Epistemic status: personal opinion, based on anecdotical evidences and my gut feelings as an expat among native speaker EAs

A large majority of EAs are native English speakers. Additionally, there is a significant portion of EAs from countries, such as Northern European countries, where English is well-taught or serves as a second language, such as India. However, there is also a small but significant minority of individuals like myself. In my country (Italy), the education system has neglected the teaching of English, particularly for those from lower-class backgrounds and who attended public schools of questionable quality. As a result, I had to teach myself English from scratch at the age of 22, and according to what I've been told, I have achieved decent results.

In the past year, I spent half of my time in London, primarily interacting with other EAs. I have noticed that native English speakers often pay little attention to the varying levels of language proficiency, speaking extremely quickly about already complex topics, and frequently using metaphors, analogies, cultural references, and technical terms. This is not something that occurs when I communicate with other non-native or expat individuals. And it is frustrating. 

Those who know me personally are aware that in my native language, I am a highly confident and fast speaker who probably talks too much, especially considering my job involves public and social media outreach about rationality. However, when I have to interact with EAs in real life, I sometimes feel stupid and become shy (which is unusual for someone who is a 95th percentile extrovert on the Big Five scale). I often just nod as if I understand what is being said because I fear that by asking "Can you repeat that, please?" I will be perceived as stupid and slow in a community that values time, effectiveness, high-value actions, and reason. I understand that this is mainly my own issue, and I am working on improving my language skills, but I think that something might be done on the other side too.

So, do we want to be more inclusive? Let's start with the little things, such as our day-to-day interactions. Here are some tips, based on my own experience, that I can give you if you are a native speaker and are interacting with a non-native speaker:

  • Try to be mindful and slow down the pace of your speaking
  • Avoid using too many metaphors, analogies and extremely technical words when they are not needed[1]
  • Be aware and try to control the voice inside of your head (which I am highly confident is there even if you don't want to admit it[2]) that says "ugh, this person who clearly isn't understanding me seems slow and stupid. I don't want to waste my time with them"
  • Reduce references to your country's politics, pop culture, cultural conversations and inside jokes[3] to a bare minimum.
  • Don't say "you're doing great! You're English is super good man" if I tell you that I am struggling with the language and if you don't mean it. Actually, don't say it at all. Even if it comes from a genuine and well-intended instinct, it might sound extremely condescending, like the teacher who says to a struggling student's parent "he's so sweet. I know he will do great things!"
    • Instead, try to actually help me by applying these insights

The list is obviously incomplete, so any additions or corrections would be much appreciated.

  1. ^

    Do we really need to use IT jargon every two sentences to express easy concepts?

  2. ^

    Source: more than a couple of occasions in which I was super excited by the conversation but I was struggling to understand and the other person stopped talking with me.

  3. ^

    I don't know (and, really, I don't want or need to know) about your political party system, the culture war inside your universities and the movies which you're parent's made you watch when you were a child. 

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Another suggestion for fellow native speakers: if someone asks you "Can you repeat that?", don't rephrase what you said, just repeat the exact same words in the same order.

Lots of people are perfectly capable of understanding what you said, you just said it too fast!

For what it is worth, I've often had different experiences:

  • sometimes I simply didn't hear clearly. Maybe the person wasn't speaking loudly, I wasn't paying attention, or there is a lot of background noise. So the problem isn't one of A) the sound reaching my ears and my brain struggling to process the information, but instead is one of B) not enough sound reaches my ears.
  • sometimes I didn't didn't understand the words or the phrasing that was being used, and rephrasing the same concept using different words allowed me to understand.

Off the top of my head I can't think of any heuristic (other than observing your conversation partner or asking for clarification) to figure out what the specific point of failure is when someone doesn't understand.

Thanks for this post!

