For Women in Law By Women in Law

The English Conundrum

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Ever feel like speaking English is like walking on a tightrope? Or perhaps akin to constantly learning to dance in a foreign rhythm? I do, sometimes. For those of us who aren’t native English speakers, each day may feel like being handed a complex dance routine to learn from scratch. More so in a professional setting, where every word, expression, and cultural nuance is a step with a strict rule, and the fear of stumbling is always there beneath the surface.

If that isn’t enough, add juggling the art of code-switching to the routine, this isn’t just switching languages but also tweaking accents and behaviors to fit in with the dominant crowd.



Reflecting on my arrival in Calgary from Zimbabwe 14 years ago, the subtle loss of my ability to navigate conversations in my native tongue beyond the confines of home didn’t immediately register. However, the unsettling moment came when one of my Zimbabwean colleagues lost her job. This was alleged to be necessitated by restructuring, but her position was swiftly reposted with a clear postscript: “Don’t apply if you have a heavy accent.”

It was an undeniable injustice, and even one that, had we been aware of the legal implications at the time, might have warranted legal action. Yet all we could do was internalize the severe results of being different, while her immediate priority was to secure another job. As this continued to happen to our loved ones and other immigrant colleagues, the pattern became more recognizable, and solidified within. The collective experiences etched an indelible mark on me, emphasizing the hurdles one confronts when assimilating into a new culture and navigating the complexities beyond.


The Unseen Bias Against Non-Native English Speakers

Alix Pham did some digging into the perks native English speakers enjoy. It turns out, an individual’s early language experiences can play a big role in their success. Pham contends that for non-native speakers, the challenge isn’t just about saying the right words; it’s about navigating the subtleties of communication and persuasion.

Even if one’s English is top-notch, keeping up with native speakers in fast-paced discussions can sometimes feel like trying to catch smoke, Pham asserts. Imagine being at a networking event, trying to join in on conversations that seem to move at a lightning pace. I often notice how native speakers glide effortlessly through the verbal choreography, while non-native speakers navigate each step with a bit more caution, hoping not to trip over linguistic nuances.

This challenge is also noticeable in team meetings dominated by native speakers. Requesting clarification on what appears evident to the majority is intimidating. Trying to convey a nuanced thought from your native language when the English words feel inadequate is discouraging. The fear of appearing incompetent in such situations inadvertently impedes the participation of non-native speakers, contributing to an undervaluation of their capabilities.


Why Does This Matter?

Unconscious biases may result in missed opportunities, affecting career growth and the potential to assume leadership roles. This, in turn, contributes to a less enriched professional environment.


What Can We Do About It?

So, how can we address this conundrum? This is the first part of a two-part series. In the next article, I’ll try to offer practical insights for non-native English speakers to navigate these challenges effectively. Additionally, I’ll provide suggestions for native speakers to foster an environment that maximizes everyone’s potential regardless of their linguistic background.


An Afterthought

As a non-native English speaker, this is my daily reality. My friends and I add our own flair to TGIF. It’s not just about looking forward to the weekend; it’s a brief escape from the constant code-switching – a little luxury that native speakers might not notice. On that note, TGIF!


About the Author

Charleen Sibanda is a lawyer with Harper Grey, practicing with their Business Law Group. Charleen joined Harper Grey in 2022 after completing her articles with a local boutique business law firm. A UBC law school alum admitted to the BC Bar in 2021, Charleen’s diverse background includes legal internships at the United Nations and the BC Securities Commission. Outside of work, she enjoys recording music and building her collection of short stories. Charleen has proudly published two articles with the CBC, accessible here and here.

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