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I am a graduate student, and I am having trouble understanding one of my cohort mates. They are an international student, and it is often impossible for me to understand their speech well. They are obviously fluent in English; the problem is that they have an incredibly thick accent. I can sometimes make out a few keywords then reconstruct, but I struggle a lot, and I do not want the resulting awkwardness to negatively effect my relationship with them. It would probably make them feel unwelcome if I were to constantly ask them to repeat themselves, or constantly tell them I don't understand, so I would appreciate advice on how to navigate this situation in a kind and considerate way.

How can I do so in a way that both:

  1. Effectively addresses the reality that I can't understand what they're saying, and
  2. Does not make this person feel unwelcome, and does not make them feel less able to work collaboratively with me and with others.

Perhaps the only real answer is to just put up with the inability to communicate for a while, and over time, I'll learn to understand them better. It's also possible for their accent to naturally become more understandable as they spend more time in America.

Could saying something to the effect of "I really value your contributions to our work, and I enjoy spending time with you as a colleague and friend. I have trouble understanding sometimes, so I will probably ask you to repeat things often; I apologize for this, but I ask just because I want to hear what you're saying" be helpful, or better to not be so direct about it?

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    It seems to me that this is off-topic, since the only "academic" aspect here is that the OP is a grad student - but honestly, they could be asking the exact same thing about a relationship at work, or in an undergraduate program, or in any other situation where people mingle for extended periods of time. Given that there are no close votes and three answers already, I hesitate to vote to close. But I really think this would be much better at interpersonal.SE. Oct 12, 2023 at 14:41
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    Hope it's not a Brit with a normal British accent whom you do not understand ;)
    – Mark
    Oct 12, 2023 at 21:07
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    Communicate in writing (via e-mails).
    – Matsmath
    Oct 13, 2023 at 4:31
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    @Mark - I'm A Yorkshireman. I once worked for a couple of years with a lad from a small fishing village in East Lothian. That makes us, technically, both native English speakers. After working in close quarters, 6 days a week, after about three months I finally kind of tuned into it & became the only person in the building who didn't say 'pardon?' every single time he spoke. It kind of became a standing joke - in an inclusive way, he was as amused as we were. We joked that he spoke 'Accent with a trace of English.' ;))
    – Tetsujin
    Oct 13, 2023 at 9:40
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    @Tetsujin - I once read a newspaper story about an elderly man who was picked up on the street in London, seemingly in a confused state. He was brought to the police station but nobody could understand a word he was saying. They thought his speech sounded Polish, but the on-call interpreter said not. I don't recall what further steps they took before it emerged that he was a Geordie (from the Newcastle area of north east England), and had lost his false teeth. A teacher told us when were seven that Cornish and Hebridean people wouldn't understand each other. Mind you that was 1959. Oct 14, 2023 at 10:25

6 Answers 6

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The advice that I've heard is to not be shy about asking people to repeat themselves, asking clarifying questions, and asking if you've understood them correctly. That's recommended by this article, for example:

If you are having trouble understanding a non-native speaker of English, the kindest thing you can do is to ask clarifying questions. Don’t pretend to understand, nod your head and smile, joke about it, or tease them. This is both unprofessional and unhelpful.

I think this advice makes sense. After all, if someone is speaking to you, that means that they have something that they want you to know. If you ask them clarifying questions, you give them the opportunity to communicate what they want to communicate. If you don't ask them, then you're denying them that opportunity.

I have a very small amount of experience being the person who has an incredibly thick accent: I once spent a month in Mexico, and I know only barely enough Spanish to communicate. Being in that situation, I already know that it's hard for people to understand me, so I don't find it disrespectful at all when people ask me for clarification. Quite the opposite, in fact: if someone asks me for clarification, they're telling me, "Even though it's hard for me to understand you, I still care about what you're saying." Communicating in Spanish is hard for me, and being asked clarifying questions makes the situation much easier, not harder.

Obviously, there are respectful and disrespectful ways to ask for clarification. Saying something like "Sorry, I'm having trouble understanding you, can you repeat that? Are you saying something about the cafeteria? Are you asking where it is?" is respectful. Saying something like "What? Speak up! Huh? What? I don't understand! What? What?" is disrespectful.

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As someone whose native language is not English and have a lot of colleagues with very thick accents, I feel that I can offer a perspective on this.

At least in my institution - a big, research-intensive institution in the UK - having a thick accent is very normal. Even those who have been in the university for 10+ years can still have a thick accent, but as far as I'm aware very few people mention it. In my department, we have a lot of Italian, French, and German colleagues, but you just get used to it - you learn, for example, that this particularly Italian colleague overcorrects their pronunciation of 'h' so that 'ham' will sound like 'am' and 'am' will sound like 'ham', and you learn that this particular French colleague won't pronounce 's' at the ends of words. After a while, I don't think anyone finds it any different to getting used to a different English-language accent that they aren't used to (be it West Country, Cockney, Scottish, Irish, Southern American, etc.). It hasn't stopped our department from being productive and having good old debates in seminars (and in meetings).

It's very nice of you to think about this, but your colleague is probably self-conscious about it already, so it usually won't help for you to mention it and they won't mind repeating themselves (so long as you are not obnoxious or condescending about it - which I would think you aren't, since you are being considerate). You will get used to your colleague. It might help if you understand the phonology of your colleague's mother tongue though - our department is a language department, so everyone does in fact know Italian, French, German etc. at least on some level.

