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Are Accents or Languages Holding Immigrants Back at Work?

One of the greatest shocks I experienced after relocating to the States was having people ask me to repeat myself because they couldn't understand me.


"How is that possible?" I would wonder. I could hear them clearly (yes some accents take more effort than others but they were OK. Was it an "effort" issue or was my accent so strong that no-one could make out what I was saying?

In no time I was obsessing over the thought that people could not hear me or that I sounded weird. So there I was, in my mid 20s, post-college, post-major milestones plus engaged. As in, an entire adult, doubting something as basic as my ability to communicate with other earthly beings.

It sucked.

Self-consciousness about speech can shake anyone's confidence, affecting their performance in job interviews, networking events or even casual interactions. Communication's key for everyone. Even geniuses have to share their thoughts and present their elaborate creations.

Here are 4 scenarios where accents/languages could lead to 1st Gen being held back:

1. Speaking is a major part of our lives. We spend a lot of time saying stuff so codeswitching (alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation) can cause some mental strain. I don't think we as a community address this often. We've adopted such a strong "it's normal" stance about it that works for adaptability but is dangerous for self-care. We need to consider how much energy goes into switching phonetics, accents, languages, mannerisms....

Just think about it.

2. Feeling like you have to work extra-hard to make up for your accent/not-perfect diction or ditching boundaries completely to be known for something else besides being "different". This overcompensating behavior can make others see you as a "work mule" - perfect to push tasks to but not good enough for a raise or a promotion.

3. Making little or no contributions at meetings because you worry about being mocked or ridiculed. Now that virtual meetings have come to stay, your contribution on that Webex/Teams/Zoom call may be the only thing that gets you noticed. The era of sitting across each other in conference rooms and getting by with a vigorous head nod is officially over!

4. Hats off to 1st Gen working in nations with a different official language. Accents are one thing but compared to having to learn how to speak entirely new languages? Plus work and write in them too. I can speak 3 other languages at a conversational level so I know how huge this is. Imagine what it must be like in meetings when conversations get heated. The effort it must take to keep up with all the details. My Senegalese-American friend once shared how challenging it was to learn how to speak English and finish nursing school not log after she moved to the States.

5. It makes networking harder because you're "no fun." Another common one - Absolute nonsense if you ask me. If you spent a considerable time living in another country, chances are you don't get some jokes and completely blank out when your colleagues share some stories. That isn't your fault so don't feel guilty. They've had their whole lives to learn about the Kennedy curse. Don't be shy about reaching out to possible sponsors or mentors at your work place. Or making new connections with colleagues that may be open to helping you navigate the terrain. If the mountain won't come to Mohammed....

So, absolutely! I believe that accents/languages can hold us back at work if we let them.

Think about it. Anyone's self-esteem would take a hit if they were excluded long enough or if colleagues made repeated attempts (verbal and non-verbal) to make them the butt of their jokes. I would never encourage anyone to stay in an abusive workplace. Such places are the worst even when they cut a nice check.

Remember, YOU are an asset to your community, any workplace and the world.

Don't you dare count yourself out.

P.S: I think the ability to hear and understand a variety of accents is largely connected to interest (this is important) and exposure i.e TV, travel + a diverse friend circle.


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