I have a lecturer at university that I find very hard to understand. My lectures are taught in English, but my lecturer is of East Asian origin, and English is not his first language.

I find the lectures incredibly hard to follow, just trying to understand what is being said requires a substantial effort, and I find the material is challenging in any case.

There is no textbook for the course, but we are given printouts of the lecture slides that are used in the lectures (six to each side of an A4 page). While the lecture slides do contain the material, they don't explain it like a good lecturer would.

I've spoken to my tutor about the course, telling him that I find it very hard to follow the lecturers. Many of my peers feel a similar way to how I do.

Finally, let me point out that I bear the lecturer no ill will; I just want to do well on the course.

  • 12
    Have you tried audio-recording it and learning how to understand what your lecturer is saying? The incomprehensibility of an accent is often just the listener's unfamiliarity with it.
    – 410 gone
    Feb 12, 2014 at 18:29
  • When you say there is no textbook, do you mean the course doesn't follow a specified textbook, or that the material taught can't be found in print anywhere (e.g. if this is cutting-edge research)?
    – Bitwise
    Feb 12, 2014 at 19:24
  • 2
    @EnergyNumbers Though audio-recording can be a good learning strategy, it might be inappropriate (and even illegal) to do this without the permission from the instructor...
    – tqw
    Feb 12, 2014 at 21:05
  • 2
    @IanRingrose more specifically, judging from the user info of the OP, the question is what to do if the accent is so strong a native speaker doesn't understand the lecture. Feb 13, 2014 at 20:29
  • 8
    We've been discouraged from finding non-recommended text books since apparently little of the material will be relevant. THAT is the sign of a bad instructor. Not the accent. He is there to help you learn; his not having a good pronunciation is his misfortune, not his fault (improving the accent is possible, but requires a tremendous amount of effort that the university won't release him from the regular responsibilities like teaching and research to pursue). But recommending some books to read, especially at intro level, is so easily doable that him failing to do so is just wrong.
    – StasK
    Feb 14, 2014 at 2:13

7 Answers 7


As a lecturer in Asia, I appreciate what you are saying. I have some colleagues who are Asian who are quite clear when they speak English and others with whom I require a minute or two to even recognize when they are speaking English because their accent is so strong. You have to work with what you've got.

While you could confront your lecturer, as snim2 said in an answer, you need to be delicate about this. The lecturer could find you condescending or insulting. Even if the lecturer does not think you are being purposefully hurtful, making a lecturer self-conscious about his accent might make him an even worse lecturer (of course, it could help, depending on his personality).

I would recommend talking to the lecturer and simply say something like this: Hi teacher, I'm finding it necessary to read more about this topic in order to do well in your class. Could you point me in the direction of some reading material that I can use to improve my understanding of your subject? (then stop talking)

Once you have the reading materials, focus your learning there, perhaps with some genuine emails to your lecturer, if he allows.

Even the lecturers I've met with horrible English will happily go out of their way to find some material for you to read. Either they will recommend a textbook, some articles, or they will have some material they have collected on their own. I don't believe I have ever met a university lecturer who would be offended by this approach nor have I met one who would not support a student with such a request.

  • Let's hope that when they recommend you a textbook, you can understand what they said! An acquaintance of mine has a strong accent and even after knowing him for some time, I still can't always tell what he is saying. It's a real problem. Mar 12, 2023 at 12:52

Partially this will depend on how specific the course is. If this is a general "Graduate level intro to X" class, my first suggestion is to look for an equivalent course provided on one of MOOC sites. For instance, if your course was an introduction to machine learning, you might have a look at Andrew Ng's course.

At the graduate level however, its entirely possible that the material you're being taught is difficult or impossible to find online (it could be a professor's seminar course afterall, in his or her specific research area). If this is the case, consider asking the instructor for more resources. He may know a good textbook from when he learned the material, or might be able to suggest lecture notes from another school that are available online. Phrasing this as "I'm looking for more to do and more to read!" can be a good strategy for getting help without offending the instructor, if you are concerned about this. You might also try talking to other faculty members in this area (if there are any at your school). In my experience, most faculty members are happy to take a little time for one-on-one instruction if you're polite and genuinely interested. This is especially true if you're in the same lab. At minimum, these people may know of resources that your own instructor does not.

Finally, if you have to tough it out, there are good study strategies that you can use. A great starting point is to form a study group with the other students. If they're getting it, they can explain it to you. If not, you can figure it out together, and at least you'll know it's not you alone.

  • 3
    Asking for supplementary material in this manner could also be dangerous, since the professor might recommend books or lecture notes that assume you already know what he's teaching rather than material that helps you learn the "basics." Feb 13, 2014 at 0:10
  • 3
    While I admit it might not produce useful material, I can't see how this could be dangerous. At worst, you'd get a reference to a somewhat useless resource, but just seeing the same advanced material presented in a different way could still be helpful. Feb 13, 2014 at 5:37
  • Another alternative is to phrase it as you are lacking some background, and would like a textbook to review the basics.
    – Davidmh
    Jan 1, 2016 at 14:47

I think you are dodging the more difficult question - should you confront the lecturer about this problem? The answer is definitely yes. The lecturer is a professional, he or she will want to gain honest, helpful feedback to improve their performance. They are probably completely unaware that students are finding it difficult to understand the lectures, and they will not become telepathic in time for you to sit your exams. So, be polite and professional about it, but find a way to let them know. Use email if you have to. And in the mean time search out Google Scholar to gain a better understanding of the material.

