionable about that?

-----

jasonkester 231 days ago | link

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.

-----

coffeemug 231 days ago | link

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.

-----

toyg 230 days ago | link

... 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.

-----

ableal 230 days ago | link

That politeness extends to omitting the very real fact that listening to a foreign accent is somewhat tiring - it's like running error-correction that consumes extra processing power ;-)

(Not a native English speaker, but I noticed that with accents from other non-native speakers ...)

-----

gbog 229 days ago | link

Yes, for me listening to some west coast US accent is extremely tiring and even plain painful. I started playing some Google videos about topics I'm interested in and stopped after two sentences.

Just to add some relativism to this highly relative topic. I'm French by the way, and enjoy British, German, Indian, black American, Chinese accents, for example.

-----

sliverstorm 230 days ago | link

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).

(Not complaining, just agreeing)

-----

markdown 230 days ago | link

> "wahriable"

Indian (dot, not feather), right?

-----

foobarbazqux 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

MrMan 230 days ago | link

What's all that about Hollywood and Wall Street?

-----

foobarbazqux 230 days ago | link

https://www.google.com/search?q=jews+hollywood

https://www.google.com/search?q=jews+wall+street

-----

sergiosgc 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

graeme 230 days ago | link

I don't love the term, but people of color is broader than black. It's a replacement for "visible minority".

-----

swamp40 230 days ago | link

You've been hoisted with your own petard.

-----

jacoblyles 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

coffeemug 230 days ago | link

If you're right, then why do you have to resort to attacking the motivations of the other speaker to win?

Because in this case I happen to actually know the motivations of both parties. PG's motivation is to help founders. The press's motivation is to drive traffic.

-----

jacoblyles 230 days ago | link

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?

-----

coffeemug 230 days ago | link

Ah, I see.

-----

LekkoscPiwa 230 days ago | link

I think you overreact. He made a great point.

-----

foobarbazqux 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

jacoblyles 230 days ago | link

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?

-----

foobarbazqux 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

ktom 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

coolsunglasses 230 days ago | link

Your accent is moderately strong, but as long as the room isn't noisy, I haven't had any trouble understanding you.

If anything, you just need to project your voice better and speak louder. :)

-----

ktom 230 days ago | link

you've got a perfectly understandable accent,

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)

-----

coffeemug 230 days ago | link

i even thought you were playing up your accent for added comedic value.

Hehe, I wasn't playing it up since I don't have to! :)

-----

KirinDave 231 days ago | link

> 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.

-----

Torgo 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

theorique 231 days ago | link

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.

Hence, this recent article.

-----

KirinDave 230 days ago | link

> "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.

-----

theorique 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

KirinDave 230 days ago | link

> 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.

-----

theorique 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

KirinDave 229 days ago | link

> 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.

-----

coffeemug 230 days ago | link

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"?

-----

KirinDave 230 days ago | link

> 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.

-----

tdfx 231 days ago | link

> 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.

-----

KirinDave 230 days ago | link

These people will do this either way. Why even include them in your assessments?

-----

jacoblyles 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

KirinDave 230 days ago | link

> I am elitist against people who judge ideas on the scale of which one is most politically correct.

Do you really think this discussion is about political correctness?

> I don't understand how they get anything done in life without giving their brain room to think.

Then think on this. There are many models to building a startup. Most of them don't involve the YCombinator style.

-----

jacoblyles 230 days ago | link

if it's not about political correctness, then we need a new word for signaling one's own righteousness by being quick to take offense

-----

KirinDave 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

jacoblyles 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

KirinDave 230 days ago | link

> 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.

-----

barry-cotter 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

KirinDave 229 days ago | link

> 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.

-----

pessimizer 231 days ago | link

s/elitism/defensiveness/g

Elitism is an overloaded word, but your sentiment here seems good.

-----

KirinDave 230 days ago | link

I chose it intentionally. "Defensiveness" is not what I meant.

-----

acjohnson55 231 days ago | link

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.

-----

ScottBurson 230 days ago | link

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.

-----

hawkharris 230 days ago | link

* 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.

-----

CompelTechnic 231 days ago | link

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.

-----

the_watcher 231 days ago | link

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.

-----

victoriap 231 days ago | link

..."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.

-----

the_watcher 231 days ago | link

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.

-----

victoriap 231 days ago | link

...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.

-----

dkrich 231 days ago | link

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.

-----

agilord 231 days ago | link

What if - on a rare occasion - you did say something that was misunderstood by a lot of people who trust your judgement? Would you be ignorant at that time too?

-----

jasonkester 231 days ago | link

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.

-----

droopyEyelids 231 days ago | link

I'm with you here, 100%.

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.

-----

mbesto 231 days ago | link

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.[0]

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.

[0] - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6279276

-----

droopyEyelids 231 days ago | link

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.

-----

agilord 231 days ago | link

> If you read the original piece, it's perfectly clear what was meant, and there's absolutely no room for anybody to misunderstand it.

I'll give you an anecdotal example: myself. I did misunderstood him first, and the explanation makes sense. I don't need more "fix". pg won me over this issue. So, are you sure that it was a bad move?

-----

seiji 231 days ago | link

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.)

-----

B-Con 231 days ago | link

He has another, similar one that I like: "I respectfully decline the invitation to join your hallucination."

-----

rodgerd 230 days ago | link

I'm not entirely sure I'd be quoting the wisdom of a guy who sets up sockpuppets to agree with himself of discussion forums, since it would appear he has a hard time with delusions himself.

-----

seiji 230 days ago | link

Ooooh. Are you one of the unhinged people who taunt him for his thought experiments?

-----

Grue3 230 days ago | link

Are you one of these "people" who are actually Scott Adams?

-----

natural219 230 days ago | link

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.

also related: http://paulgraham.com/say.html

-----

yogo 230 days ago | link

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)?

-----

calibraxis 231 days ago | link

Well, perhaps he ironically didn't make himself as clear as he could have. (Which happens in off-the-cuff interviews.) And that may demonstrate his point about communication.

And it is an unpleasant point. People "get their asses kicked by the world" (as he put it) for the way they speak or irrelevant aspects of their appearance. Says something about this world.

(I know when I mention certain viewpoints which maybe aren't commonly voiced or liked by the audience, some willfully misunderstand me, and it's my job to clarify.)

-----

kolinko 230 days ago | link

Well, if the accent makes one hard to understand, it's no longer irrelevant.

-----

More



Lists | RSS | Bookmarklet | Guidelines | FAQ | DMCA | News News | Feature Requests | Bugs | Y Combinator | Apply | Library

Search: