Authenticity and linguistic privilege

A term stuck with me from the MBA CSEA 2023 Asia Pacific conference: linguistic privilege. Tammy Phan, Google's Marketing Manager for Vietnam, spoke of this during her keynote address.
by Chris Barlow, 2023 APAC Conference Committee member and Director of Corporate Engagement & Career Management at University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business

A term stuck with during from the MBA CSEA Asia Pacific conference: linguistic privilege. Tammy Phan, Google's Marketing Manager for Vietnam, spoke of this during her keynote address.

Mind you, this is not everything Tammy touched on during her address. She covered a broad array of topics, from the tremendous growth of Internet users across Southeast Asia (100 million additional people since 2019) to the economic headwinds for the region, touching on inflation, supply chain bottlenecks and inflation. She even forecast a staggering $110 billion increase in the Southeast Asian digital economy ny 2025 – roughly a 50% increase. (Word-up to business students: here's a a global opportunity to zero in on.)

Yet on day two of the conference, the discussion I had with peers during our session breaks was about Tammy's comment on linguistic privilege. She referred to this as an impediment for some to succeed, as they may not have had the same education footing when it comes to language education. This is not necessarily a new term, but Tammy did stimulate thinking as she made it relevant through an example of a recent hire she had made for Google in Vietnam - and how she gave a candidate a second look despite the person's language ability.

The term resonated with the conference delegates. Rhoda Yap, Global Director of the Career Development Centre at INSEAD, mentioned it to me as a standout – something that piqued her thinking on reflection of the keynote. Manuele Bosetti, a trained linguist and Sr. Associate Director for Employer Relations at Chicago Booth, caught on to this term as well. He related an example about language barriers - if you want to work in Japan as a young professional, you need to speak Japanese fluently. So that language ability is a required privilege. He also shared that in China today, unlike the China of twenty-years ago, to be a young professional you need to speak Mandarin fluently.

Many people in the world may not have an opportunity to be schooled in a foreign language. This could be for a variety of reasons: the expendable income of a family, a school system, or simply lack of exposure. I could argue that Singaporeans are linguistically rich. On average, how many languages do Singaporean speak? One could also argue that Americans English speakers are linguistically hindered, as exposure and the need to use foreign languages is limited compared to other nations. (Mind you, Americans are still privileged simply because of how far and wide English is used around the world.)

Recently at the Katz Graduate School of Business (University of Pittsburgh), we heard from students who completed a Career Starter Success Cohort - a program that concludes with students presenting their career and professional profile to our alumni and recruiters. A young student from Mainland China stood up. She first stated to the group how nervous she was because of her English ability and that this was her first formal presentation in English. She then confidently delivered an authentic presentation on her career passion and goals. Afterward I heard from several alumni and recruiters how impressed they were by her. (Kudos to you Zhaoyang Feng.)
Tammy Phan drove home an important point: that confidence and authenticity plus a demonstrated ‘growth mindset' can shine through what may be a linguistic limitation. What a valuable and positive message. Shout out to Tammy for delivering a great keynote that carried through subsequent conversations – one that we will carry home with us.