I wanted to link a few previous discussions of this topic on the EA Forum, as I think the discussion there might also be relevant to this issue:

I'm a native English speaker who lived in a country with a different language for most of my adult life. There is a huge difference between someone who consciously adapts their speaking and a random person on the street. The difference can be as stark as me understanding 95-99% of what is said and me understanding 20-50% of what is said.

Adapting one's speaking for a non-native speaker is a distinct skill, and (my guess is that) most native English speakers have never even considered it. While things like accent are harder to be aware of and to control, word choice and speed are easy to adapt. For anyone looking for tips, here is what helped me:

  • Speaking at normal pace or at 90-95% of a normal pace was very helpful, as opposed to speaking at an I'm-so-excited-about-this pace.
  • Using words that are common (such as "location" or "building" rather than "venue") were a big help for me. Often when I didn't understand something, it was simply because the speaker used a word I didn't know, but I knew a more common/simple word for the same thing (such as using the word "residence" or "domicile" instead of using the world "house" or "home").
  • Prefacing or giving a subject line. Instead of starting a new topic directly, first say "I'd like to talk about TOPIC."

It can be easy to accidently appear patronizing if you slow down too much or over-enunciate, so try to be aware of the other person and of your social dynamics with the person.

I love the subject line suggestion, this seems really helpful! A few other suggestions (also based on my experiences as a native English speaker living in non-English-speaking countries):

  1. Slow (especially with distinct gaps between words) makes more of a difference than simple, and is MUCH better than loud, which mostly distorts what you're trying to say.
  2. Be careful about mistaking accent for content; if you're not careful, you might assume someone isn't putting together fluent sentences when in fact they are just mispronouncing some words.
  3. Speaking in your non-native language is very cognitively demanding, and if someone taps out of a discussion early, it might be because of that rather than because of a lack of interest or things to say.
  4. Comprehension of a second (or third) language is much easier than speaking; don't necessarily assume someone isn't following the discussion because they speak hesitantly.

Here are some things that anecdotally helped me as a non-native speaker in EA (although I consider myself relatively fluent), followed by some of my thoughts for native speakers (after the numbered list).

1. You mention:

I often just nod as if I understand what is being said because I fear that by asking "Can you repeat that, please?" I will be perceived as stupid and slow in a community that values time, effectiveness, high-value actions, and reason. I understand that this is mainly my own issue, and I am working on improving my language skills, but I think that something might be done on the other side too.

I strongly feel (90%) that asking for clarifications/explanations usually makes someone look smarter and more interested, and we don't do this enough. It seems to me that people consider it a strong signal that you're actually listening, interested in what the other person is talking about, and you're actually trying to understand what they're saying. Also, at EAGx sometimes even proficient English speakers didn't know what a word meant (examples:  MC/"master of ceremonies" and "marquee", apparently they're British words), asking for clarifications on those gives useful feedback to speakers on what terms are more common.

Anecdote: the only such case where I think people might have thought less of me was when I asked what a ToC was, and after that asked what a Theory of Change was, in a course where the material that week was about Theories of Change, and I hadn't read any of it. Ooof. I still think that I counterfactually looked less stupid by asking, since I was more able to follow the discussion.

I know this doesn't help much ("be less shy" is not great advice) but I think in EA asking for clarifications usually makes you look smarter, at least counterfactually.

2. Try to have talks in quiet places, I'm still surprised by how much easier it is for me to hold a conversation in English in a quiet place compared to a crowded place. I feel barely any difference in Italian. I think spending 5 minutes moving to a quieter table, a quieter room, or outside is worth it for me. Even for a 30-minute conversation. (To "abuse IT jargon every two sentences to express easy concepts": I find the SNR counterintuitively important when speaking in English)

3. Focus even more than you normally would on the person you're speaking with (I think this is good advice in general). I found that making a conscious effort to ensure that my interlocutor has 110% of my attention helped immensely. (Related, I expect all usual conversation tips to be even more useful in a second language).

