“It’s not because it’s unpleasant to listen, it’s because they just go: ‘I cannot hear that, I cannot listen to it, I cannot understand it,’” (Ferguson, 2016). These are the words of Scottish actor James McAvoy talking about how the “foreign” sound of the Scottish accent turns people off, resulting in few films based in Scotland. Unfortunately, this is not only true with the Scottish accent, but with many non-native or non-standard accents, and is increasingly so with the number of English speakers growing around the world, each of whom presumably speaks the language with a non-standard accent. In this paper I define accent as the perception of speech different from the local variety in accordance with Derwing and Munro (2008) and in conjunction with the concept of standard versus non-standard speech.
However, accent does not necessarily imply that the speaker is unintelligible; in fact, “Having an accent is not a sign of overall low proficiency. People who are indistinguishable in other ways from native speakers (e.g. grammar, vocabulary, and idiom) can still have accented speech” (Tracey M. Derwing & Munro, 2008, p. 478). Studies have shown that native speakers are incredibly sensitive to the slightest foreign accent (Flege, 1984; Major, 2007; Scovel, 1988), likely due to the vocal tracts used by different languages (Esling & Wong, 1983) in speech production. This sensitivity increases the likelihood for negative evaluation of foreign accents, which can have dramatic effects on the functioning of teams within a multinational corporation; however, the research in this area is limited and offers incomplete solutions for improving the dynamic that results from biases based on foreign accent within a group of English native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NNSs).
English is projected to be spoken by two billion people around the world by the year 2020 (Clark, 2012), much of which is owing to the internationalization of business where English remains the dominant lingua franca. Nickerson (2005) points out that English is an important part of the multinational businessperson’s daily communication. Especially in multinational teams, or Transnational Partnership Teams & Networks (TPTN) (Schweiger, Atamer, & Calori, 2003), made up of employees from many different nationalities and native languages, non-standard speech and the way it is received by the members of the team is significant. Problems and miscommunications often ensue, particularly among monolingual native English speakers. In the United States only 18% of Americans speak another language (Education, 2010), which results in a lack of empathy for the non-native English speakers regarding the difficulty of expressing oneself in another language. This lack of empathy and combination with negative implicit biases and stereotypes can lead to the out-grouping of NNSs within TPTNs and therefore limits the creativity and effectiveness of the team.
In this paper I aim to provide a solution in the form of linguistic intelligence (LQ) that reduces the implicit biases and improves the evaluations that NSs make regarding their NNS counterparts. This in turn allows trust to be established, forming a social community, which fosters the creativity of the group, resulting in innovative products and solutions for which the team was designed.
First I review the role of TPTNS as a valuable resource to the MNC, while explaining the conflicts that arise based on language issues. Next, I review literature related to language and accent bias, and identify a gap in the literature regarding a resolution of the problem of unfair negative evaluations and biases of NNSs. Then to explain the formation of negative attitudes, I introduce a concept of L2 “noises” based on communication theory, examine sociolinguistic research on attitude formation, and review the social identity theory as it applies to the NS-NNS dynamic. Next, I discuss the implications of these biases on trust and social community formation, two elements necessary for knowledge transfer and innovation (Bartlett & Ghoshal, 1989; Birkinshaw, Bresman, & Nobel, 2010; Bresman, Birkinshaw, & Nobel, 2010). Then I introduce the concept of LQ, aimed at normalizing non-standard English through a cognitive and motivational approach utilizing the logic of the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). I focus on linguistics and implicit biases in the cognitive dimension, and empathy, self-relevance, and self-efficacy in the motivational dimension. I define LQ and its boundaries and offer insights to its practical application in TPTNs.
Transnational Project Teams and Networks (TPTNs)
The last twenty years have seen a shift in the international management field to an increased focus on the subsidiary-HQ relationship and the creation and transfer of knowledge (Kostova, Marano, & Tallman, 2016). A key item in both of these areas is that of lateral cooperation, such as in TPTNs (Schweiger et al., 2003). Although TPTNs may be categorized by several different names, the concept remains the same. Research by Hedlund and Ridderstrale (1995) and Ridderstrale (1997) (as listed in Schweiger et al., 2003, p. 128) describes five key elements to define TPTNs: (1) Involved in creative tasks, (2) functionally heterogeneous, (3) nationally heterogeneous, (4) geographically dispersed, and (5) their formation is either improvised or stimulated through a top-down “business planning” process. As such, the diversity within these teams can lead to strategically important innovations as well as conflict due to language or cultural issues.
