People who speak poor English speak another language well

Our assumptions about people can hold back their potential
Our assumptions about people can hold back their potential

I recently tweeted this statement. A Saudi friend of mine responded with surprise at such an obvious assertion. I explained to him that in the US people often view people who speak poor English as stupid, lazy, or exclusive. In the workplace we often view those who speak “poor” English as deficient, inconvenient, or even dangerous. For teachers insufficient English is a huge challenge to overcome, for doctors it can be life-threatening, and in many workplaces it is at least an inconvenience. We have to hire translators and specialists and provide training in English, which is expensive. Overcoming the inconvenience of a lack of English skills is costly however you look at it–from this point of view. If we look at these people from a different point of view, we can see that they offer unique abilities to those around them.

This is the same way that many people talk about “disabled” people. They’re inconveniences. People who can’t see aren’t able to read documents. Those who can’t hear aren’t able to participate fully in meetings. Those who can’t walk are a dangerous liability is the case of a fire or other emergency. Businesses have to make costly accommodations for people with disabilities that we don’t have to make for others.

When it comes to physical disabilities, our society found a way of reversing this viewpoint by focusing on what the person is able to do, rather than unable to do. First, this is a human being with skills, not to be defined completely around one disability. Second, they bring unique abilities to the group. People develop heightened senses when they lack one. People can see the world from the point of view of being overlooked when they spend all day in a wheelchair literally having people look over them. All of them bring unique problem-solving skills because of the way they adapt to a society that doesn’t take them into consideration. When we see the “disabled” as “differently-abled” we all gain a new, indispensable viewpoint for approaching everyday tasks.

When I was recently at the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) conference, I had the fortune to speak about this issue with a bilingual English speaker who moves around in a wheelchair. She informed me about how employers view disabled people as a problem needing accommodation rather than an individual offering different abilities. She works to educate employers of people’s different abilities, rather than their lack of certain abilities. They are not to be pitied or worked-around, but seen as individuals with strengths and weaknesses.

Non-native English speakers–or those who speak no English at all–must be viewed as possessing unique abilities. They are not incompetent in English but highly competent in another language. They are differently-abled. We do not need to look upon them as people who are lacking in a language, but who offer another language to the workplace community.

People who speak poor English speak another language well.

For this reason, I am starting up language tables at my workplace. I want to highlight able, multilingual individuals who possess unique abilities so they can teach their knowledge to the rest of us. They speak a language that most people at work do not speak. Many of them are immigrants, so their life testifies to navigating different cultures and often overcoming adversity and a drastic change in life. Such a life offers important lessons to everyone. Thankfully, they offer knowledge and wisdom at work that others cannot. If people are willing to work at learning from their colleagues, work could help them become wiser and more knowledgable.

If we learn another language we enable higher morale and productivity at work. Those we work with overseas can feel at ease in participating with a foreign firm on equal terms without an atmosphere of imperialism. Domestically, we allow people to bring their whole selves to work. Thus our work environments improve significantly. In addition, we can act on this subtle discrimination (before it might become a legal matter).

Moreover, the individuals at the company can benefit personally. Everyone can learn another language and benefit from another way of life. Those whose communication skills were considered only in relation to their English proficiency will be seen as teachers no matter what their English level is. A deficiency will be considered an advantage for the company. Companies can win when they embrace loving language.

Photo credit: VinothChandar / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


17 thoughts on “People who speak poor English speak another language well

  1. I am so sick of people whining about having to accommodate non-English speakers. “Why should I have to press 1 for English?” That gets me mad. I learned another language and expatriated to a French-speaking region and so I get now how freaking hard it is to do anything, how uncomfortable it feels to speak another language, especially on the phone. The lack of patience some people have infuriates and disturbs me. Some non-native English speakers know more 3 or 4 languages too. I think if we actually taught other languages people might be able to empathize with how difficult it is to learn them.


    1. Oh, Indians! How do they do it? I’m in awe, too. I realized if I want to learn Tamil, I won’t be able to understand a conversation in Tamil unless I learn Hindi, too–probably Telugu, if I really want to follow.

      This humbling effect is so healthy psychologically, in my opinion. If we could feel a little humility as North Americans, I think we could become teachable. If we become teachable, then we could become better.


  2. Living in a language that is not my mother tongue has given me a unique opportunity to empathize with individuals who find themselves in this situation. Oftentimes I find myself unable to express complex thoughts, not because I don’t have them, but because I cannot articulate this in my second language.


    1. Sympathy is a huge reason to learn a language. Thank you! This is one of the reasons I am grateful to my time in other countries. I saw and felt what it was like to experience the challenges you explain.

      Have you noticed a higher level of sympathy now that you’ve lived in a language besides your mother tongue?


      1. Absolutely. It’s hard not to develop sympathy when you’ve lived in a language other than your mother tongue. Until I experienced it myself, I could never have imagined the levels of anxiety and frustration that one can experience simply because you can no longer accomplish everyday tasks as easily. During my first year I had to do everything in person, because unless I was looking at someone I couldn’t understand what they said. My situation is temporary, but it has given me insight into the many challenges you must overcome when you operate outside your native language.


      2. I feel for you! The terror of the telephone is real. I only overcame that issue when I got a girlfriend and had to talk to her on the phone in the evenings 🙂

        The everyday frustrations are real. Trying to get your point across, getting too tired to listen to others and understanding their response–so hard!

        What did you do to overcome your challenges? How has it affected the way that you interact with those who don’t speak your language well?


      3. I think the biggest thing for me was just to keep trying, and not to let myself get too discouraged. Most people are willing to help you if you make an effort. I had a tutor and that helped a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, I still do. Just this weekend, I asked for a pretzel with sesame street instead of sesame seeds. We all got a good laugh out of that. I think keeping your sense of humor is key.
        I think that I have a lot more patience and respect for non-native English speakers, now that I know how difficult it is to live in a second language. I am also more attuned to nonverbal cues than I was before, which makes it easier to communicate overall.


    1. Hi! Thanks for asking. I’m in IT at a global corporation. I work in a very American office, but I have contact with plenty of people all over the world on a daily basis.

      The language tables serve people from all over the company. We have people in research, in IT, in marketing, and others.

      The language tables have a corporate function. Since we’re global, the function is dual. When we learn languages, we can work better and with more sympathy with our global colleagues. In addition, when we work on our languages, we open ourselves up to learning from others and discovering better, more sophisticated solutions to problems.

      Moreover, the language tables serve a personal function. Folks started learning Spanish back in school, and they would like to resurrect it. Others see that Spanish is an important language for our area. Mandarin has the perception of being a handy language of business. Some people just like learning about other cultures through language.

      I’m happy to see that the interest is high, and that the reasons for joining are varied.

      Does that make sense? Is it surprising to you? I’m interested in hearing your point of view.


  3. I think that you’ve made a lot of great points here. I think that the relative lack of foreign languages spoken by people whose mother tongue is English may be part of the reason for the failure to acknowledge that people who struggle with English may be highly skilled in one or more other languages. I get the impression that people who are multilingual may sometimes make certain monolinguals feel ill at ease (albeit perhaps on a subconscious level) about only having one language.


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