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Accents, English, Arrogance, Success (brunozzi.com)
46 points by simonebrunozzi on Sept 2, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments

> if you have a strong accent (e.g. your English is not that great), you perform poorly as a startup. This isn’t a xenophobic statement, but just a statement of fact.

If that is supposed to be a statement of fact, it's wrong, for 2 reasons:

a) A few observations do not equal causality. Unless each and every startup (founder?) was examined and found to match this statement, the statement is wrong. Try a weaker statement ("...you likely perform poorly as a startup...")

b) I know several successful founders with strong accents in English. There's a small, but not insignificant factor you've left out: the US market isn't everything (and it's becoming less important every day). A startup neither has to be successful in the US to be successful, nor does it even have to have English speaking customers or users. Nit-picking? Sure. But I wasn't the one who made overly broad statements that possibly offended startup founders all over the world.


you are right. It's not a statement of fact. Let me rephrase by saying that "if you have a strong accent, you are more likely to perform poorly as the CEO of a startup that does business in the US".

Both points can be true: startup CEOs need to be understandable in English, and native speakers are insensitive to the difficulties of someone trying to learn their language. The insensitivity is greater if the person hasn't tried to learn a foreign language themselves, and no doubt also if they lack empathy.

That has nothing to do with English, though. Any language student who's ever sat around with a group of native speakers babbling away knows how impossible it is to get them to slow down for you. And even when you're speaking one-on-one with someone, you might be able to get them to slow down for 5 seconds if you're lucky before they forget and just start speaking normally (i.e. completely unintelligibly to you) again. It's obviously not arrogance. People just aren't aware of how they speak their native language.

Hey Daniel,

good points. I agree that when there are MULTIPLE English speakers in the group, it's almost impossible to slow them down. I also agree that it's unlikely to be arrogance in that case.

Perhaps I was mostly referring to one-to-one communications. I think there's something specific to English though, especially the pronunciation part.

As an example, I have heard multiple times from Japanese and Russians that learning how to pronounce Italian is quite simple for them; I also was often in situations where Italians were thought to be Russians because of the way they would pronounce English.

This means that some languages are easier than others, and I still think that English is not that great from this point of view.

Japanese, Italian, Spanish, and a few other languages have about five to nine distinct vowels. They also have a severe limit on consonant blends and combinations.

English has about 25 distinct vowels; it varies depending on your accent. Consonants can be placed around vowels freely without strict rules.

There are about 250 distinct syllables in use in Japanese and two or three times that many in Spanish or Italian. English has many thousands.

So English is harder, but people learn to speak it. Even babies.

WildUtah, thanks for the details. Very useful and interesting.

So, I was right in thinking that pronouncing English is harder than, say, Italian or Japanese.

Unfortunately, written Japanese is super hard IMHO, or most non-western alphabets.


I was speaking only about the thing where native speakers are insensitive to learners.

You may be right that English is harder to pronounce. Being an insensitive English speaker I defer to your expertise!

I'm originally from the The Netherlands but I've been living in Australia for the past 8 years. When I first arrived here my English was fine, so I thought. I was in my early 30's and had used English for the most part of my life.

However, I soon discovered that there is a big difference in speaking another language and expressing yourself in it. It's very different to ask for directions than to communicate that funny thing that happened to you the other day.

I can understand what Paul is referring to in that; to be a start up CEO you need to be able to "communicate" an idea and vision. If you need to do that, in this case, to a native English speaking crowd and no one can understand you it's simply not going to work.

Hi there! Expressing deep thoughts or emotions in a foreign language can be very hard, especially if there are cultural differences. (try mediterranean cultures and Anglo-saxon ones, for instance).

However, we are referring to a business/technical discussion in this case. There are similarities to other types of discussions, but I think there are also specific rules that don't apply to, say, conversations between a Dutch and an Australian couple :)


> Mediterranean Lingua Franca was a pidgin: “a simplified language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common”.

English, instead, is a full-blown language.

Since modern English was the result of combining Old English and French, you don't consider Germanic and Latin languages to be far enough apart to be pidgin?

Things that got simplified:

1. Gender of nouns (they are largely gone)

2. Declensions.

3. Verb conjugation.

A lot of the simplicity also came from contact with the Danes during the Danelaw period, effecting a sort of pidgin understandable by both Danish and English speakers in the area. We shaved off a lot of the inflections there as well.