4. Alcohol makes both speaking and understanding much harder. The effect for me is like 10x higher in English than in Italian.

5. (Maybe) if a conversation is especially important, consider asking if you can record it. I found that at EAG people were surprisingly open to this (as long as I promised not to share), but I don't know if it's because they would have been uncomfortable saying no.

As a minor point, I want to push back a tiny bit on asking native speakers to do things for us.
I'm a bit afraid it would add a trivial inconvenience for native speakers to talk to non-native speakers, and increase instead of reduce the EA English-native "bias". (Which I agree can be a thing, as another non-native speaker told me once: "native speakers just take up more space").
As an anecdote: one of the most valuable conversations I had (if not the most valuable) was with a very popular/senior EA at EAG, who had just had an absurd amount of 1-1s that day and was visibly pretty tired. I'm afraid that if they also had to think "Lorenzo is not a native speaker, I'll need to pay attention to that", they would maybe have scheduled their last 1-1 of the day with a native speaker instead :/. I'm afraid that in day-to-day interactions it could make an even larger difference.

In general, I, very personally, would not want most people to apply the post recommendations when talking to me, unless after 5-10 minutes the conversation feels limited by the language barrier.
Some tips I would personally prefer are:
 - the one from Kirsten: "repeat the exact same words in the same order". I sometimes get confused when I ask someone to repeat something, and they say something different. I spend the next 30 seconds trying both to deduce what was the original thing they said in the first place and to follow the conversation at the same time.
- "fake an American accent" heard it from someone at EAGx, if you have a very British accent it might be worth trying for fun.
- If you can't understand something I said, please tell me, and don't feel bad. I know my accent is pretty bad, it's my fault, not yours. 


Be aware and try to control the voice inside of your head (which I am highly confident is there even if you don't want to admit it[2]) that says "ugh, this person who clearly isn't understanding me seems slow and stupid. I don't want to waste my time with them"

Embarrassingly, I'm also guilty of something related to this.
On one occasion I think I greatly overestimated how strongly English fluency would correlate with achieving results, and overestimated the counterfactual impact of helping someone with a project because I thought their English was worse than mine.
On a separate occasion, I greatly underestimated the impact of a different opportunity because I thought being a non-native speaker would limit any contribution I could make.
So in general I now consciously try to update less on English fluency when making predictions.

Thanks for the comment, Lorenzo. A few random counterpoints to what you said, some positive and some critical.

1. On point one I don't share at all your confidence, quite the opposite. I would like that - i.e. that by asking for clarifications I'll look smarter  - but my impression is that on a deep and untrained-by-system-2 level, you will be perceived as the dumb foreigner who doesn't understand for a long time, let's say for the first few years in which you interact daily with native English speakers. To find out who's right should we try to test our points in an anonymous survey, by asking native speakers about their actual thoughts in situations like that? 

Three things mainly helped me in this sense

A. My baseline self-confidence, especially in social settings, is pretty high, even if I have strong highs and lows. So if I make a mistake and I think I am perceived as dumb for that I will not care too much. This will probably cure my unusual shyness with time. But this is clearly something which is not generalizable and is highly personal

B. Curiously, a meme that I saw actually made a great point. Is the "We Are Not The Same" meme that says "You speak English because it's the only language you know. I speak English because it's the only language you know. We are not the same". It's ironic and not a rationalist treatise about the pragmatics of language, but the point is: why should I feel embarrassed by my linguistic mistakes when I am the one making extremely high cognitive work to learn another language as an adult?

C. On the same note, a more serious argument. By trying to learn another language I am doing at the same time something nice and compassionate and extremely clever: I am trying to be a citizen of the world without being an arrogant prick, escaping the localistic mindset in which I grow up and I am squeezing my brain to his max capacities every day. I am the one who is doing the native speakers a favour by trying to learn their language, not the opposite. By thinking about that the "oh gosh I am a stupid dumbass" sensation doesn't disappear, but it's mitigated a lot.

