Accents and Blowhards

Each time I get in a cab in San Francisco, I make it a point to talk to the driver, not just because I believe it’s awkward otherwise but I as a somewhat assimilated Turkish person living in the U.S., I enjoy conversations with cab drivers who a lot of the time happen to be foreigners themselves also. As we speak and they ask me where I’m from, a lot of the time, they tell me how surprised they are that for someone living in the US for 7 years, I have almost no accent.

Similarly, at bars and other places where I meet new people, especially if I explicitly try and slow down my speech just a bit (and I speak pretty fast), I am able to maintain a non-discernible American accent, or so I am told. In fact, for a long time, I considered having an accent myself a failing as I was leaking information the moment I started speaking; there have been times where I’d have preferred if the people I’m talking to didn’t necessarily know I was a foreigner.

Recently, Paul Graham, the founder of the prime Silicon Valley capital firm Y Combinator, made some comments in an interview about how, according to his data, a strong accent in an entrepreneur is strongly correlated with their companies failing. Unsurprisingly, as the notion of an accent is tightly correlated with nationalities and races, a big kerfuffle arose so much so that Mr.Graham himself had to write a piece explaining himself to people calling him ugly names.

As someone who has been interested in languages and accents, both personally and academically, the entire debacle has been a fascinating one to watch, somehow reminding me about the Turkish saying “a mad man throws a stone into a well and thousand clever men can’t get it out”. But as I read more and more of the blog posts and comments and tweets, I decided that it is now my turn to throw a stone into the well of the internets.

Before I came to U.S. in 2006, I attended an American high school in Turkey where the primary language of instruction was English. During my time, I was heavily involved in the Model United Nations club, which meant that I had to be speaking English outside of school and I was lucky enough to give public speeches, in English, when I was 17, to thousands of people.

When it was time for me to pick a college in the U.S., my choice of CMU was partly driven by the fact that it had a small Turkish community which would allow me to make more American and international friends, which I did. I’m assuming that since 2006, I have spoken and read more English than Turkish by orders of magnitude; most of my close friends in the U.S. are Americans and at this point, I find myself even slurring my speech in Turkish, speaking certain words with an English tonality. Moreover, I have actually studied cognitive science (not computer science!) during college, specializing in linguistics, so this puts me in a special place to strategically aim stone, like no one else can get it out.

Let’s first look at what venerable Paul Graham actually said about accents, before making any judgements.

One quality that’s a really bad indication is a CEO with a strong foreign accent. I’m not sure why. It could be that there are a bunch of subtle things entrepreneurs have to communicate and can’t if you have a strong accent. Or, it could be that anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so they must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent. I just know it’s a strong pattern we’ve seen.

Taken verbatim, or parsed like a computer, this is a benign statement. Paul Graham and the folks at Y Combinator have probably worked with more startups than most people in Silicon Valley and it’s a natural tendency to look for patterns and explanations for interesting phenomena when you are exposed to so many of the similar things at once.

Nevertheless, what Paul Graham is seemingly missing is that communication doesn’t happen just through words we speak but the context in which such words uttered also matter equally, if not more so. The context brings along all sorts of prejudices, preconceived notions and especially for a semi-public figure like Paul Graham himself, who owns part of his fame to his eloquent essays, it’s the author’s responsibility to somewhat adjust his narrative to the audience.

There’s a curious and slightly frustrating tendency in people with scientific backgrounds to assume their audience they are speaking to has to have the same level and type of sophistication and it’s simply “phony” to adjust the way they speak, both in tone and content, to make themselves easier to understand or maybe just not horribly offend the other party. It’s also curious that this tendency, or social oddity if you will, seems to be amplified in people working with computers, where it’s tempting to reduce all sorts of information to its pure essence while actually losing information that’s not so easily coded in terms of words and phrases, but actually is more transient and context dependent, meaning that in order to represent a specific piece of information, you’d have to code the entire state of the world, almost literally speaking.

Note that Paul Graham mentioned not only people with accents but actually said “people with strong foreign accents”(emphasis mine). Surely, you can argue that I’m nitpicking words but hey, Mr.Graham is the native speaker here himself and one could only assume (or care) he’s picking his words with utmost care and precision, given we are talking about languages here and I’m just giving him and his words the respect they deserve.

