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I recently attended an average international conference in Computer Science. This was the first time I actually attended an international conference.

The level of English that I heard during the talks ranged from average to extremely bad (ignoring the native speakers/people that lived a long time in an english speaking country).

I am not a native English speaker, and I do not expect other researchers in the same situation to be as fluent as a native speaker either. But I have worked hard to improve my accent and my elocution to a point where I feel very comfortable speaking the language without stuttering every two words or mispronouncing a lot of things.

As such, I felt extremely frustrated during the entire conference: a speaker with bad English would quickly annoy me, because I felt as if they did not work hard enough on their English elocution, which I believe is an inherent part of being a scientist (especially in Computer Science, where conferences are very common). Therefore, I ended up not being interest in the vast majority of the presentations, even if the subject might have sounded appealing.

How can one improve at looking (or rather, hearing) past the researcher's English, and focusing on their actual contribution?

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    It seems that you're subconsciously committing the following error of logic: "One element of this presentation (the language) is bad, therefore the presentation as a whole is bad, therefore all elements of the presentation (including the content) are bad." Maybe noticing this error will help you avoid it. – Nate Eldredge Feb 29 '16 at 20:31
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    A note: sometimes there are speakers who come from non-academic environments (e.g. research centers) and are not used to speak to large audiences. – Massimo Ortolano Feb 29 '16 at 22:03
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    Among the worst speakers I have experienced in conferences were actually British speakers. Speaking a flawless Oxford/Cambridge English, but in a tone, volume and speed appropriate for a polite club conversation, not a hall with 400 delegates and bad acoustics, they were virtually unintelligible; and that, despite coming from the country of actors, plays, and Shakespeare. Not everyone is a gifted speaker, not everyone is native or has time to practice or talent to speak, not everyone has been properly coached. Be tolerant and accept these flaws as a lesson for yourself as to what to avoid. – Captain Emacs Feb 29 '16 at 22:47
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    A lot of not native English speakers have the opposite feeling: the worse the English, the easier to understand. In fact, a lot of people can understand any speaker except those that are native speakers of English: bad English is usually simple English pronounced in the same way it is written, and therefore easy to understand. About twenty years ago, a professor of mine said that the problem with American and British speakers is that they are the only ones that don't speak English - that is, the only ones that don't speak the English other people understands. – Pere Nov 18 '16 at 21:37
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    One of the greatest scholars in my field (a part of Spanish literature) was British. And he was well known for having one of the most attrocious accents imaginable, effectively pronouncing every word in Spanish as if it were an English word. Don't let accent or quality of language dissuade you, as @NateEldredge points out, poor language skills don't mean poor content, which is the most important part. – guifa Feb 3 '17 at 3:13
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You need to get over this feeling, if only because there is nothing you can do about it.

The point of a presentation is to convey information and meaning. It is certainly true that some presenters fail at this, though more often than not these are issues of presentation and structure, rather than language. Indeed, while language issues are sometimes distracting, great pronunciation and use of elaborate grammar are not necessary to convey what you want to say. Most scientific papers are (often purposefully) written in relatively simple language. Most rap songs use grammar that would get at best a D- grade when used in high school. When you talk to friends, you say things like "say it ain't so" or "ain't no sunshine" and other sentences that are grammatically wrong. Yet, in all of these contexts, we communicate what we want to say just fine. In other words, while there clearly is a level of language discomfort beyond which a speaker is unable to convey meaning, this level is actually quite a distance from being a fluent and elaborate speaker of a language.

So, focus on what a speaker wants to convey, using his spoken words and what's on slides and other props, and less on the speaker's level of language.

28

So I'm a native English speaker, and I used to be kind of a snob about people whose spoken English was poor. I got over it. I remember the exact instant that I got over it, in fact. Here it is:

I was an undergraduate, and I visited a seminar on a subject that interested me but that I didn't know very much about. The speaker at the seminar had an impenetrable Chinese accent, and I wasn't able to focus on the talk at all because I could barely understand him. "This is terrible," I thought. "No one can possibly be getting anything from this."

The talk ended and the speaker took questions. The first question was long, thoughtful, and detailed: the questioner was trying to related something from a slide early in the presentation to a slide from late in the presentation. I did not understand the question because the gentleman who asked it had an impenetrable Polish accent.

After some back and forth, it became clear that the speaker thought the question was interesting but didn't know the answer. But someone else in the audience did: a long, thoughtful answer that I did not understand because the answerer had an impenetrable Russian accent.

Then it hit me: everyone in the seminar room had just learned something interesting, except me, because I was distracted by being an English-language snob. That was my problem, not theirs.

I eventually figured out to concentrate on what's maybe called "active listening": constantly rephrasing what the other person is saying into my own words, and inquiring occasionally whether I'm summarizing things correctly. You might not like to interrupt someone with clarifying questions during a presentation. Within reasonable limits, you should get over that --- if you're flummoxed about something, chances are that other people in the audience are confused about the same thing. Active listening has helped me to deal with native English speakers just as much as with speakers of broken English, in fact. For instance, when you argue with someone, they have a lot more respect for you if you can correctly state their position before you take issue with it.

