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Language-Culture Ceiling and Breakthroughs of Immigrant Women Leaders

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When I lived in Europe, I taught English for a living. By European standards, my English won frequent compliments. In the U.S., however, people keep asking me where I'm from. I never take it personally; research shows that after puberty new language acquisition usually comes with an accent. Still, I could not help but notice that the media and entertainment industries foster language and culture intolerances of non-native English speakers -- often typifying them as primitive and impenetrable to reason. Remember the odious, Italian father of the fiancée (Everybody Loves Raymond), primitively-passionate Pakistani Babu, the irrational Iranian Soup Nazi (Seinfeld), even Steven Colbert stumbling over the name, "Ahmadinejad," implying that the man is as ridiculous as his name? Come on, Colbert, that's below your own standards!

In reality, as shown broadly in Rosina Lippe-Green's book, English with an Accent, accents support and perpetuate social structures with unequal power relations where employers discriminate on the basis of accent and the judicial system protects the status quo and reinforces language subordination. The book ignited an in-depth discussion of American attitudes toward language. A language-culture ceiling exists, invisible but palpable: Can you imagine a foreign-born American with an accent (except British) hosting a talk show on a major TV network? Probably not, even though that host would appeal to 60.6 million Americans who speak a language other than English at home. To my knowledge, one exception is Fareed Zakaria hosting GPS on CNN. Well, how about a woman with an accent, to break the triple gender-language-culture ceiling? Forget about it! Let's get real: No major network dares to break the ceiling like this.

Today, with immigration reform pending, the language-culture ceiling that blocks many talented immigrants deserves more attention than ever.

Language-Culture Tandem to the Fore

The great American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf were the first to make clear that people who speak different languages perceive the world differently -- which spurred theories linking languages and cultures. Politicians and media, however, typically focus on the immigration reform legalities while ignoring the critical issues of linguistic and cultural integration.

Finally, a study by CPPS discussed the implications of language-culture-immigration interconnection, fueled by the need to address this in courts. Indeed it is not enough to learn English: Reciprocal ties among language, thought and culture matter more than language alone. Why? Because different language-culture tandems have their own preferred ways of organizing our behaviors -- with different styles of decision-making and communication, different ways of presenting our thoughts, different meanings for talk and silence -- even different values. Nonverbal behaviors, such as expressions of respect, understanding and strong emotions can also be badly misinterpreted. Thus we need to include culture studies in the whole host of immigrant issues, finding a place for this in the immigration reform discourse -- and legislation.

The Bold Immigrant Standard: "To Strive, to Seek, to Find and Not to Yield"

At its most basic, this quotation from Tennyson's Ulysses means never giving in and making the most of your life. Here are two steadfast immigrant women I interviewed for my upcoming book, A Second Start: How Women Across Cultures Make It in America and Contribute to America's Well-Being and Cultural DNA:

Kaye Foster-Cheek, from Jamaica, is setting a standard for inclusive corporate leadership. Working initially as a housekeeper and healthcare-aide, Kaye eventually completed her MBA at Columbia University School of Business. She is no longer seen as a "girl from the island," but a global leader with significant intercultural experience. Her English, coming from a former British colony, was fluent. But she remembers, "there were many assumptions made about my intelligence, my potential and even my accent, which today I 'wear' with pride. This required me to spend inordinate amounts of time explaining, justifying and demonstrating my competence, commitment and capability."

Kaye was fortunate to have had visionary white male mentors who provided opportunities for self-realization. Her roles of VP of HR at Johnson & Johnson and SVP of Global HR at Onyx Pharmaceuticals honed her deep-seated Inclusive Leadership skills (rooted in Jamaican collectivist culture) -- which U.S. corporations find very desirable but hard-to-find among generally individualistic orientation of native managers. Kaye is a leader who cares and asks people for feedback and insight, even when it's hard to hear but benefits the company overall. Precious!

Ivana Trump, from Czechoslovakia, is setting a standard for linguistic and cultural adaptation. Ivana was born to be bold: Her beauty, athletic prowess, fashion style, smarts and adaptation to U.S. culture often made the news. A self-made person, her early passion for skiing and a master's degree from Charles University in Prague led her to glide through and overcome challenge after challenge, undeterred.

Ivana made her initial big bucks the old-fashioned way, marrying a millionaire and taking a major role in the Trump organization. Then, she acquired sufficient business savvy to found two successful companies of her own. Self-confidence prevailed over limited English proficiency: "The most difficult issue facing immigrants is learning how to write and speak such a complex language. If you don't really understand -- smile a lot. Makes you look wise and happy," shares Ivana. It took more than smiling to master her English -- which shows in her cameo role in a Hollywood movie, The First Wives Club, and in three best-selling books (including For Love Alone, which became made a TV movie). Divorces notwithstanding, Ivana's achievements surpassed her grandest expectations, all due to her bold ability to adapt.

Out With Intolerances!

A condescending attitude toward immigrants, based in part on their different cultures, not-too-perfect English and accent, is "older than America itself." Some habitually intolerant folks downgrade the contributions of 40 million foreign-born Americans who are daily breaking through the language-culture ceiling. In truth, we cannot afford these intolerances any longer: Global realities of today push us to hold on to all available resources, including the creativity of our immigrants. Sustaining a climate where they feel desirable and productive means acting for the sake of U.S. prosperity -- so, out with intolerances!