How to make our ‘working language’ work for diversity and innovation

A collective need for cultural and behavioural reflection at UNHCR.

How we communicate has a story. For example, when the native English-speaker was 18, he or she may have been wielding a highly developed and deeply ingrained set of language skills to navigate complicated social settings, educational demands, films, music and books. When the person who now works through English, but for whom it is a second language (‘secondary speaker’), was 18, he or she was similarly consolidating their native language skills, whilst honing their English core vocabulary and grammar at school. There is a spectrum of experiences, often informed by a spectrum of privilege and opportunities, which means that communication in multicultural workplaces hinges on the interaction of not just varying linguistic abilities, but of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. But does the space between fluent and native competency present barriers or undiscussed difficulties? How aware are we of language bias in teams with multi-lingual backgrounds? What is the unsaid… and how should we say it?

Imagine a team that is composed half of native English speakers (two Americans and two British people) and half fluent non-native speakers (two Brazilians, an Italian, and an Egyptian). There is seldom miscommunication or misunderstanding, meetings run seemingly seamlessly, and language as a mechanical function of information-transfer is well-oiled and doing its job. So what’s the problem? Technical and linguistic issues are usually overcome intuitively by adjustments to vocabulary and syntax, as relationships within the team develop and they become more familiar with each other’s speech patterns and idiomatic knowledge. So, why does the Italian feel at a disadvantage? Why does the Egyptian feel like she is underappreciated and not fulfilling her professional potential? Why does the Brazilian sometimes feel unable to assert himself or feel listened to?

To probe deeper into the question, it is useful to consider a secondary speaker’s use of English as not just a communication tool, but as a cultural indicator, and the mask of his or her cultural interactions. This approach reveals that language bias in the workplace is much more than just a tension arising from a range of linguistic abilities, but it is a battleground of cultural tensions encompassing race, gender, and other modes of identity. This may play out on several levels, and it is often a question of perceived cultural hierarchies. In discussions, the native speaker may take advantage of the insecurities and the uncertainties of the secondary speaker. The secondary speaker may be made to feel less competent by not being able to express herself as she would in her native tongue, or by not being able to communicate in a style that has connotations of authority and competence in the culture of the working language. Perhaps this may be called linguistic gaslighting? Conversations can be ‘controlled’ by the native speaker employing a fast pace, or vocabulary and structures that are not commonly known in the sphere of ‘international English’. This exclusionary behaviour, deliberate or latent, can be seen when teams socialise, and cultural references and common ‘native’ experiences help to form social hierarchies that feed back into the professional realm.

If native competency is pinned to the formation of social hierarchies in a team, the consequences for innovation can be profound. A team that is unaware of such biases and behaviours risks isolating secondary speakers, limiting their capacity to participate, or even to feel understood. Risk-taking, trust-building, effective collaboration, divergent thinking, transparency and openness — they all take a hit. Like most kinds of barriers to full and operational inclusion, language bias may not seem overly malignant on a day-to-day basis, and it rarely exists in isolation from other types of social imbalances. However, an awareness of the potential for a common language to be a force for exclusion, rather than inclusion, should be on the minds of every member of such a team.

The solution to this challenge on the personal and team level requires collective cultural and behavioural reflection and change. It is not a question of native speakers giving more space to secondary speakers. It is a question of deliberate and honest analysis of work culture and practice. Teams should re-conceptualise their measures of what competence and contribution look and sound like. Utilise feedback mechanisms on meeting structures and work culture, and avoid equating language ability to the cultural knowledge that comes with being a native speaker of a language.

There are avenues for solutions to language and cultural bias at a structural level, too. Beyond senior figures helping to drive the kind of cultural change outlined above on an organisational scale, organisations can incorporate data on the proportion of native speakers of the working language as evidence of the extent of linguistic and cultural bias, with the aim of using linguistic diversity as a measure of broader diversity and inclusion efforts. Do native speakers rise through the ranks easier? As an organisation, what behaviours and skills do we seek to reward?

There is also the potential for a greater understanding of the idiosyncrasies of non-native English to be incorporated into machine-learning. In 2016, MIT researchers released ‘the first major database of fully annotated English sentences written by non-native speakers’. Removing the bias towards the comprehension of purely native English structures and features in computer analytics may heighten inclusion in contexts where English serves the purpose of a working or common language. As machine-learning, and the machine analysis of open text in areas such as recruitment and feedback mechanisms, for example, become more commonplace, we have a responsibility to make sure that the quirks and traits of non-native English are not causes of devaluation or omission in these systems. Systematically assessing the readability of organisational communications products may also be possible by using readability assessment formulas, as is done in some legal settings.

In the story of how we come to communicate, there are answers to question of ‘how do we become a more diverse and inclusive organisation?’. Facilitating effective communication amongst people with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds is a skill that is practised on a daily basis in UNHCR, but there is always room for improvement. Language biases dissect a multitude of debates on organisational culture, management styles, and diversity, and intersect with how some view certain genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. As UNHCR works to further embed diversity, inclusion, and equality into its structure and strategy, let’s not forget the vital role of language and communication as the precious interface of our relationships.

Discover more explorations in inclusion, diversity, gender equity and innovation from UNHCR’s Innovation Service at:

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and…

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

UNHCR Innovation Service

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UNHCR’s Innovation Service embeds new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

UNHCR Innovation Service

UNHCR’s Innovation Service supports new approaches and methodologies to address the growing humanitarian needs of today and more critically — the future.

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