privileges of passing

I am a German, got my Ph.D. in the US and I currently work in Sweden. I was fortunate to almost completely lose my German accent during my time in the US, so that to most non-native (and many native) speakers of English, I sound American now. This more or less accidental “language setting” has a number of undeserved benefits in academic contexts. Because of the lack of an accent, I’m likely to be perceived as more confident and more competent. I actually feel more competent when I can speak English (rather than Swedish, and even rather than German). Listeners will find it easier to follow my train of thought. I might seem more approachable in post-talk situations, because speaking American English (rather than Swedish, and rather than German) will make my demeanor more jovial.

I am lucky to not have to worry (much) about students or conference participants finding themselves unable to focus on the content of what I’m saying because of how I sound to them. I am lucky to have that piece of professional authority simply handed to me. (And on a lighter note, I get to amuse myself with confusing people when they can’t quite figure out why I sound the way I sound, work in Sweden, and complain about German politics.)

I am grateful, on the other hand, for the challenge of conversing and teaching in Swedish, because it makes me (sometimes painfully) aware of the limitations of my own language skills, and it hopefully provides a corrective to judging my peers merely by what sort of accent their English happens to have.

doing philosophy as a non-native speaker of English

I am a graduate student in philosophy in the United States, and English is not my native language. Even though I have no problem communicating with others (at work and outside of it), I struggle with my papers. I am never sure whether my writing is correct, and I even lost track of what “correct” means, for I often see myself taking “correct” for “sounds like it was written by a native speaker”. The impostor syndrome has an extra flavour of failure for me; when the feeling of inadequacy knocks on my door, I feel inadequate in the first place because I am a non-native speaker of English, and I know I will drag this limitation forever.

I decided to contribute to this blog because I saw this discussion on Daily Nous and found it both helpful and a bit disturbing: http://dailynous.com/2015/03/04/research-advice-for-non-native-english-speaking-philosophers/

the accent obstacle

English is not my native language. When I started teaching philosophy at a university in an English-speaking country, the language obstacle was a big concern. I should rather say “the accent obstacle”. I write and publish in English, and I enjoy conversations with colleagues and navigate the everyday life issues with no problems attributable to language. But I still have an accent. In the first student evaluations I got a few negative comments about that, and it was very distressing. After reading them, I started loosing confidence, and we all know how that ends (i.e. performing worse in the end). Even though I go to class thinking that accent is not an obstacle, I always end up blaming myself for having a strong accent every time a student asks me that I repeat what I just said (it is difficult for me to distinguish now when they are asking for a content clarification rather than a better pronunciation).

logic skills, german language, and being jewish

I come from Israel. I studied Philosophy in Berlin, Germany. After successfully completing the obligatory Logic course, a Student came to me and told me in the presence of other students that I had a good note simply because I do not speak native German. He maintained that it was somehow easier to me. After I told him I think it has nothing to do with it, he told me that it is because I am Jewish.

significant omitted information while signing a contract

I have been a foreigner in three different academic environments. One of the accidents that happened to me (and that most concretely damaged me) was that, while signing a contract, I was not informed at all about some specific and complex bureaucratic procedure whose existence and mastery was taken for granted by the locals and that, if correctly performed, would have represented enormous benefits – for instance, signing up for the right sub-group of a not very visible but powerful academic trade union in order to get an advantageous unemployment insurance. Instructions were not provided at all and, when available in writing, they only were in local language. One can be (as I am) very accurate and sometimes even pedantic, but one cannot even suspect the existence of procedures that have no equal in the system s/he is coming from. Another common obstacle cropped up while I was filling in online applications for funding from different institutions. Albeit the call was open to scholars and projects from the world over, and the general instructions were in English, all of a sudden essential instructions were provided in the local language, or the very language was expected to be used for an important part of the application (for instance “please enter a one-page summary of the proposed project”). I am talking about a Scandinavian language that one hardly masters as a nonlocal; I speak five foreign languages (meanwhile that one as well).  What stroke me was the mismatch between the supposed “openness” of the call and the obstacles that de facto impaired the possibilities for foreign applicants. It is very unlikely that those who designed the system did not realize the problem.

“We’re so surprised! You are also competent in this field!”

Over the years I’ve become increasingly aware of  how the phenomena of implicit bias/stereotype threat affect me more professionally because of my nationality (I’m not from an English speaking country) than any other identity. I never felt discriminated against in my own country when I was a graduate student there, nor  did I feel insecure or threatened in any way for the years I was back as a post-doc. But I’ve had very awkward experiences mostly with North-American academics.
– I was once at a workshop in my home country where most speakers were invited North-American academics, mostly from a prestigious American university. There were also academics from other universities, but their names were indicated by the main Professor of the prestigious university attending the workshop. All their expenses were paid by the local organizers. This was a common practice up to the recent austerity policies adopted in most of Europe. There was a French Canadian speaker giving a talk. I corrected the speaker’s English once, when the person made a very blatant mistake. The speaker said: “I can’t believe I’m being corrected by a …[my nationality was mentioned]”.
– on that same occasion, another very lively speaker tried to show his gratitude for the invitation, but ended up saying: “We just thought we were going to come here (such a nice place in the world to visit), see each other and give our talks, but we’re so surprised! You are also competent in this field!” Speaker did not realize awkwardness.     Continue reading

“I immediately felt like an unwelcome intruder in my own classroom”