2. I don't know what an SNR is. And that's what I was talking about: it's great to have internal jargon and all, but assuming too much about how much the other person knows doesn't facilitate the conversations and poses a barrier at the entrance that is too high. Having said that, this definitely helps in formal occasions like EAGs, but I don't think it's particularly valuable in day-to-day interactions, like when you hang out with EAs as a normal human being (e.g. grabbing a coffee/a bear? Going to a party?). But for formal settings in which you can schedule meetings, one-on-ones and using Calendly that's great advice that I subscribe 100%.

3. Totally agree. It's cognitively demanding and a bit frustrating, especially when it seems like you are the only one putting that much effort into being more aware, but it's worthwhile. 

4. I am almost alcohol-free and I can't relate that much, since my mental state hardly changes when I drink socially (e.g. a couple of cocktails? Half a bottle of wine?). I might feel a liiiitle bit tipsy, but overall the differences are barely noticeable from the inside. On a general note, I think it's great advice to drink as little as possible in general: all the common sense views about alcohol (e.g. it makes you less shy) are bullshits and not based on actual data. But, I mean, my guess is that changing the brits attitude toward drinking will be a particularly difficult endeavour.

5. Uhm, I understand it's something that may be perceived neutrally by some experienced rationalists EAs, but if we use the average person as a probabilistic base rate to forecast the potential reaction of anyone in a real setting in front of a similar question I am highly confident the reaction would be negative and you'll be perceived as a weirdo, lowering even more your social value in the setting ("foreigner which doesn't understand my language and that waste my time" + "weirdo who wants to record what I say"). So before asking something similar, I would need to be super confident about how much I am calibrated to the other person's mindset. I think too much time in EA we just avoid taking into consideration how normal life is outside our bubble.

On your point regarding the trivial inconveniences, I push back strongly. Honestly, I will probably not feel comfortable in a social context which doesn't have the willingness to adjust its informal rules to become more welcoming of diversity, starting from the use of language. So if by kindly asking EA native speakers to do some small things which would make my life easier I annoy them and if this  is not cost-effective for them to at least try to listen to me I would rather keep up hanging out with EAs. I can do my part, do outreach, partecipate a bit, but I will never feel that I am part of the movement. Fortunately my impression is that you might be wrong here and on average EAs will not consider being more inclusive a cost. 

I mostly agree with last points, advices and considerations.

Thanks for the reply!

On 1. (asking for someone to repeat makes you look dumber/smarter) I would be interested to bet on this, but I worry that replies to a poll would be biased in my favour (as you said, system 2 and system 1 could disagree). It might also depend a lot on details and context, but if you are also interested we can try to operationalize a bet!

On 2. (SNR) it was meant to be a tongue in cheek self-deprecating joke about using too much jargon, sorry it didn't come across that way! (I was thinking of Signal-to-Noise-Ratio , basically a way to repeat what I previously wrote with random jargon). I agree this point doesn't apply much to parties and crowded social settings.

On 5. (Recording conversations) agree, depends a lot on context.

On the trivial inconveniences, I am conflicted. I guess I defer to others with more experience in the community.

In general I would be curious to hear tips for non-native speakers from native speakers. Sometimes I feel that the language situation is as uncomfortable for one group as it is for the other, and I wonder what we could do to make it better.

In terms of trivial inconveniences / perception and gratitude for the work people are doing to speak English, one other small note: there may be more native English speakers than you realize who have spent periods speaking another language?

In EA contexts, it's pretty much always the case that the shared level of English between myself and my conversation partner is higher, since my Spanish is around a B2 level and my French around B1... but I have spent ~6 months each in countries that speak those languages and know it's hard!

