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