As extant research shows, diversity in teams facilitates creativity and innovation, a key purpose for the formation of the TPTN (Bassett‐Jones, 2005; Horwitz & Horwitz, 2007; Iles & Kaur Hayers, 1997; Schweiger et al., 2003). Often, TPTNs composed of representatives from many distinct subsidiaries are created for product or process innovation, particularly as it relates to the different subsidiary locations and national cultures. If the transfer of unique knowledge based on their national, cultural, and technical diversity leads to novel ideas, the TPTN brings competitive advantage to the corporation along with the transfer of new knowledge back to the respective subsidiaries through the team members (Subramaniam & Venkatraman, 2001).
However, TPTNs face distinct challenges apart from the typical difficulties that arise in group work. “… physical distance, cultural diversity, language barriers, and technological infrastructure differences. Moreover, the members are unlikely to know each other, or even met prior to the project and are likely to have different work, communication and decision-making norms,” (Adenfelt & Lagerström, 2006, p. 192). These barriers must be overcome through the leadership of the project manager and the other team members to create an environment for the successful innovation of new products or ideas. Because of their knowledge creation and transfer capabilities, TPTNs represent an extremely valuable resource for the multinational corporation as long as the potential conflicts, some of which stem from diverse native languages, can be overcome.
Non-Native Speech: An Area of Critical Importance
The literature on the role of language in international business is limited, and is often ignored or grouped together with culture (Feely & Harzing, 2003; Jane Kassis Henderson, 2005; Maclean, 2006; Marschan, Welch, & Welch, 1997; Poncini, 2007). Others focus on the role of a corporate language (Maclean, 2006; Nickerson, 2005; Seidlhofer, 2004), the influence of English throughout the world (Akar, 2002; Bilbow, 2002; Charles & Marschan-Piekkari, 2002), or language as a source of power (Méndez García & Pérez Cañado, 2005; Tokumoto & Shibata, 2011). Kassis Henderson has written extensively on the role that language plays in forming trust (Jane Kassis Henderson, 2010; Jane Kassis Henderson & Louhiala-Salminen, 2011) and the need for sociolinguistic competence when interacting with NNSs in international management teams (2005). Language has also been documented to constitute a significant issue that transnational teams struggle to overcome (Lagerström & Andersson, 2003; Maclean, 2006; Poncini, 2007; Schweiger et al., 2003).
Additionally, empirical studies in international business and discourse analysis reveal the negative evaluations and biases that exist as a response to non-standard speech. Śliwa and Johansson (2014) recently found that not only do listeners negatively evaluate non-standard accents, but the speakers also make negative evaluations of themselves and use strategies for avoiding uncomfortable language-related situations. This often diminishes their evaluation even more. The negative attitudes towards different groups of NNSs appears through research such as de la Zerda and Hopper’s (1979) examination of employment interviewers' reactions to Mexican-American speech, and Ryan, Carranza, and Moffie (1977), Ryan and Sebastian (1980), and Weyant’s (2007) findings of biases towards American English accents over Mexican-English accents. Gill noticed the negative attitudes towards Malaysians (1994), Cargile with Chinese (1997), Mulac, Hanley, and Prigge with Italians, Norwegians, and Eastern Europeans (1974), Hosoda, Stone-Romeko, and Walter (2007) with Asian accents, Ryan and Bulik (1982) with Germans, and Frumkin (2007) with Lebanese and Germans. Even among English speakers around the world, the American spoken English is typically favored over British English (Bayard & Green, 2005; Fuertes, Gottdiener, Martin, Gilbert, & Giles, 2012).
Additionally, the listener may discount the message of the speaker (Ryan & Bulik, 1982) or the listener will be inclined to dislike the speaker (Brennan & Brennan, 1981a, 1981b; Howard Giles, 1970; Triandis, Loh, & Levin, 1966) due to the presence of a non-standard accent. Merely the expectation of an accent based on perceived foreignness has also been shown to lead to negative comprehension, even in a situation where the speaker did not have an accent (Rubin, 1992; Rubin & Smith, 1990).
One can easily see that the existence of foreign accent bias, and subsequent loss of power is indisputable (Clegg, Courpasson, & Phillips, 2006; Méndez García & Pérez Cañado, 2005); however, to the best of my knowledge, extant literature does not offer a means for correcting these issues. In order to understand what is necessary to resist the bias, we first must understand the factors that produce it. For that I look to research in the fields of communication theory, discourse analysis, and social psychology.