I've gotten feedback before when I'm speaking too quickly, and I've always been grateful for it. Do you have any other suggestions for how native English speakers can indicate willingness to receive feedback ― I sometimes worry about making people self-conscious by drawing attention to their (good but non-native) level of English, but maybe adding something in my EAG bio like "I know it can be exhausting to speak English all day if you're not a native speaker, please tell me to slow down if I'm speaking too fast!" would be helpful?

Your points B and C are so right, btw! As a native English speaker, I can't speak any second language nearly as well as most non-native English speaking EAs. I'm super impressed with all of you, and far from thinking you're stupid or slow, interacting with you makes me feel stupid because I couldn't discuss highly technical things in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Mandarin...

As a side and personal comment, I don't like too much the tendency in EA to link to articles when trying to make a point. Years ago I hung out a bit with Objectivists, both in person and online. Something that frustrated me a lot was that, for every question I asked, they linked (if online) or referred (if offline) an article from Ayn Rand or from Leonard Peikoff, saying "read this". Instead of linking articles, I think it's way better to try to explain ourselves in our own words.

P.s. I am referring to this passage

As a minor point, I want to push back a tiny bit on asking native speakers to do things for us.
I'm a bit afraid it would add a trivial inconvenience for native speakers to talk less with non-native speakers, and increase instead of reduce the EA English-native "bias"

I think the point is well made by Lorenzo, as someone who understands what the linked text is referring to and doesn't need to click on the link. I think it is good that the link is there for those who do not know what he meant or want clarification.

In general I think it is a bad idea to demand more work from people communicating with you - it discourages them from trying to communicate in the first place. This is similar to the trivial inconvenience point itself.

To be fair mine regarding the link-to-articles tendency is not a well-formed opinion, just something I've felt during some online and offline conversations. Especially from other fellow rationalists, when they quote a Scott's article or an obscure post on the sequences when not absolutely needed. 

By the way, I think it's also a bad idea to demand more work from people you are communicating with, like informally requesting them to read a full article instead of trying to explain your point in plain terms. 

Let's put it this way: we can have the privilege to link/refer to articles/concepts in our bubble because we kinda know what we're talking about and we are people who like to spend time reading, but what if we have to communicate with someone who is from outside the bubble? We will not have that privilege and we will have to explain ourselves in plain terms. It's not a trivial inconvenience: if we don't exercise our ability to reduce the inferential distance (yes, I am guilty of the same sin) between "us" and "others" starting from ourselves we will always be unable to communicate our ideas properly.

But, again, I haven't thought about this issue properly so I reserve to myself the faculty to take some time to refine or abdicate my arguments.  

Luca -- thank you for this. I totally agree. We native English-speakers are often quite unaware, and unwittingly exclusionary and alienating, when we fall into these ways of speaking.

This can happen even across different English-speaking countries! I grew up in the US, but have also lived in the UK and Australia, and there can be significant failures of communication even across these academic cultures, based on different dialects being spoken too quickly, with too many culture-specific references.

I notice that many EAs adopt a sort of in-group 'EA dialect' that involves very fast speaking rate, staccato pace (fast-pause-fast-pause), and slightly over-annunciated consonants, as some sort of IQ-signal. 

It sounds like the way that the hyper-intelligent Mentats from 'Dune' might speak, if they've had a bit too much Juice of Sapho.

That EA dialect is pretty hard to understand for non-native speakers, I imagine. I teach a class on Psychology of EA, which includes many undergrads who don't have English as their first language, and they even find it hard to follow  YouTube videos of many talks at EA events.

If we want EA to be a global movement that's accessible (at least) to the 1.5-ish billion people who speak English as a second language, and not just to the 400 million-ish people who speak it as their first language, we need to be more aware of the issues you raise.

I totally agree. 

In my couple of years of experience as a fully committed EA, I've noticed IQ signalling is too many times more valued than trying to be clear and socially aware. I think that EA tends to attract a certain type of person (we know the drill: neurodivergent, high IQ, introvert, socially awkward, upper-class, UK/US born) and that's great if this grouping-tendency makes people comfortable to be themselves. But the other side of the story is that a communication culture which is designed to favour a certain kind of person will become unwelcoming for people who are strongly different (e.g. me, an extrovert, neurotypical, socially aware, low-class, street-smart southern European). 

