ESL Discrimination: Real or Ridiculous?

Non-native writers face discrimination online. Much of this negativity come for failing to write English “properly” – at least according to prospective clients. Looking been around various forums and markets, I’ve come across more than a few exclusionary advertisements about “native English speakers only” and such. Is there a reason so many jobs are asking for native English speakers only? Absolutely – and I’ll tell you why in a moment. Is this a reason to give up on a freelance writing career? Absolutely not.

Why Only Native Speakers?

It’s frustrating for someone who learned English and speaks it very well to have to deal with companies and webmasters who refuse to understand that you can speak two (or more) languages very well and write well in both. You’re a good writer who happens to be born outside a native English speaking country, so why the roadblock? There could be many reasons for the hassles, and only one that I agree with:

  • There are many writers who still struggle with the correct use of the basics of the English language and it shows in their work. Webmasters who have grown tired of picking through samples they can’t use for their projects often just lay down a blanket statement to exclude non-native speakers in hopes of speeding up the application process.
  • There is a school of thought that native English speakers are simply better writers in English than non-native writers ever could be. (This is ridiculous – many of my best writers in the classroom are ESL writers.)
  • Some styles of writing require a “common folk” feel that you can only get through an authentic voice of someone living in a particular country. This goes beyond native speakers to an actual tone or voice. Usually sales letters and certain styles of blogs need to read as folksy and local. If you don’t have a local voice in your grammatically correct English, you’re not right for the job. Native speakers is a tag put on many of these jobs, but really it should be more akin to Australian writer or British writer or New York writer to get the candidate with the right “feel.”

So if many of the native speaker tags and slurs are downright rude an unnecessary, how do you get around them?

  • Your first step is to get serious about your writing strengths and weaknesses. I know that I don’t write chatty sales letters well. I don’t offer that service. If you realize that your writing does sound a bit different from the casual articles and blogs you read from those living in the US or UK, your writing may be perfect but still have elements that make it seem off to native readers. If your casual English isn’t right for some jobs, simply don’t offer that writing service. Don’t write chummy sales letters or friendly blog posts. There is life beyond basic articles, after all. Stick to informational writing that is more “just the facts ma’am.”

  • Avoid the bottom if you’re not at the bottom. There are writers of all strengths out there. If you know that you’re still working on the basics of the language and planning to steadily improve over time, the lower rate jobs might be a nice way to practice your skills, especially if you’re doing this a hobby to make a bit of extra money – not to support yourself as a writer. In all honesty, you’re not ready to full-time freelance writing if you can’t really write that well in the language you’re offering. Consider looking for jobs in your native language while practicing in English to improve over time. If  you can write well in English, regardless of your first language, you don’t belong in the bottom rung of writers and their rates. To avoid the frustrated webmasters who dismiss non-native writers out of hand, simply don’t target that market. Most of these webmasters and some businesses are looking for articles written by “native speakers only” are penny-a-word types. So set your rates and your sights above that. Target markets that are more interested in getting the job done well rather than slapping words together or getting a great deal. Do you really want to be someone’s great bargain find?

  • Get technical! Technical writing and variants of it are perfect for many nonnative speakers. Technical writing is often done without emotion or that adorable native charm that is so hard to do for most writers, native or not. Technical writing is actually just one field of writing that shuns emotions and soft words in favor of more factual and direct speech. If you have a background in any field that requires specific instructions and outlines such as medicine, engineering, science or manufacturing, you can tailor your writing services to this market easily. Even if you don’t have a science background, technical writing is much easier to excel in if you’re good with sentence structure and vocabulary, but not so hot with conveying the proper emotion or tone.

If you’re dead set on writing casually, look for markets designed for your culture where your version of casual writing is in demand. Your background knowledge and social understanding will come in handy as well. I’ve recently started a project for a company targeting affluent individuals from an African country. The work needs to be in professional English, but I’m constantly seeking background knowledge on the culture and customs of the area to get the right grasp of the audience.

If you are able to take advantage of your diverse background by working in a niche that targets others just like you, you’ll be a perfect match without worrying about idioms and that exclusionary “native” casual tone that you’re working on in order to please some potential clients. While focusing on niches where you are already perfect, keep working on those idioms and learn casual tones though literature and blogs. I'll continue to provide tips here once a month as well.

Profile image for Rebecca Garland
Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

2 thoughts on “ESL Discrimination: Real or Ridiculous?”

  1. I know several excellent writers who are ESL- and not surprisingly, multilingual, not just bilingual. However, such writers are found in PhD programs- not at Elance!!

  2. If you pitch in writing and they cant hear your accent – there is no discrimination, even if you have unusual name. Plus, been multilingual helps to get jobs, when one has to interview or read info in one language then write about it in another. Industrial and business mags or sites have those jobs. Although, I noticed that when they actually know that you are an emigrant of first generation or foreigner they negotiate harder and try to cone you or delay payments more often. For whatever weird reason they assume you don’t know your rights. I never had to apply late charges to costumers who only emailed me and never heard my voice and never met me in person. Or maybe it is just my luck so far. I haven’t tried elance yet so I wouldn’t know about those adverts. I tend to ether get work by cold emailing or if someone recommends me.


Leave a Comment