L2 Factors: “You don’t speak like I do.” At the center of all communication is the idea of “senders” and “receivers” encoding and decoding messages through their own knowledge and personal experience. As the message is sent to the receiver, various “noises” distract from the message. These noises may be physical, such as an environmental distraction; physiological, such as butterflies in the stomach or a pounding heart; psychological, such as predetermined stereotypes or assumptions; or semantic, relating to strange word choice (Shannon & Weaver, 1964). I also argue that accent, pronunciation, and other linguistic factors contribute to the “noise” that a NS hears from a NNS and influences her evaluation. Therefore, I will refer to the aggregation of all L2 (second language learner) noises as “L2” noises, which contribute to the negative evaluations and biases of NNSs.1
Aesthetic differentiation studies by Giles and others in the 1970’s contributed to the first literature on accent attitudes. Two possible explanations include the inherent value hypothesis and the imposed norm hypothesis (H Giles, Bourhis, & Davies, 1975). The former is the idea that accent or dialect represents a certain level of prestige due to its being the most inherently aesthetically pleasing, or more correct, form of the language. The latter suggests that a certain accent is preferable due to cultural norms. In other words, the social group’s status or other non-linguistic factors, such as stereotypes, will determine the prestige of the accent. Trudgill and Giles (1976) later added the social connotations hypothesis, in which the attitude regarding accent is formed by connotations that the listener makes from personal experience. More recently, the intelligibility hypothesis from Giles and Niedzielski (1998) asserts that languages themselves are not inherently beautiful, but rather their perceptions are influenced by a variety of matters such as history, culture, and affect.
It is the social connotations of the speakers of a language variety—whether they are associated with poverty, crime, and being uneducated on one hand, or cultured, wealthy, and having political muscle on the other—that dictates our aesthetic (and other) judgments about language variety. (Howard Giles & Niedzielski, 1998, p. 89)
Various studies support this hypothesis (Boets & De Schutter, 1977; Delsing & Åkesson, 2005; Deprez & De Schutter, 1980; Dewaele, 2010; Schüppert, Hilton, & Gooskens, 2015; Van Bezooijen, 2002). On the other hand, Wolff (1959) contends that the listener’s attitude towards that particular language variety influences the effort that he is willing to put forth in decoding the message. Several studies also support this idea (Tracey M. Derwing & Munro, 2008; Geok, 1997; Johnstone, 1989). Rather than not being able to understand the speaker, as Giles and Niedzielski hypothesize, Wolff maintains that the effort put forth is the critical factor for attitude development.
Evaluation criteria. Regardless of what prompted the attitude, studies show that non-standard accents are typically associated with lower socio-economic status, (Howard Giles & Billings, 2004) and are considered less pleasant to listen to (Bayard & Green, 2005; Aaron C Cargile, Giles, Ryan, & Bradac, 1994; J. Edwards, 1999; Lippi-Green, 1997). Giles and Billings (2004) show that listeners evaluate speakers according to three dimensions: status, solidarity, and dynamism. Status represents the relative success and social class of a person, solidarity is the similarity or attractiveness to the listener, and dynamism is the energy or enthusiasm projected by the speaker. Śliwa and Johansson (2014) note that “non-standard speakers tend to be perceived as less competent (Boyd, 2003), less intelligent (Lindemann, 2005) and less loyal (J. R. Edwards, 1982) than standard speakers, and as speaking the language poorly (Hosoda et al., 2007)” (Śliwa & Johansson, 2014, p. 1138). Additionally, the tactics used by NNSs to avoid situations where they may be negatively perceived further contributes to the negative evaluation.
Derwing and Munro’s (2008) research shows that comprehensibility, defined as the listener’s perception of difficulty in understanding the speaker and the amount of effort needed to process the speaker’s message, differs from intelligibility, which is the amount of the message that was actually understood. Even speakers perceived to have a heavy accent can be completely intelligible; however, Derwing and Munro explain, “Some listeners will fail to understand even the clearest L2 speaker, simply because they have made up their minds that they can’t understand accented speech,” (Tracey M. Derwing & Munro, 2008, p. 486). This suggests that whether or not the message is properly received depends on the effort put forth by the listener. Research by Goek and Johnstone also found this to be the case (Geok, 1997; Johnstone, 1989).
Divisions and subgroups: You are not like me. Social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986, 2004) contends that one’s self-image is based on membership to certain groups which improves self-esteem. For example, social class, gender, age, family, sports teams, etc.… are all different groups for which one might feel a sense of membership and pride in belonging. Because we feel that membership to the group determines part of our identity, we try to enhance the perception of the group as much as possible (e.g. “girls rule, boys drool”); however, in doing so, we create “in-groups” and “out-groups” in which the in-groups discriminate against the out-groups in order to enhance their self-image (McLeod, 2008). Stereotyping and prejudices can also result from this “us vs. them” mentality by exaggerating similarities and differences between groups.