So, I love the Mentat-style EA-dialect, I am super into using rationalist jargon in everyday conversations and I too like a bit of IQ signalling from time to time - because why not?  But I think that a collective social and cultural awareness skills training would bring great good to EA as a movement.

Another generally good approach: Avoid big words if you can. Uncommon words are much harder for non native speakers to comprehend even if we know the word. Often I found myself searching in my memory for the word's meaning and missed a whole sentence. It's difficult to do if these words permeate the materials you engage with,but not impossible. Also,don't use the word permeate!

One thing that might be going on is native English speakers are afraid that speaking slowly comes across as patronizing or racist.

Native speakers might be most used to slowing down and simplifying their English vocabulary when speaking to young children. So they're afraid of accidentally causing offense by treating you like a child.  

There's a racist (or more accurately: xenophobic) stereotype that 'foreigners are stupid' that people want to avoid at all costs. If you assume someone's English proficiency is low because they have a foreign accent and you're wrong you look like a racist.

So perhaps the default is people will speak quickly until you give them permission to speak slowly and then they're happy to.

I certainly wouldn't mind if someone just communicated directly and cleared up the whole mess by saying "hey, just to let you know I've only been learning English a few years. I can keep up with all the maths and concepts no problem but would you mind speaking a bit more slowly and clearly because English is my second language?" followed by a friendly smile. And then you could even coach me a bit as we talk on how slow to speak and what complexity of words to use. I can't imagine anyone at an EA conference responding badly to that if you keep the tone friendly and collaborative.

EDIT: Of course the native speaker in this situation could also take the lead and say "hey, just to check, I don't want to assume anything about your level of English. Is this about the right level of English speed and complexity? I know some people prefer I speak more slowly..."

Bottom line: for the highest chance of success both parties should attempt to take responsibility to communicate openly and directly about what complexity of English they should be using, that way at least one might address and solve the problem.

I think these tips are generally good. But one more we might experiment with, especially when online/remote:

Use voice-to-text speech recognition, and possibly also even translation.

My experience/impression is that this takes a bit of setup (good microphones, clear speaking voice, quiet setting etc), but actually works surprisingly well. I suspect we might be coming to the point soon where this actually leads to better and faster conversation between people with different native languages.

It’s hard to process new and complex ideas while also dealing with a linguistic burden (having to translate a foreign language, or speak your own language extra precisely, and adapt to unfamiliar pronunciations.)

Using this machine tech may be somewhat awkward and seem less natural. But the benefit lower cognitive load, and being able to focus onto issues may outweigh this.

For virtual contexts, you can also try turning on auto-captioning, which Zoom (https://blog.zoom.us/zoom-auto-generated-captions/) and Google Meet (https://support.google.com/meet/answer/9300310) support. It helps!

Yes I’ve tried that. It’s very helpful. it should be easy to pipe into a translation bot too. Dual mode (both languages appear) would be ideal.

Avoid using too many metaphors, analogies and extremely technical words when they are not needed

Thanks for highlighting these issues! I think implementing this recommendation would also make EA more inclusive for many native English speakers. EAs often use words and phrases that aren't used routinely (or in the same way) by native speakers who aren't EAs. Some native speakers—perhaps especially people who are just learning about EA or didn't study philosophy/economics—may similarly worry about being judged when they aren't familiar with certain terms. So when we can minimize jargon use while still communicating clearly, we should.

This very short book makes similar points and suggestions.  I found it to be a good read, and would recommend it: https://www.amazon.co.uk/THAT-CLEAR-Effective-communication-multilingual/dp/1916280005

"IS THAT CLEAR?: Effective communication in a multilingual world"

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