What to Do When You Don’t Understand Someone’s Accent

It can be a tricky and uncomfortable situation for all parties involved when you’re having trouble understanding someone due to their accent. But what exactly is an accent? An accent refers to a distinct mode of pronunciation of a particular language. You are probably familiar with the many varieties of the English language — US English, UK English, Canadian English (yes, Canadians do have a distinct accent!), and more. The moral of the story is that every person has an accent. So, when someone says, “You have an accent,” what is actually being said is, “Your accent is different from mine.” 

So, while the difference between calling the deliciously addictive potato snack “chips” and “crisps” can trip you up, many of us don’t find it hard to understand another variety of English or ask for clarification when we do. In many cases, the discomfort lies in someone's “foreign” accent. For some of us, English is our first and most proficient language, otherwise known as an L1. Individuals for whom English is an L2, or second language, might speak it with an accent different from L1 speakers - one that adheres to the grammar and phonetic (sound-based) rules of their L1 language. That’s why my Korean parents, for whom their L1 language does not differentiate between an /r/ and /l/ sound, might say “legular” instead of “regular” when ordering coffee. Why does this further complicate the situation? As one of my favourite comedians, Trevor Noah, puts it, “Language and accents govern so much of how people think about other people.” 

We stigmatize some accents, meaning that there are automatic negative attitudes and expectations for people who speak with an L2 accent and some varieties of L1 English, like African-American English. Accents are associated with particular nations, localities, or social classes and when the greater population holds prejudices against these groups, so unto their accents. That’s why some situations can be especially uncomfortable to navigate if you’re afraid of offending someone or perpetuating a stigma. So, what do you do?

  1. 1. Don’t pretend to understand them.

    The first thing to remember is that the person you’re speaking to is probably aware that you might have difficulty understanding them. Simply nodding and pretending to understand doesn’t help the situation and doesn’t show that you want to try.

  2. 2. Keep a light and warm tone of voice.

    You want to avoid shouting and slowing down your speech with exaggerated pitch fluctuations. Raising your voice might happen subconsciously but remember that having a foreign accent does not mean that someone is hard of hearing and speaking to them like children is patronizing and insulting. Voice tone is universal and maintaining a cheerful one can show that you’re patient and are not trying to rush the person you’re speaking with.

  3. 3. “I’m very sorry, would you mind repeating that?” 

    As mentioned earlier, it’s likely that the person you’re speaking to is aware that people might find it difficult to understand them. Most won’t be offended if you say something along the lines of: “I’m very sorry, would you mind repeating that?” or “I apologize. I’m having some trouble understanding you, would you mind slowing down?” It apologizes and acknowledges, shows that you want to communicate, and is probably more polite compared to what they have received in the past. Remember to avoid being rude by just repeatedly saying “What?” or “Huh?”

  4. 4. Try to find other methods of communication.

    If by the end, you are still not able to understand someone’s speech, you could try to find alternative ways to communicate, like asking them to write it down for you. Communication is the most important thing here and everybody deserves to feel validated and valued for what they have to say. If somewhere in the middle, the person you’re speaking to waves it off saying that it’s okay to end the conversation, it’s normal to feel discouraged and bad about the situation. However, remember that choosing to do so is completely their prerogative and don’t be too hard on yourself!

  5. 5. Listen!

    The last and perhaps most important tip here is to listen. Recall that it’s not that you can’t understand someone’s accent but that you don’t at the moment. Studies have observed a phenomenon called perceptual adaptation that shows that the more we listen to someone, the better we understand what they say. This has been seen in groups of people as well - the more we listen to several speakers with a particular accent, the better we are able to understand a new speaker with that accent. And the more we listen to a variety of accents, the better we are able to understand a new accent entirely! Our brain and ears are adapting. Remember that while it may be difficult for an L2 speaker to sound like an L1 speaker, it’s relatively easy to change how we hear someone speaking an L2!

Spoken language is the main way we connect with and understand one another. It’s important to recognize the power of using language and likewise, the disempowerment felt when others do not understand you. English language learners in English-speaking countries are having to learn an entirely new set of rules and unfortunately, many are penalized for just trying to play the game. Language is a privilege, and we are not all born with the same advantages and disadvantages. So, the next time you’re in a tricky situation, remain optimistic, kind, and listen!