Over the last 1000 years or so, few can argue that English has more or less normalized these earlier influences into a "full-blown language" as the author states. It's extremely rich and has ways to express whatever was formally contained in its Germanic grammatical roots.

What's GREAT about English from a learning perspective is that we DID hang on to a few pidgin aspects. Loss of tense and case inflections make English easier. Mastering its nuanced use is difficult, sure... but outside the US and the UK, you people don't really hold you to knowing which words collocate perfectly with others.

In the next few decades, billions more functional English users will be minted on this planet. Native speakers can look forward to either cringing or embracing innovations that arise from that. It's an interesting time.

I don't understand your point.

I am not a linguist, but in my humble opinion, pidgin doesn't measure how far two languages are; it rather is the semplification of a language (e.g. Latin, or Italian) in order to make it easier to understand and speak by non natives.

Please tell me what your point was, as I don't know what to answer :)

Sorry for not being more clear.

> it rather is the semplification of a language (e.g. Latin, or Italian) in order to make it easier to understand and speak by non natives.

This is exactly what happened to English; English used to have a great deal more complexity, until the French conquered England. That started a great simplification, so that the court (which was French) and the people (which spoke a very Germanic English) could communicate.

Even things like whether a table is male or female (exists in Italian, no?) were removed from English.

The problem is that you are assuming that is only a single form of complexity, while yes the declensions and conjugations have since disappeared in English (and most of the West European languages) the complexity of the word order (syntax) has increased substantially.

Also, the reduction of the morphological complexity in English PRE-DATES the Norman invasion. So, it had nothing to do with the French rulers. Not to say that they didn't leave a mark on the language in other ways.

> while yes the declensions and conjugations have since disappeared in English (and most of the West European languages)

Which languages are you talking about?

Ah, I didn't know it. Very interesting.

Thanks for sharing it.

Nice article! I'm English and work in China, so for once an English person struggling with language :) I've experienced the same things you've experienced, but with Chinese native speakers.

But there's also benefits of being non-native which I think you overlook:

- I can be 10x more blunt in Chinese than I can in English. The language itself is blunt, but I also get much more leeway because I'm not expected to have perfect language.

- I can concentrate on what people are actually asking me to do, rather than getting distracted by the subtleties of language or tone of voice. I get less annoyed with people's personality, and more engaged with what they want.

- Other people don't get distracted by your accent, and give you more credit than you're due. Think of a Russian speaking English - I might have negative cultural perceptions (eg. because of movie bad guys) but I also think of Dostoyevsky. You might be from the worst council estate in Russia, but I'll think you're a philosopher because of the accent.

> - Other people don't get distracted by your accent, and give you more credit than you're due. Think of a Russian speaking English - I might have negative cultural perceptions (eg. because of movie bad guys) but I also think of Dostoyevsky. You might be from the worst council estate in Russia, but I'll think you're a philosopher because of the accent.

That's why I was told to keep my German accent when I was in Britain. Foreign accents keep you out of the British class system.

Very interesting!!

I actually had some of these experiences when I was based in Asia. I agree, and I understand.


Wait, the pidgin dialects that I've known have always been the more complex merger of 2+ languages, plus additional invented slang. More complex, not less. Edit: Apparently, linguists now want us to call the more advanced pidgins "creole languages", although there is some debate about the distinction:


This idea, that learning English alone is simpler than the multiple languages that some countries learn in school, hints at the core of the language learning problem. A skilled employee in the US learns not 1, but 3 languages:

- Conversational English, slang, unwritten idioms.

- Then, he re-learns the extensive grammar rules and vocabulary, well beyond what's normally used in conversation (i.e to a grammar nazi level.)

- Then, again he completely relearns English in the context of the connotations and phrases of professional business language. (Many non-native English speakers are in complete disbelief that this variation even exists.)

All of this occurs over decades of schooling and on-the-job learning.

Hey solve, I think that pidgin are easier than English, and this is why: they are intended to use in a very simple and effective way.

A full language, like English, has much more complex phrasing.

Yes, this is the dictionary definition. In this case, I believe that pidgin has turned into a bit of a contronym. I could be misinformed though.

