Scholarship ain’t bagged by American Lingo

In the world of finance academia, there is a belief that an American accent is indispensable for the aspiring researcher or professional; thus many of our professors give well-intentioned advice to non-American PhD students (typically from China and India) that they improve their accent as a part of their professional tool-kit for their future careers. I expect that the rationale here is that an American accent is equated with clarity of speech, idiomatic American usage, and a demonstration of adaptability to meet the needs of one’s (presumably American) audience. Let us examine this assumption piece by piece, starting with the latter and moving to the former:

A presumably American audience: the audience of a researcher is most likely fellow researchers, professors, professionals in industry (e.g. CFOs, Consultants, Investment Bankers etc). While there is an undeniable proliferation of speakers of American English in these areas, there is an arguably increasing number of non-American, Non-native English speakers in these occupations, whether as researchers, professors, or finance professionals. Therefore, it would be more appropriate that all speakers (including American English speakers) pay attention to their accents, and adopt a neutral, non-culture-specific idiom to enhance the ease of communication. The BBC World Service famously moved from a quintessentially British accent to a more neutral one to accommodate the needs of their vastly non-British listeners. Perhaps their strategic move is instructive here as the world of finance is becoming rapidly international, rather than specifically American.

Idiomatic American usage: In the USA, business protocols developed in the past (20th) century were culturally specific to America’s self-perception of itself as not formal, not pompous, but instead jocular and friendly. Thus, opening an formal dinner speech with a self-deprecating remark or humorous anecdote, starting off a client meeting with a comment about weather, illustrating the value of a strategic move to a Board of Directors using a baseball metaphor (play hardball, home run etc.) or Wild West metaphor (guns blazing, circle the wagons etc.) have all entered into American business communication. While they have been beneficial in enhancing communication among Americans who share these metaphors, they have been pointedly detrimental in communicating with non-Americans (or even Americans who do not share these metaphors). George Bernard Shaw famously described England and the USA as two countries divided by a common language, by which he meant precisely these localized metaphors. If a British researcher (say, Ms. A), were to talk about “going into extra innings” or “bowling a maiden over,” she would be as unintelligible to an American audience, as she would be perfectly intelligible to, say Mr. B from an Indian audience. In contrast, both the British and Indian researchers would be equally at sea listening to an American grippingly narrating an unexpected breakthrough “at the bottom of the ninth, with the bases loaded.”

Clarity of speech: The three elements which influence clarity of speech are fluency (smooth, enunciated delivery), comprehensibility (can be easily understood by an average listener) and pronunciation (which is self-explanatory), and all are equally lacking in American speakers as they are in non-American speakers: the oratorical style of successive Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama are a case in point. To the extent that researchers develop their fluency, an argument can be made for its necessity in communicating with an audience. Fluency, however, is an attribute of performance which is not automatically bestowed on speakers of American English, but of effective communicators in any language. Comprehensibility to a generally educated audience is the one of most intellectually taxing of tasks as it requires such a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter so as to structure, organize and simplify one’s research to its essential elements. Richard Feynman, the Nobel prize-winning physicist, is arguably more well-known for his ability to communicate the most complex of concepts to his audience, than for the discoveries themselves, which underlined his extremely sophisticated understanding of his subject matter[1]. In contrast, as George Orwell satirized in “Politics and the English Language,” the more typical befuddled academic is often prone to defensively hide behind a cloak of jargon, the undigested mishmash of his or her research in whatever language. Finally, the issue of pronunciation is in itself a thorny one as some pronunciation is more easily comprehensible to an international audience than others. The confusion of “R” with “L” has long been a source of amusement poked at Japanese and Chinese speakers of English, but nevertheless does not fundamentally block the comprehension of listeners (perhaps due to its ubiquitous presence). Still, misplaced stresses on syllables could lead to some confusion (“Indifference curve” comes across differently if the stress is placed on the “diff” rather than on the “in”). Perhaps a solution could be to encourage researchers to adopt a “neutral” pronunciation (similar to the BBC version) understandable by all users of English, whether native speakers or not.

However, when all is said and done, one needs to visit the primary goals of a researcher: to do top-quality research, come up with key knowledge-enhancing insights, and (for the more pragmatic of us) to convert these insights into practical and useful application. The need to communicate in a common language is undeniable, and to effectively communicate is definitely an advantage to a researcher (as it is to most other professionals in all fields), but this assertion that everyone work on developing an American accent seems to smack of an egocentric belief that all non-American researchers out there should adapt to the convenience of their American colleagues. For better or for worse the English language has become the dominant language of scholarship, as Latin was in medieval Europe, and Arabic and Chinese were in the Middle and Far East respectively. However, it is salutary to observe that while the Science Citation Index reports more than 95% of scholarly articles published in English, that more than 50% originate from Non-English speaking countries; linguist David Crystal has estimated that non-native speakers of English outnumber native English speakers by 3 to 1. A post 2008-America may still want to assert its version of English as the norm, but as research in Finance becomes increasingly international (as do other forms of scholarship), the current and future generations of scholars may come to view American English as a quaint affectation of scholarly interest only to linguists and historians of the English Language, rather than as the definitively modern Latin of 21st century academia.

[1] The Feynman lectures are still the textbook for undergraduate Physics courses at U of T. My first encounter with Feynman was through this textbook, which prompted my subsequent search into his other work, including the popular bestsellers, Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman (1985), and The Meaning of It All (1998), both of which I wholeheartedly recommend to the general interested reader as an introduction to which is sometimes literally rocket science.


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