Further divisions may be due to monolingual NSs who cannot empathize with accented NNSs due to their lack of experience speaking another language. They do not know the difficulty that comes with expressing oneself in another language, including the anxiety that many feel, particularly in formal situations (Gudykunst, 1995). Glaister, Husan, and Buckley noted in their evaluation of language in managing international joint ventures,
In all of the IJVs in the sample, the English language was used between the partners. However, some European respondents noted that even though English was the agreed medium, they were at times irritated by the UK partner’s failure to appreciate that they were communicating with those for whom English was not the mother tongue. This, in turn, led to operational tensions. (Glaister, Husan, & Buckley, 2003, p. 19)
These are tensions that may not be obvious to the monolingual NS; however, can obviously compound other team-related issues, including forming language-based divisions within the group.
In a team environment such as the TPTN, there is an increased risk of in-groups and out-groups based on native language or culture. Research shows that globally distributed teams have the tendency to form subgroups, reflecting the “us versus them” mentality (Cramton & Hinds, 2004; Hinds, Neeley, & Cramton, 2014; Metiu, 2006; Polzer, Crisp, Jarvenpaa, & Kim, 2006). As research suggests, language promotes social identity and categorization (Howard Giles & Johnson, 1981; Harzing & Feely, 2008), which enhances these social divisions within multicultural and multilingual teams.
These group divisions can further exacerbate the negative evaluations and slow down the progress of the team, as Hinds et al demonstrate in their analysis of language as a “lightning rod” in subgroup dynamics (2014). “Subgroup identification and language asymmetries fueled one another in a reinforcing process in which language was a visible marker that kept subgroup dynamics alive, while divisive subgroup dynamics exacerbated the emotionally charged experience of language asymmetries” (Hinds et al., 2014, p. 554). Their evidence shows that language serves as a source of team division into subgroups, and because language is a constant, day-to-day activity it aggravates the negative interaction of the team.
The Impact of Negative Evaluations and Biases on the TPTN
Knowledge, trust, and social community. Essential to the creative process within the TPTN is the effective transfer of tacit knowledge (Kogut & Zander, 1993; Subramaniam & Venkatraman, 2001) through the formation of a social community (Adenfelt & Lagerström, 2006; Birkinshaw et al., 2010; Bresman et al., 2010; Kogut & Zander, 1993; Lagerström & Andersson, 2003). Tacit knowledge transfer includes not only the transfer of existing knowledge, but also the creation of new knowledge (Bresman et al., 2010), an essential function of the TPTN. An important part of building this social community is through personal relationships between members (DiStefano & Maznevski, 2000; Iles & Kaur Hayers, 1997; Lagerström & Andersson, 2003; Schweiger et al., 2003), which is achieved through trust (Jane Kassis Henderson, 2010). In emphasizing the importance of trust, Feely and Harzing (2003) and Henttonen and Blomqvist (2005) even support the idea of trust bearing financial importance as a corporate asset and through decreased coordination costs, respectively.
Miscommunications or misunderstandings due to L2 factors can influence the trust needed to form a social community. Trustworthiness is a function of ability, benevolence, and integrity (Mayer, Davis, & Schoorman, 1995), meaning that in order to gain someone’s trust one should show that they are able, have sincere intentions, and moral principles. This can often be a problem in intercultural situations. Kassis Henderson writes that “When communicating across languages, mistaken interpretations of the motivations and behavior of an individual commonly occur and false attributions may be made about character or personality” (2010, p. 360). Such false attributions can have a clear detrimental effect on the team’s dynamics where the team member first must establish his competence and prove that he has no ‘egocentric profit motive’ (Mayer et al., 1995). This is especially difficult when the individual may not have the language skills to correct her message, or even realize that her message has been misconstrued. Moreover, the NNS’s overall level of competence is usually judged based on their language skills rather than intellect (Jane Kassis Henderson & Louhiala-Salminen, 2011). Kassis Henderson adds, “Unfamiliar communication patterns or meta-communicative routines used by team members from different language communities influence interpersonal perceptions and attitudes, giving rise to uncertainty and ambiguity and inhibiting the creation of trust,” (2010, p. 362). Therefore, language is intricately intertwined with trust formation and team dynamics. Additionally, the lack of empathy that the monolingual NS has for the NNS further diminishes the trust among team members.