  • 5
    It is impossible for him to be absolutely clueless about the fact that his students are having a hard time understanding him. Most likely, the lecturer himself will be struggling with the issue and will know his problem better than anyone from having to constantly navigate the often discriminatory foreign academic landscape. Of course he will have to work hard to improve his communication abilities but I think students also have to be more patient and learn how to understand foreign accents. At least he is speaking YOUR language for you, not the other way around! Feb 12, 2014 at 23:51
  • 8
    "At least he is speaking YOUR language for you, not the other way around!" Well yes, but this suggests that a university in, say, the United States there is a perfect symmetry between English and other languages. There isn't, of course. While English is not the official language of any American university I know, it is the unofficial language of most such universities, and students should reasonably be able to expect that their lecturers can make themselves understood in English. That is what the job requires; it is not some piece of largesse on the part of the lecturer. Feb 13, 2014 at 1:17
  • 4
    Some departments (e.g. mathematics) at some universities are notorious for having instructors with inadequate English skills. I remember well visiting Yale as a prospective undergraduate (more than 20 years ago). I sat in on a calculus lecture, and the lecturer's English was so poor that I couldn't quite explain to him that I wanted to sit in on his course for the day rather than transfer into his course. That made a bad impression on me then and still does now. Feb 13, 2014 at 1:20
  • 2
    So, while as an instructor I am less than thrilled with the idea of students complaining about their instruction, I think that if you find your instructor's English inadequate or even that it creates significant additional hardship, you probably should complain to the higher administration: they've screwed up. Feb 13, 2014 at 1:24
  • 2
    By the way: "I think students also have to be more patient and learn how to understand foreign accents." Yes, I agree. It is a notorious joke that at smaller (e.g.) Southern colleges, someone with dark hair and not speaking with the local accent is often assumed to be foreign. But there is a point beyond which someone's accent is too hard to understand, though locating this point precisely may be difficult. (I have colleagues X and Y; X is a native English speaker and Y is not. X cannot Y much of the time. I can. But still this means that Y's accent is too strong.) Feb 13, 2014 at 1:24

Try getting familiar with the terms used in this area. Our first DSP lecture was about "disco time systems", took us half an hour to realize it was "discrete".

I would aks if he/she could use slides with some bullet points on it. Do not mention "everyone" has problems understanding him/her, this might be embarrassing because you talked about it with others. Just say you have (sometimes) problems following.

No experiences or assumptions made about how this is perceived in asian cultures.

  • 7
    I had a math course on "deeferential secretions", once. After about three weeks we had compiled a translation glossary for the class. Thankfully the lecture followed the text closely for the first few weeks. Feb 14, 2014 at 4:56

Is there a class representative? Many universities get the students to elect someone. If there is such a person, there should be some arrangement to meet with the lecturer to discuss general issues.

The representative could take an approach along the lines of 'several of the international students are having difficulty understanding your accent and are finding the slides are not detailed enough to capture all the information. Would it be possible to provide links to readings in the slides and/or slow down a little when speaking'.

If there is no representative, then perhaps you could ask the tutor to approach the lecturer. You would probably need to get a few people to confirm to the tutor that it's not just you. Alternatively, the tutor could say to the lecturer that several students are not understanding and he/she would like to recommend some reading materials and could the lecturer provide the tutor with something for each topic.


As a lecturer who tries to make the courses understandable to students, I find this situation horrifying. I only hope this is a graduate course, for two reasons: 1) there could indeed be a problem with available lecturers for the specific class you are taking and b) the classes on graduate courses are usually smaller and the lecturers more available for 1-to-1 discussions.

If it is a graduate course, perhaps you can ask the lecturer or your classmates for additional material. If it is introduction to AI, then I don't understand the warning not to find additional resources: the field is so old that there are literary hundreds on textbooks on this topic. What on earth could not be relevant for "introduction to artificial intelligence"?

If it is an undergraduate course, then you have a real problem, but perhaps even simpler solution. Disregard what lecturer has told you and get a good book or two on introduction to AI. You apparently have slides, so you should have very good idea of which topics are covered, and find a book that covers most of it. Learn using the book, and use the classes to just keep tabs on the lecturer's progress.

Now, in the long term this person should not be teaching undergraduate course. Not all people are good speakers and teachers, and this can do real damage to the institution where you are studying. There is perhaps no way to solve this by students, but faculty themselves should have enough reason to prevent this guy from teaching again. It is hard and painful, but he may be excellent scientist and he should work as a scientist, not lecturer.


I have seen this problem solved two ways.

  1. Get the professor to write extensive slides, which he can use in class. Many professors just read slides they preprepared for the lecture anyway, and this is the best thing a professor such as this can do to increase his understandability.
  2. Get transferred to, or just start attending, other currently ongoing versions of this class. Often the class is being taught by multiple professors concurrently. Often they even cooperate and teach the same things on the same day.
  • "Get the professor to write extensive slides" is an advisory for the administration, not the students - this is far above the influence students have.
    – xmp125a
    Jan 15, 2018 at 7:26

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .