Why is it hard to understand people with accents?

You ain’t from around here, are you?

 

The title of this piece is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. After all, we all have accents, right? The topic, however, is something we’ve all experienced; one minute, you’re meeting a new colleague or calling tech support and the next, you find yourself in an awkward circle of apologetic smiles and “Um, I’m sorry. What did you say?” For the Americans in the room, perhaps you even try to gloss it over with something not entirely true and overly-polite like, “I’m sorry, my hearing is terrible.”

The in-group bias called own-accent bias, or our implicit preference to interact with people who sound like us, is probably the main reason many non-native language users would like to reduce foreign traits in their speech. Our perception often makes us consider those with non-local accents as “low language proficiency,” even if accent is the only thing that makes their speech different from our own, and it gets worse: based on accented speech, we make assumptions about the speaker’s education levels, competence, intelligence and trustworthiness! The speaker doesn’t even have to be a foreigner to suffer from accent bias; think of “My cousin Vinny” and everything that went wrong in the movie because of New York accent! The Scotts in the U.K. know something about it, too, and the listener doesn’t even have to be human. No wonder people don’t like having accents!

 

Some researchers asked, though, if it really is only a bias; an implicit prejudice that, let us underscore, nobody is immune to, not even babies. It turns out that our brain does indeed have a harder time processing accented speech and remembers less of the message that was conveyed by someone who sounds differently from us. Part of the reason is that listeners focus less on what is actually being said: our brain makes predictions about the message based on the accent instead of actually listening, so we don’t really hear the message, let alone process and comprehend it. It’s like we assume that a speaker with an accent is less proficient and we don’t truly expect them to be clear on what they are going to say, so we start guessing, or assuming what the message might be as if we knew better, instead of listening.

Now, to be clear: many non-native language users do have actual pronunciation problems (such as saying the wrong sound, e.g. “stomach” with the final “ch” as in “chair”), grammar, or vocabulary shortcomings which obviously and significantly hinder communication. This problem is not the native listeners being biased or their brains having fixed expectations of what they would hear. This is the foreign learner that needs more instruction and practice with a trained instructor. This is not the case we are discussing here. We are talking about millions of highly proficient language users who enjoy/suffer from* (underline all that apply) their own accented speech and have otherwise a very strong command of grammar, lexis and pronunciation in their second (or third or fifth) language.

This leads us to an obvious problem. The entire community suffers in the long run if its members can’t use their full potential – don’t get the jobs they are well-suited for or are not accepted to schools that would give them better opportunities, or are not heard in meetings, all because they don’t “sound right.” The good news is, being aware of what is going on in our brain when facing a new accent is actually already a way of alleviating the negative impact on communication that accents have. It’s also good to know that our brain is smart and learns to deal with different accents very quickly. Then there is social justice: most of us don’t want to discriminate, and biases lead to discrimination, so we are inclined to make conscious efforts to avoid accent bias once we know what it is.

For non-native speakers, there is yet another side of the reality: even if we could train and fix our accents to sound like natives, and be like Hugh Laurie, which target accent would we choose? For those trying to master English, there are so many World Englishes to choose from. Part of me would love to sound Tennessean but… I will again sound foreign if I move to my dream destination – New Zealand! If you are learning French, are you aiming for Québécoise or Parisian? Castilian Spanish or any of the variants of Latin American Spanish pronunciation we can think of?

As it is in the best interest of all of us to make our communication more effective, and we know now that there is not only a bias working against us, but also an actual difficulty in processing of non-native speakers, and reducing accents is hard, then what can we do to help all of us understand each other better?

For native speakers:

  • Take a couple of minutes to accustom yourself to a new conversation partner and their accent. Small talk is a great strategy to tune in to each other.
  • Listen carefully and consciously focus on the message, not the accent
  • Check yourself for assumptions and get rid of them
  • Try this
  • Keep learning the language and its varieties for the sake of interesting, rich and effective communication

For non-native speakers or people with non-standard accents:

  • Be confident of your skills even if your speech is heavily accented
  • Speak loudly and clearly
  • If not on the phone, use natural body language and mimicry to help your interlocutors follow you. A lot of communication and sense of connection between people happens through non-verbal means so let’s take advantage of it. Even if our accents don’t match, our gestures and facial expressions might, which would alleviate the impression of foreignness.
  • Keep learning the language for the sake of interesting, rich, and effective communication
Feature Photo by Janis Oppliger on Unsplash

Mike In Russia

Mike in Russia

How did TESL@TFLI prepare you for teaching in Russia?

The TESL course gave me the techniques and experience needed to begin teaching. Without TESL, I would have basically been blind walking into the classroom and would have been a much less effective teacher.

What advice do you have for students who want to teach abroad?

Research the country, city and school where you are planning on teaching. Get on the internet forums and talk to people who have had experience, and also ask the school to put you in contact with one of their native speakers. Once in country, be open minded and patient with any difficulties and differences in culture and living. Be responsible and try to do things on your own, but also don’t be afraid to ask for help.

What is your best experience so far teaching abroad?

It’s hard to pick just one. Sometimes when I had a lot of hours and dozens of students it was hard to tell how I was doing as a teacher. The most rewarding experiences were when this uncertainty was broken by praise from administrators and students and especially when students began to make noticeable progress.

Tell us an interesting classroom story.

One of the first full-time classes I had was with the auditors at a large international financial corporation. After going through the textbook they asked me to stay on. For the next couple months we discussed everything from comparisons between the U.S. and Russian education, legal, and political, systems, to the turmoil in Burma and Kenya and much more. After five months we had our last class. They ordered gourmet dried fruit and nuts to be delivered (which was a delicacy in February in Siberia). I brought in some peanut butter and crackers that my grandparents had sent me for Christmas. They had only seen peanut butter in the movies; it was great to share it with them. It feels really good when you can sit down with your students and they can speak to you with comfort and confidence.

Kami In Kenya

Kami in Kenya

How did TESL@TFLI  prepare you for teaching in Kenya?

It has helped tremendously. The students are varied from all different cultural backgrounds to different learning levels. The training you receive during the course more than prepares you for what you experience while abroad. The resources TESL provided are priceless. Many times I found myself referencing the book we studied from and the many teaching tools and creative ideas we used while in the TESL course.

What advice do you have for students who want to teach abroad?

Check the validity of who you are going to work for. Also, bring over things from your own country to show and talk about in your classroom. Make it personal. The students really like learning about you and where you come from.

What is your best experience so far teaching abroad?

My best experience by far is meeting and getting to know my students from all over the world. Kenya is a melting pot of so many different nationalities. The relationships always seem to expand outside the classroom. And of course, seeing the students’ progress in learning and speaking English!

Tell us an interesting classroom story.

One day my classroom was being used by someone else, so I had to teach in the school’s auditorium. On their HUGE stage was this rather large chalkboard. So I taught on stage while the students sat way down below. I would jump off and on while teaching so I didn’t seem so far from the students. I was exhausted by the time the class ended. Plus, the students really got a kick out of it.