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.
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.
(Not a native English speaker, but I noticed that with accents from other non-native speakers ...)
(Not complaining, just agreeing)
Indian (dot, not feather), right?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
If anything, you just need to project your voice better and speak louder. :)
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)
Hehe, I wasn't playing it up since I don't have to! :)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"?
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Elitism is an overloaded word, but your sentiment here seems good.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.)
also related: http://paulgraham.com/say.html
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.
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.
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?
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.
 - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6279276
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.)
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)?
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, 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
"Learn English well enough that people have no trouble understanding you" is the advice. What isn't actionable about that?
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.
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
with full use of notation from the International Phonetic Alphabet.
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,
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.
 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.
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 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'.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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 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.
Also, our "r" is much thicker than in English. For that reason, our English accent resembles a bit that of Russians :-)
[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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To this day, I'm still baffled that Spanish does not distinguish between 'v' and 'b'.
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 :)
You forgot people mixing up v/w, and being funny with r. ;-)
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.
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.
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.
First step for learning a language is wanting to learn I guess
I wish I had internet and wikipedia when I was in school.
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).
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.
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.
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'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.
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.
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.
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 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.
He's getting some slight blowback from the press, but sadly they have a short attention span.
> 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.
(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.
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.
EDIT: Here are some native English speakers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1TJnDG61_Y Can you understand them? I sure can't! :)
(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.)
They speak English, but I just could not understand anything the locals said. The dialect/culture is called Gullah: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gullah
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:
Some of that sounds like a Monty Python sketch! It's definitely an example of one native English speaker (me) finding another (them) hard to understand.
I also second the commenter who brought up the Glaswegian accent. I love how it sounds but damned if I can make out half of what they're saying.
Maybe you're just gifted with dialects :)
How well do they integrate with modern English speakers when they leave the island?
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.
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?
How many native-born US citizens with regional accents this strong are in a position to start a technology startup? I grew up in the Bible Belt and I find this inconceivable.
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.
There is a massive disconnect in English ability of the European countries that dub media on tv and the ones that use subtitles.
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.
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.
“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.)
For example, I used to, but do not now, ever use the word "niggle". Its just too much work.
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.
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?
"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.
* Eat food daily.
* Take a shower.
* Continue breathing.
I don't know, if PG took on Lisp Machines Inc. that might have been a problem with Greenblatt.
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.
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.
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.
What if this misunderstanding regarding accents is just a standard attempt at stirring up controversy?
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.
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
Controlled studies of startup founders are not practical.
Your 'correlation is not causation' mantra seems misplaced unless you can argue that effective communication is not fundamentally important.
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.)
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!
(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.
>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.
Music is something of a special case. If it weren't, there wouldn't be so many lyrics sites out there to help people who have trouble understanding.
As for the song, even if you heard it recited, you'd have trouble understanding it. It is in a strong Scots dialect.
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).
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).
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.
> "Communication skills is an strong indicator of
> education and class." is probably what you meant to
> 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
 For the humourless pedants: This is a joke. I know
that Shakespeare's middle name was't "bloody."
- Six watch.
- What, so much?
- For whom how.
- MGIMO finish?
my parents are foreigners - it's not that i'm not used to it.
sorry folks, but it's true.
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.
Even speaking from your heart should not save you:
(sorry for the lame video hosting because YouTube decided to region-restrict this speach just, you know, because)
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.
tldr: (Correlation or causation) != acceptable.
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.
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.
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.
Is this the proper definition of irony?
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......
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.
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.
Especially in the U.S., I find, especially when it comes to actors.
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.
Hawking was famous in physics circles before he could no speak.
tl;dr - Remember, journalists are not your PR agent.
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.
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.
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.
Communication - a two-way street. That is why Paul's comments strike many as tone deaf!
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 ;-)
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.
It's objectively better for entrepreneurs to communicate as clearly as possible. That's the whole point of the message.
Good grief, people there's real bigotry out there that needs defeating. If anyone has spare energy for baseless accusations, we could sure use a few extra hands over on more productive ground.
"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.
I think that somewhere there is sublime conscious at work that is not aligned correctly.
People expected higher standards from you on this front!
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 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.
Anyone claiming racism or xenophobia is, ironically, only confirming their potential shortcomings.
(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)
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.
I'm from Canada, and I have been to areas of the USA where I could not understand almost anything being said by the local population.
A) How many founders of YC's funded companies were native English speakers vs the rest of the population?
B) Does the size of the round correlate to whether they are native English speakers or not?
My theory to test - the more you look like the people judging you, the likelier you are to succeed. It's statistically possible to show this pretty easily.
If there is astringent correlation, get a tall blonde, who can speak well to present to YC next time!
The reason is, if you have ever waded through a large round of pitches - you understand that it only takes a couple hard to understand sentences before you lose interest.
This doesn't just apply to foreign accents, it applies to volume, pace, etc.
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.
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.
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.
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)...
Some of the most obstinate, unimpressed-by-reality founders I've known have had thick accents.
This kind of thing is commonly done in linguistics research when trying to, for example, differentiate dialects.
>A startup founder is alway selling.
(edit: has been fixed)
VC-based companies: obvious need for verbal communication.