So, as soon you start talking about “people with strong foreign accents”, you immediately bring race and nationality into play, which even, or maybe especially, in the Land of True and Unadulterated Meritocracy that is Silicon Valley, is a third-rail. Thus, after those words were published and publicized, just like on cue, people of all sorts started calling Paul Graham racist, a xenophobe, a hypocrite, and many other unspeakable things. I’m sure his fame, his wealth as well as the “rich, white men” stereotype that he unfortunately seems to fit in didn’t help the matters much and his close ties to the technology sector where there’s seems to disproportionate number of people with accents and foreign born individuals made it an even juicier subject.

I have no reason to believe that Paul Graham is any of those things people call him. If anything, from what I can tell, he’s passionate about allowing more foreign born nationals to U.S., for one reason or another. It could be an altruistic motive but for this discussion it could simply be that he wants more labor force available to his companies. In either case, Paul Graham, argued many times on Twitter, on comments section on Hacker News and his response, that he is on the founders’ side on this debate and he actually is trying so frantically to help people and I believe him. But sometimes, there seems to be some room for improvement in his tone, delivery, and the actual content of his messages.

Take into account the second part of that sound byte where Mr.Graham argues that “anyone with half a brain would realize you’re going to be more successful if you speak idiomatic English, so [the entrepreneurs] must just be clueless if they haven’t gotten rid of their strong accent”. Now, we are at a point of not just calling out people with strong foreign accents, but essentially saying that people who haven’t actually gotten rid of their accents are lazy and stupid because they aren’t able to understand how people are perceiving themselves. That’s very, very hapless coming from Mr.Graham (and is pretty offensive to people who had lobotomies for medical conditions, they are surprisingly normal). And there’s another underlying implication here is that not only you aren’t as smart as a person with half a brain if you haven’t gotten rid of your “strong foreign accent” but also it’s sliding scale where the common decency, mind you, of getting rid your accent is strongly tied to your intelligence.

The more surprising thing is that Mr.Graham seemed shocked at the response such a sound byte seem to have generated. While a significant chunk of the responses have been simply people being angry, a couple of smart people have touched on how someone as notorious as Mr.Graham is still propagating stereotypes and providing more ammo for those who are truly racist and short-sighted. My personal qualm has been more about the haphazard way Paul Graham seems to throwing around phrases with a false sense of authority without realizing their implications or really grasping the content matter at hand fully.

Going back to the aforementioned quote, Mr.Graham himself mentions that he’s not sure what actually causes entrepreneurs with strong foreign accents to fail and enumerates a couple possible explanations. In other ways, we have an interesting phenomenon, a couple possible explanations, and some preliminary data. This is an interesting pattern that should be familiar with anyone with a half a brain but a college education would help too. This is where a person would simply engage in what’s a battle-tested way to solve this problem; apply science! Or more specifically, simply apply the scientific method, test your hypothesis, measure your data, rule out other possible explanations such as confounding variables, rinse, repeat, until there’s a reasonable level of confidence.

And in fact, Mr.Graham does seem to understand this also. Reading his response piece, he alludes that he has in fact some data on this:

We have a lot of empirical evidence that there’s a threshold beyond which the difficulty of understanding the CEO harms a company’s prospects. And while we don’t know exactly how, I’m pretty sure the problem is not merely that investors have trouble understanding the company’s Demo Day presentation”

Note the phrases like “empirical evidence” and “threshold”. I’ll give you a freebie; while common among the nerderati, regular people don’t generally speak with such scientific terms. In fact, anytime someone invokes jargon, you can assume that they are trying to raise the level of conversation to a higher plane, where they are either trying to make a better point or simply coming down to crush you (although in common conversation, it’s a pretty big faux pas). It’s admirable that Mr.Graham is trying to argue that he’s basing his arguments on evidence but when he comes up pretty short when he tries to draw the all mighty scientific sword to cut over the controversy which has surely has been hurting him, personally and financially.

Scientific method, while far being perfect, is simply the best tool we have at hand so far to establish some resemblance of truth and figure out causal relations (Although you’d be surprised how many big areas with rich scientific evidence are still very highly contested). But scientific method requires not only using the correct terminology, but actually doing the walk also. More specifically, the empirical evidence Mr.Graham mentions is worth next to nothing unless he’s willing to share the data he has collected publicly, along with his methods and have them peer reviewed. Again, if you think I’m actually creating a straw man where there’s none (since Mr.Graham never actually said that he’s doing “science”), I’d just urge you to look at the definition of the word “empirical”, read that sentence to yourself couple times out loud and come to your own conclusion as to why Mr.Graham used such language.