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  • Yeah, well said! with the thick accents already existing in the UK! I cant imagine a foreign accent that is harder to understand that a Liverpool or Glasgow native accent. Oct 13, 2023 at 14:05
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    @AnderBiguri well, I have myself been in the situation of talking to Glaswegians and couldn't understand one single word. But I don't agree that the existence of such dialects is an excuse for anybody to not try to be understood as best as possible. I remember a guest lecture by a finnish professor where afterwards everybody agreed they had no idea what the lecture even was about. That's just a waste of everybody's time. Maybe it's possible to learn understanding such an accent, but you can't realistically learn every possible specific accent of every foreign speaker. Oct 13, 2023 at 16:52
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    @AnderBiguri - you know when you've been approached by the Glasgow branch of the Mafia because they make you an offer that you can't understand. Oct 14, 2023 at 11:56
  • @leftaroundabout yeah I agree. But it should be a two way effort. In any case, we all just need to get used to it, getting rid of an accent is hard. Oct 14, 2023 at 13:16
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English is not my native language and I tend to disagree with other replies suggesting to be overcareful.

I would be happy to hear that my accent is too thick to understand so that I can show more effort. It's not condescending unless you deliberately want to insult me; and usually I can tell insults from non-insults. I realize that there is nothing wrong in having an accent by default.

What is condescending is to not mention my thick accent and make all my communication efforts to go in vain. If I'm suggesting an idea and you are missing my points due to an accent and not reasking, I would think that you don't value my ideas, which would affect my job and my social relationship.

Just be honest and respectful. Your assumptions that I can't take honesty or I lack a chance to improve my accent are the actual condescending things (personally for me) in this post here.

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  • This is the comment I most agree with. I taught for a long time in a program that was 50% Asian students. You have to be patient, and let the other person know what the issue is. You don't have to make a big deal about it, but in private you can say something along the lines of "I don't always understand you, but I'm never gonna stop trying!" More often than not the student replied "I can't always understand you either."
    – Raydot
    Oct 13, 2023 at 16:48
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I don't know if this will help or not as it is a solution to a different issue. I'm very (not profoundly) deaf and while I don't really "read lips" I get additional information by watching the lips/mouth of the speaker. I seldom pick up a conversation otherwise.

Perhaps you could try that for a bit to see if it helps before you raise the issue with the person.

English is a weird language, actually. Their accent is as natural (to them) as yours is (to you). They may be having the same issue with your speech that you have with theirs.

Another speech issue is that most users speak with "continuous speech" where one word blends into the next quite naturally. We don't usually speak in "discrete" words. "Bu twee spee klike thi sins tead." It is difficult for some (myself) to get the sense of something unless I hear (or otherwise grok) the first word. I often have to apologize and ask people to start over. And then, I pay more attention and often pick it up. You can also reciprocate for others with different accents (or other issues) by somehow indicating you have something to say before you say it so that they can pay attention as needed.

If informal "lip reading" doesn't help, try one of the other suggestions. Just keep it friendly.

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  • A couple linguistic issues/terminology problems in this answer. Saying English is "weird" is meaningless without a domain. Everyone speaks continuously, that's just how speech works. Oct 15, 2023 at 16:59
  • @AzorAhai-him- but it is safe to say that English is more "continuous" than many other languages. German (which sure enough has its own share of weirdnesses!) does not have this problem, it's generally clear to hear where a word ends and the next begins, even if you don't understand any of them. (Unless the speaker is drunk and talking strong dialect...) Oct 15, 2023 at 19:31
  • @AzorAhai-him-, my "weird" statement is based on the fact that English has had so many different components in its creation and development, especially Germanic and Romance. We have distinct words from both traditions for many concepts. Likewise they both influenced the grammar.
    – Buffy
    Oct 15, 2023 at 19:35
  • @AzorAhai-him-, and while other languages also use continuous speech, not everyone recognizes it as an issue in understanding for some (perhaps many) people. And in this particular context it is useful, perhaps essential, to consider.
    – Buffy
    Oct 15, 2023 at 19:42
  • @left uh no, it’s not safe. Drop a ref, then. Oct 16, 2023 at 0:22
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One tactic for an issue like this is to tell a small white lie and make the issue about yourself rather than the other person.

You could say, in private, something like ‘I have difficulties hearing/processing speech, so unfortunately you might have to speak a little bit more slowly / louder’. I guess this depends on how much you care about telling a fib like this, but it’s one way of resolving an issue without hurting someone’s feelings.

In the long run though, your ability to hear them will improve.

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    Actually, it isn't really a lie.
    – Buffy
    Oct 12, 2023 at 12:45
  • @Buffy I guess I am suggesting that you could say ‘I have a general hearing difficulty’ (untrue) rather than ‘I have a difficulty understanding your accent’.
    – user438383
    Oct 12, 2023 at 13:14
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    Not really. Different accents are a fact of life (and language). It is about yourself, in fact, as much as it is about anyone. The OP has difficulty understanding someone else's speech. It is likely reciprocal.
    – Buffy
    Oct 12, 2023 at 13:29
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    @Buffy "The OP has difficulty understanding someone else's speech. It is likely reciprocal." Not really. Presumably the other student is much more used to hearing American English than the OP is used to hearing whatever flavor of English the other student uses. Having a heavy accent is a very different thing than having trouble understanding standard American English. It might of course be that the other student has difficulties with both, but nothing in the OP's post indicates this. Oct 12, 2023 at 20:05
  • @AdamPřenosil Thank you for this very funny comment :-)
    – Stef
    Oct 13, 2023 at 10:43
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Communicate through written channels with this colleague whenever possible.

In this day and age of white collar work, much work is being done with one or more colleagues working from home.

As such, it should be possible to try to push as much communication with this colleague into written xhannels such as email or Microsoft Teams chats where his accent is no longer relevant.

If he speaks during an online meeting, just speak up and say you can't understand him, and blame the quality of your internet connection before asking him to repeat himself more clearly.

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