How to understand an accent – or be understood if you have one

accentAs an American in Paris, accents are a part of my everyday life – whether it’s someone else’s, or my own when I speak French.  Then again, as the world gets more global, you could say that accents are a part of lots of people’s daily lives. Whether it’s clients, friends, neighbors, professors, company representatives, co-workers, or even actors in a movie or TV show, most of us have probably been in at least one situation where accents were involved. And where accents are involved, there are often misunderstandings.

A person’s accent is based on the cadence and pronunciation of their native language (and the region in which that’s spoken).  Your accent can be hard or even impossible to lose – an issue I explored in another article on this blog.

Luckily, there are some strategies you can use in situations where an accent is keeping you from understanding someone, or from being understood:

– Practice.  Just listening can be helpful. Try to watch local TV programs or movies made in the region the accent in question hails from. The internet is also an amazing resource. Sites like YouTube often feature videos of both native speakers, and dialogue coaches, showing off and explaining particular accents.

– Write it down.  Your understanding of a particular accent can improve.  But what if someone just can’t wrap their head around yours, or they have one you aren’t familiar with?  Asking them to write down what they’re saying, or telling them you’ll write down your words – be it on a handy piece of paper, or via text message or email – may be the best option.

Elise Marraro, an American expat working in the UK, suggests another way writing can help when you’re dealing with hard-to-understand accents.  At work, she takes a lot of notes, jotting down the names of anyone who’s supposed to be calling her, for example, so that she’ll have an easier time identifying who’s on the phone.

– Take your time.  Speaking of “time”, that’s another piece of accent-beating advice Marraro offers: When possible, before she has to get into a conversation where she’ll probably have trouble understanding someone, she stops to collect herself and take a deep, calming breath.

If you’re the one with the accent, it’s also important to take your time.  A native-speaking French teacher I worked with once told me that when I spoke slowly, my American accent was much less apparent. Now, I make it a point to stop and enunciate when someone I’m talking to doesn’t seem to understand what I’m saying.  Often, that solves the problem.  And of course, the reverse can work, too.  Don’t be afraid to ask someone if they can repeat what they just said, or slow down.

 – Blame yourself.  But what if you’d feel too awkward to ask someone to slow down or repeat something?  Whenever I have a moment like that, I try this little trick: I blame the problem on myself.  For example, I might say something like: “I’m so sorry – you have a lovely accent, but I’m having a little trouble catching what you just said,” or “I’m sorry – I’m terrible with accents, would you mind speaking more slowly?”  You could even leave accents out of it altogether.  I’m very slightly hard of hearing, but I don’t hesitate to use that as an excuse when it feels right.

– Remember that everyone has an accent. There’s something you have to understand, in order to overcome accents: Everyone has one, and many of us have probably been misunderstood because of it at least once in our lives.  No one should get angry or judge you if you have trouble with their accent.  Keep this in mind, and it will make it even easier to tell someone you can’t understand them, or to help someone understand you.

by Alysa Salzberg

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