Paul Graham, in his response, clearly argues that he has no problem with accents per se but it’s actually when people have such strong accents that it’s hard to understand them, it’s an issue.

Everyone got that? We all agree accents are fine? The problem is when people can’t understand you.

Putting aside the curiously defensive tone with those question marks, this again makes me think that Mr.Graham doesn’t fully understand how accents work or how people will inevitable understand his messages.

Over the course of my life, as my Turkish accent has become less noticeable, I noticed that some people are simply better at understanding different accents and some people even understand different accents than others; in other words, it’s pointless to argue that there’s a discrete point after which an accent becomes less or more understandable to anyone. After a strenuous workout, even my college girlfriend had hard time understanding me while my Mexican roommate never missed a beat. I still don’t fully understand some Southern accents and neither do my friends who have never left California their entire lives. Some people’s Russian accent still trip me up but I am a sucker for French accent and the New England accent is still bit of a mystery to me (I kid, kind of) but I’m getting better at it.

Attributing any perceived advantage or handicap in understanding different accents is itself an interesting problem in itself; putting my cognitive scientist hat on, I can tell you that the list of phonemes you can both speak and hear are determined by what you grow up hearing, when you are as little as 6. In other words, it gets progressively hard to simply hear different phonemes than those spoken in your native language (and more interestingly, babies who have no language yet seem to be able to hear and produce all these phonemes). The most dramatic and well known manifestation of this a lot of Japanese people not hearing the difference between “beer” and “beel”, and I personally have hard time pronouncing “wedgie” and “veggie” differently, unless I’m trying, which makes for funny moments at BBQs. Again, this phenomenon is part of the reason why you have people who have seemed to spent 20 years in a different country but still speak with an accent whereas their kids start speaking two languages with no accent when they are 10.

Again, that’s not to say someone can never get rid of their accent; anyone with cursory knowledge in statistics know that statistics don’t apply to individuals and most natural phenomenon fall within a bell curve. There will undoubtably have outliers on both ends of the spectrum.

So, now, everyone got that? We all agree that sometimes people can’t meaningfully get rid of their accents and even if they do, there’s no point where they become universally intelligible at the same level?

Every once in a while, while I’m on the subway or in a movie theater or somewhere there are a lot people with different nationalities, I realize how U.S. and Bay Area in particular is such a diverse land, where everyone is accepting of all cultures, all races, languages, nationalities.

But unfortunately, even in the U.S., a nation of immigrants (and the unfortunate natives), there’s still much road ahead when it comes to understanding and accepting of differences. Luckily, we all realized having accent monitors in our classes was a bad idea pretty fast. There are many studies (the scientific ones) that document that having an accent is simply a handicap when it comes to hiring. Similarly, many studies show that people find people with certain accents “smarter” and inevitably, other ones dumber. Even world-renowned celebrities aren’t immune to such thinking. Famous German supermodel and America’s Got Talent hostess Heidi Klum herself received significant amount of criticism because of her accent. Judging by how her accent has changed over time, I find it pretty likely she received a lot of speech classes, which she could fortunately afford, to make her accent more palatable to American clientele.

When you hear people of such respect and influence like Paul Graham make such audacious claims with such seemingly such great authority, even if he is unaware of how he’s perceived, it’s a great reminder to everyone that human communication is a wide, fascinatingly complicated field, an area of very active research where there’s already significant debate between established scientists on how it works on all levels, with all sorts of public policy, social, and many other great implications.

All in all, I believe Mr.Graham’s heart is in the right place and he’s simply trying to help people be more succesful. In the same vein, as someone who has experienced problems and couple unpleasant incidents even, with my accent back in the day, I can attest to that even in the great melting pot that’s U.S., to this day, there are benefits to being able to communicate clearly and effectively. But we should strive for better, help find ways to help people communicate clearly, and make social progress towards inclusion, not exclusion, as a humanity. And when it comes individuals, everyone should certainly strive to make themselves understood better but really, that’s an advise we can give to not just people with strong foreign accents but to simply everyone, including Paul Graham himself.