The difference is that a pidgin is a temporary, makeshift language to facilitate communication between peoples who speak different languages natively, whereas a creole is a language that people actually live in. The word "pidgin", though, often gets attached to a temporary patois and remains attached even after the language progresses to a creole. Sometimes a pidgin will hang around even after the conditions that created it have gone away. The South Seas English pidgin hung around as a regional lingua franca for a long time, partly because it was handy even when not dealing with English speakers, and partly because it was a mark of distinction among the people that the English in Australia had exploited. Eventually, though, it did creolize -- Tok Pisin came from that pidgin, but it is not a pidgin any longer.

Hawaaiian Creole English (the academic name for the language) is still generally referred to by its speakers as "Pidgin", even though the progression from pidgin to creole was documented almost as soon as the first plantation immigrants had kids old enough to talk. (Many African creoles are similarly still called "Pidgin" by their speakers, even though the language is not a pidgin per se.) The parents of those children spoke a pidgin; the words were mostly English (with the odd word drawn from Japanese or one of the Philippine languages by concensus), but the grammar was extremely simplified and the structure (head-first, head-final, etc.) tended to reflect the speaker's native tongue.

You can trade and get work done in a pidgin, but you can't communicate with much subtlety, and the kids needed something they could chat in. The kids (all young children are linguistic geniuses compared to us older folk) quickly developed grammar that was consistent and had rules. You could speak the language well, or speak it badly.

It's difficult to make a grammatical error in a pidgin; errors are mostly about vocabulary. A creole, on the other hand, is a real language. You can get all of the words right, but still make mistakes -- mistakes of the sort that the yellow big ball would be in English. Dey bin stay buy in Hawaaiian Creole is "they were buying" ("bin" puts it into the past tense and "stay" makes it continuous/progressive); dey stay bin buy is gibberish (it would mean something like "they are still finished buying").

I agree, it's a bit confusing.

I think that Paul Graham was referring to quite different case than Simone in this post. When you're non-native English speaker working for already established company, you can count on the fact that the customer has some incentive in communicating with you. But when you are a CEO of a startup nobody knows or trusts, people won't care and it's not that big surprise.

Exactly. I am making a more general point, while Paul Graham was just specifically talking about startup CEOs.

By the way, this is probably why some people found his post xenophobic: they thought he was expressing a judgement on people with accents; he just wanted to say something to help startup CEOs with strong accents.

Actually, (modern) English is a pidgin, with two main constituents (Anglo-Saxon and Norman French) and many additional ones.

Not from a linguistics perspective it isn't. You could make a convincing argument that it is (or was) a creole of sorts, but one of the distinguishing features of a pidgin is that it's an incomplete language in which circumlocution is always (not just occasionally) required to convey complex ideas. And if English were once (or twice or so) a creole (the Vikings did as much violence to Anglo-Saxon as the Normns did), it can hardly be called one anymore since it has become crufted and overgrown with unnecessary complexity.

>an incomplete language in which circumlocution is always (not just occasionally) required to convey complex ideas . . . crufted and overgrown . . .

Not disagreeing, but incompleteness comes from the overgrowth sometimes. Interestingly, we now have to use all sorts of circumlocutions every time we need the now-lost thou/ye distinction, and routinely miss its significance when reading Early Modern English texts like Shakespeare or the King James Bible. So even people who are aware of the old distinctions need to use the modern circumlocutions to communicate clearly. Similarly, native speakers will need to conform to World English norms.


I remember this great debate in Brussels where it was decided against using english as the common political language in the European Union, and use this mess of translators, to avoid giving an unfair advantage to the UK/EIRE who would argue in their native language on political matters. In the end it turned out probably right since the UK grew to hate Europe, they would probably have used any extra power to weaken it from inside.

The phone is a miserable way to communicate. Its 8KHz, 8bit noise. Use anything else to communicate, it helps immensely.

I work at Sococo so suggest our product, which is 16-bit 16KHz and sounds wonderful. Or use something else, but for heavens sake stop using the phone.

Can you tell us a bit more about Sococo? And/or any other good alternative?

Would it be practical to use them?

Sococo is free trial right now, no credit card. www.sococo.com

Voice, share screens, chat group and p2p.

Office metaphor - extremely high level of presence info (who's talking/sharing with whom in your work group)

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