I am from the UK and work in the US. Recently I was setting up display equipment before a class started. Two students were chatting quietly about how hard it is to understand the accent of a foreign professor they have for a class. One started imitating various examples of this professor’s pronunciation of certain terms and complaining about how confusing it was to have them pronounced differently. I couldn’t decide whether they were referring to me, or to someone else on our faculty who is also from outside the US originally. When the imitation started, I couldn’t help looking up, and they could see I’d heard. While I was debating whether or not it was worth saying anything or simply ignoring it, the student who had been doing the imitating said (loudly, and obviously for my benefit), “Oh, but I like having a foreign professor, it’s very interesting.” The point is: even if it wasn’t me he was complaining about, when I heard this, I immediately felt like an unwelcome intruder in my own classroom. I had to stand and think about whether or not I should say something and risk alienating those students or stay quiet and fail to defend the professionalism of myself and my colleagues (which should be clear anyway, regardless of accents). Then I had to teach the class, and support those students’ learning, without letting my anxiety and discomfort show. People talk about the burden of discrimination: what that means at least in part in the case of foreign academics is that simply turning up to teach is more exhausting and stressful than it is for non-foreigners.

nationality-based prejudice?

I hold a research position at a university in the UK. I am Russian, and did my PhD in Finland in English. I spent 8 years at Harvard Medical School as a postdoc, publishing and communicating with colleagues in English. I was then offered a job at an institution in the UK, and I applied for a UK visa. Surprisingly, it got denied, because the consulate “did not have sufficient evidence of my command of English”. My visa application clearly showed that I had been working in the US for 8 years, and that my thesis was written in English, and that I have been publishing my work in English. But that wasn’t good enough. I was required to do a TOEFL exam to prove I had a basic command of English (funny enough, I didn’t even need to get a high score; I needed to get a certificate demonstrating that I am able to introduce myself and get by at a grocery store).

Ironically, my husband, a citizen of Denmark and also a non-native English speaker, was not asked to prove his command of English in any way. The university that hired me created a position for him, upon my request (we work in the same field), and he was able to move right away while I stayed behind. We had already moved out of our house in the US and arranged everything at the new university in the UK. My Danish husband flew to the UK, and I was stuck in the US, practicing TOEFL tests, with no income or health insurance (I had already quit my job there so my fancy medical coverage ended), paying outrageous medical bills, including a required ultrasound test (I was pregnant), waiting first for the next available TOEFL date, and then for another month to receive the score (two months total). I wondered what made me less trustworthy than my husband, whether my gender or my Russian, non-European origin.

“As you can hear, our colleague doesn’t come from here”

Austrian German is different from german German. It sounds differently, and some words are not the same. I was brought up in Austria, but never developed a strong dialect. I fact, I often heard that my language was very ‘German’. Last year, I was a guest researcher at a German university and, amongst other things, attended a seminar. The seminar was focussed on language and the instructor kept referring to me as an example for a different way to talk. “As you can hear, our colleague doesn’t come from here”, he repeatedly said, and the whole class laughed. I laughed as well, but always felt bad afterwards. I felt that I had to make up for a loss of respect, so I started to frequently challenge the professor theoretically in front of his class. Also in other departmental contexts, my language was an important topic. I often heard that my Austrian German sounds sweet and charming. It always felt like I was treated like a little girl. I was invited for evening go-outs with other guest researchers. I felt that the reason was that  Austrians are said to know how to make up for a ‘charming atmosphere’ – as opposed to many German scholars. Why is it more important how I speak than what I say? And how is all that connected to my gender? I often felt that the reference to my language covered hidden gender issues. It seemed to be more ok to refer to my charming accent as an Austrian scholar than to my charming character as a Woman.

a “helpful” reminder of how bad it is to be a non-native speaker of English

I’m a non-native English speaker working on my PhD at a UK institution. A couple of months ago I was presenting a paper at a conference in the UK. As I was waiting for my turn to present, and trying to forget that I was really nervous, I asked one of my colleagues (a fellow PhD student in my institution) about the previous session. He responded that he had not enjoyed the papers not only because they were not very good, but also because they were both presented by non-native English speakers.

“Oh, you mean you’re not married to an American? I assumed that’s why you were here.”

I am English, with an unexceptional English accent, and a PhD from a UK university. I teach in the US. Students here are mostly very decent about accent/cultural differences, and I have been lucky enough to find many supportive and welcoming colleagues. But there is some entrenched xenophobia still out there, and when it appears, it is nasty. Here are some examples:

–A provost at a liberal arts college on-campus interview: “What do you know about the liberal arts? You don’t even have them in your country.”

–A student, on hearing about us potentially hiring a faculty member from a non-US country: “Great, yet another accent I have to get used to.”

–Another student: “You don’t speak English. Well okay, I suppose you do, but not proper English.”

–A colleague: “You know, sometimes I just don’t hear you. It’s your accent.”

–Another colleague, in a meeting, in front of other faculty: “Over the summer, I was reflecting on the difficulties I’ve had in working with you on this project. I decided the problems come down to you being from a different country.”

–During hiring negotiations: “Oh, you mean you’re not married to an American? I assumed that’s why you were here.”

“The lectures should be given in English, not American”

I am an American philosopher, teaching in the UK.  One of my first student evaluations said: “The lectures should be given in English, not American”.  I couldn’t tell whether it was a joke or not, but trying to figure that out and trying to figure out who’d written it made it very hard to concentrate on my lecturing for the rest of the course.