In order to build trust within the team, a community must be established in which there is common ground and common language (Jane Kassis Henderson & Louhiala-Salminen, 2011; Poncini, 2007). For this reason, it is important for the team members to socialize on a personal level to develop their own common language, enabling their minds to be open to different forms of expression (Jane Kassis Henderson, 2010). As reported by Lagerström and Andersson, one multinational team member had this to say regarding communication with team members:
[Y]ou must speak decent English; it might sound silly but if you do not you cannot communicate with other team members… But we all speak our own kind of English, which means that we need to socialize and spend time together to learn each other’s way of speaking. (cited in Lagerström & Andersson, 2003, p. 91)
Once individuals can adapt to each other’s way of speaking and communicate effectively without negatively evaluating based on L2 speech, relations will form and trust can be established. This is the basis of the social community which can then work to develop new and existing knowledge for the TPTN.
As Figure 1 articulates, the L2 speech factors influence evaluations and biases of the listener, which directly affects the trust of group members, decreasing the propensity to establish a social community.
The following propositions formalize this dynamic:
Proposition 1: L2 factors will increase the formation of subgroups as well as the negative attitude
of team members regarding the NNS’s status, solidarity, dynamism, stereotypes,
Proposition 2: An increase in subgroups will positively affect the negative attitude of team
members regarding NNS’s status, solidarity, dynamism, stereotypes, and biases.
Proposition 3: Negative attitudes towards NNSs will negatively affect team trust.
Accents are natural products of speaking a language with a different phonetic background that usually requires distinctly different movements of the mouth and utterances from different parts of the mouth and throat. Because of this accents are not easily overcome, and should not have to be overcome if intelligibility is not an issue. As such, emphasis on improvement in this area should not be in adjusting the accent of the NNS, but rather by decreasing the formation of negative evaluations and biases. Figure 2 conceptualizes this relationship. In doing so, I incorporate the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986) to demonstrate the nature of attitude change. I also formulate a practical solution to the formation of negative evaluations and biases of NNSs through LQ.
Language issues are often overlooked, yet are at the heart of every interaction that NSs and NNSs have. Some are more intense than others, but even the most subtle frictions can have serious detrimental effects on the relationship between individuals. The purpose of developing LQ is to become cognitively aware of language differences and motivated to process these differences in a way that will reduce negative evaluations and implicit biases. While the focus of this paper is on LQ as it relates to the TPTN, the nature of the concept allows for application in numerous other areas that involve communication between NSs and NNSs; whether spoken or written, or whether the circumstance is business-related or informal. LQ will need to be higher for face-to-face interactions where the effect of the evaluation can be immediate, as compared to reacting to an email where one has time to process, think, respond, and edit before sending; however, members of a TPTN will communicate both in-person and virtually, highlighting the importance for LQ in all TPTN members.
A foreign accent serves as a constant reminder to the NS that the NNS individual is different, often leading to stereotypes, biases, and negative evaluations based on status, solidarity, and dynamism. However, an accent or other trouble in formulating grammatically correct English does not imply lack of intelligence. Often monolingual NSs take for granted and overlook the knowledge and skills of employees and coworkers who operate in their second language. In fact, bilinguals have been shown to have increased cognitive development over monolinguals (Kovács, 2009; Sampath, 2005); however, while NNSs may be able to communicate effectively in their second language, these skills will likely never be equal to their proficiency and communication levels in their native language (Clahsen & Felser, 2006). MNEs should actively try to engage their NS staff in increasing their LQ levels so as to create a more level playing field among all employees and leverage its most valuable resources, particularly in such diverse and dynamic environments as TPTNs. This is not to say that bilingual employees have more to offer than monolingual employees, but rather that the TPTN may be overlooking members with knowledge and skills that may prove to be extremely valuable.
Training in the form of LQ may have a significant impact on evaluations of NNSs as evidenced in Derwing, Rossiter, and Munro’s study on the effect of accent training paired with cross-cultural training (Tracey M Derwing, Rossiter, & Munro, 2002). In fact, the accent training not only improved NS’s willingness to interact with NNSs, but also improved the confidence level of the NSs in understanding NNSs. Other research (Gas & Varonis 1984 in Tracey M. Derwing & Munro, 2008) also shows that familiarity with accented speech improves comprehension by NS listeners. This serves as important evidence for the application of linguistic training within multicultural and multilingual environments.
LQ focuses not only on the familiarization and linguistic cognition of non-standard speech, as in Derwing, Rossiter, and Munro’s study (2002), but also on a motivational and cognitive recognition of biases not previously found in other literature. Kassis Henderson and Louhiala-Salminen called for language and communication training that facilitates the development of trust in what they termed, “global communicative competence” (2011, p. 29) and Chen, Geluykens, and Choi (2006) also advocate for a language training program. While the need has been observed by these researchers, the method remains incomplete. The application of LQ fills this gap.