(The happy ending of the story is that the Russian and the Pole both ended up on my PhD committee --- good people, both of them, from whom I learned a great deal. No recollection of who the original seminar speaker was, though.)

  • I do the same and it helps me a lot. – tsttst Feb 3 '17 at 4:38
  • I think that's a great story. – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 18 '17 at 14:13
9

Learn to understand English better. The less effort you have to spend understanding the language, the easier it is to understand the contents as well.

Learn the speakers' native languages. The language of scientific conferences is usually not US English, British English, or any other form of English spoken natively somewhere in the world. The so-called International English is full of idioms borrowed from other languages. The better you understand those languages, the easier it is to understand what the others are saying.

3

I would deal with this as I would any talk: Concentrate on formulating a question to ask the speaker after the talk.

1

You master the English language, but the language used often in conferences is the so called IBE (International Broken English), and the problem is that you don't fully understand it. Most non native English speakers have the opposite problem: broken English is easy to understand for us, but we had to work hard to understand actual English - specially when spoken from native speakers. Anyway the solution for us is clear: practice listening a lot. You can use the same solution: listening as much broken English as you can. Now Internet makes it easy and you can find a lot of videos in Youtube with academics speaking in broken English about a lot of things.

Another problem might be that you don't like broken English. Again, a lot of people has had the same problem with actual English and had overcome it. The solution is to practice listening until you stop noticing it. Maybe this won't make you to like it, but it could help you to stop worrying about it.


Edit: I suggest reading in Rob's good answer the example of a conference where a Chinese, a Pole and a Russian could understand each other in different brands of poor English while he, a native speaker, couldn't. My point is that with very little practice the native speaker could improve his understanding of bad English and he would benefit from being able to understand a very larger pool of scholars.

Of course, non native speakers can benefit from improving our English, but that point is unrelated to the question.

  • Broken to which side? That's very bad advice because broken English is different depending on the country. Do not try to learn something that is wrong, exercise your patience, but don't "unlearn" the language in the process. – Fábio Dias May 12 '18 at 2:08
  • Bad English as a lot of common traits that make it easier for beginners to understand: it's usually slow, words are (too) clearly separated and pronunciations follows (too much) spelling. In my experience it is easier to understand a presentation by a native speaker of a language unrelated to mine (e.g. Finnish, Chinese, Persian or Tamil) than by a British or American speaker, although YMMV. – Pere May 12 '18 at 11:12
  • @FábioDias Furthermore, you don't need to "unlearn" good English. You just need to learn to understand bad English. In fact, you don't even need to learn to speak bad English, although simple English can be useful sometimes. – Pere May 12 '18 at 11:13
  • If you keep "practicing" broken, you'll eventually unlearn the proper. And his point was: he was too distracted being a snob to pay attention, not that he couldn't. – Fábio Dias May 12 '18 at 20:15
  • @FábioDias No. You can practice understanding broken English without losing any ability to understand (and speak) standard English. – Pere May 12 '18 at 21:15
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The researcher, given their poor English skills should have made the presentation more understandable by using other media. Whether this be referring to a Powerpoint, using websites, video, whatever.

I once managed a group of engineers that traveled the world to teach our other engineers. Quite a few of them from Asia had trouble with English, some did great.

I for one had to travel all over. Easy right because I am native speaker? No because in each region they had different English levels, used slightly different terminology, and had certain expectations.

Things the speaker needs:

  • preparation - as mentioned above using cheat sheets, materials and media as aids.

  • self-awareness - the speaker needs to understand their abilities. Don't use words that you don't fully understand, speaker louder, speak slower, and so on. There is nothing worse than someone butchering any language mumbling at a million words a minute.

  • know your audience - if you have that much comment on your speaker's English skills part of the problem was them trying to cover too much in a short time frame for too big of an audience. The focus should have probably been narrowed and more interactive.

  • the speaker has to care - I have gone up in front of many groups and watch their eyes glaze over. Sometimes I was not explaining something well, sometimes too fast, sometimes at too complex of a level, whatever. But as a speaker you can see your audience hit the wall. If you don't care enough to stop and change course or to ask questions to see where people's heads are then you are just clicking a checkbox and the session was useless.

  • the speaker needs to confirm - once you have made major points make sure that your audience understands them and confirms that when you made point XYZ that they understand that was XYZ. Sounds simple but using slightly different wording or terminology/slang can put a 180 spin on things quickly.

The answer is you cannot fix bad communication, especially at a large conference. It is painful to watch anyone that is a poor communicator and language skills are just a piece of the pie. What you probably witnessed was a person with poor English skills but a few other presenting issues too.

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    Easy right because I am native speaker? raises eyebrow – Parthian Shot Mar 1 '16 at 1:56
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    @ParthianShot - No idea what you mean. raises eyebrow back – blankip Mar 1 '16 at 3:42
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    @blankip Wrong. A speaker invited to give a talk or presentation only needs to give said speech or presentation. They do not need to do anything as far as visual aids. They also do not need to confirm anything with the audience. Most conferences I go to do not have speakers polling the audience about their grasp about what was just explained. – NZKshatriya Feb 3 '17 at 3:02
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    This doesn't address the question, which is about the listener, not the speaker. – henning Feb 3 '17 at 11:00

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