You can prepare a talk from a to z, know exactly what you are going to say and how (and this is even more important when English is not your first language and your skills are not top-notch) - but what can you do when you are asked a question with a thick accent that you just don't understand? You can ask the asker to repeat the question, but this is only possible once, and if you still don't understand, you're in a jam. This can lead to some seriously awkward moments...

What would be the best way to deal with such a situation?

3 Answers 3


What I usually do is to try to piece together as much of the question as I can and then rephrase/guess/fill in the blank in my own words ("So you are asking whether..."). If my guess is close enough the person asking usually relents. If not, repeat this process until the question is clarified.

In the long term the only solution is to try to expose yourself more often to different accents so that you learn to understand how they differ from the "standard" ones.

  • 5
    Also, once it becomes clear that you simply can't understand what the person is saying, often someone else in the audience who does understand will jump in and repeat the question. Nov 27, 2019 at 17:55

I have two suggestions that you might consider. Neither is a panacea but one or the other might help.

If this happens frequently, or is likely to, have a colleague who has "native" speaking skills and with whom you are in frequent successful communication listen for questions and relay them to you as needed. They can understand the speaker and you can understand them. I'm very deaf and have trouble understanding almost every conversation. But I can communicate well with my spouse, as I hear her everyday and know how her mouth moves when she is speaking. She often has to interpret for me in any social situation, even among friends where accent and language are not an issue. Some deaf speakers have colleagues or others use sign language to relay questions.

The second way, that works in some, but not all, situations, is to ask the questioner to meet with you after the talk in a quieter environment where conversation is easier and you can have some back-and-forth that is hard in a public space. Questions asked in auditoriums can be hard to hear even in the best case. A disadvantage, of course, is that others don't get to hear your answer. But even here, giving "I'm not a native speaker" as the reason for the request to meet is probably a good idea.

But I would avoid any suggestion that the other has an accent or other possible communication issue. Own the problem yourself.


Just be frank and say ' Sorry, but It's hard for me to understand your accent as X language is not my native language and I learned it for certain region.', then repeat the question to them and ask if you got it right, and if you didn't for X word, politely ask them to repeat that word or to change it.

In a more normal conversation this will help you learn more on the language and the other person will learn their accent might be hard and that it is not personal. In a standing talk or presentation start the same but right off but you can ask for rephrasing right off, or someone will repeat the question for you.

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    There are people who would be offended that you comment on their accent. I would avoid that. Leave out "your accent" and it is more friendly.
    – Buffy
    Nov 27, 2019 at 20:09

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