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Reader question #64: I have a hard time understanding accents.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve had a problem for a while that has always been an issue with me, but is now beginning to affect my work and professional standing: I have a hard time understanding people strong foreign accents, and I don’t know how to address the issue without making it super awkward.

So here I am!

About me: I’m a 26-year-old software developer, US citizen living in the US, male and white. I feel blessed that I get to speak my native language at work and out in the city, but having lived in a foreign country, learning the language as I went, I understand how frustrating not being a native speaker can be (and not really, since I was an exchange student, and most people would assume at worst that I was a dumb tourist rather than “xenophobic enemy of the moment”).

But I can’t help that I have trouble understanding thick foreign accents speaking English, and recently, it’s been a problem for me at work.

My boss is Indian. She’s very intelligent and knowledgeable, but sometimes I have a hard time understanding her English due to her thick accent and sometimes quirky sentence structure. The reason this is becoming an issue is that I sometimes don’t understand my work assignments. Asking over and over for clarification clearly frustrates her, and makes me look stupid. “I don’t understand what the problem is, this isn’t hard to understand!”. Only it is!

Obviously, I don’t want to just make a best guess at what she wants me to do, and asking for my assignments in writing seems rude and obstructionist (plus, her written English is almost as difficult to understand). So I’m in a really awkward place where I look like I have to be handheld through each task assignment, and it’s making me look bad.

I don’t have a problem with this with my friends who have strong accents, since they don’t mind my asking to repeat or asking clarifying questions like my boss does. But they aren’t usually giving me important work-related information or medical history (I used to work reception at a medical office in a mall, and I had so many awkward incidents where someone would get offended that I wasn’t comfortable writing down what I THOUGHT they said about their medical history, so this isn’t a once-ever thing).

I’m hoping you have a script for me (hopefully universal, but American workplace-specific would also do) that I can use for when I need to say “It’s nothing personal, but I need you to slow down and use simple words because even though it sounds fine to you, your English skills do not match your native language skills”.

Sincerely,
Maybe Racist

Dear Maybe Racist:

Readers from the subcontinent, please correct me if I’m wrong here, but English likely IS (one of) her native languages.  She just speaks it differently than you do, because as it has become the dominant language worldwide, it has changed.  So right off the bat, please avoid any implication that it is a foreign language for her or not her native language or that she’s doing it wrong – it won’t sit well and you’ll sound like Prince Charles (who thinks the only proper English is the Queen’s English, and that we Americans are corrupting it dreadfully.  To which I say: Maybe his family should have let the fucking sun set once in a while.)

What I’m saying is that, technically, you also speak English with a funny accent when you talk to her.

I think there are a few things you can do to make your work relationship better.  This is a good strategy for anyone who has communication problems with a boss.

1.  Relax. When you speak with your boss, try to relax and listen as much as possible.  Tension, resentment, and worry that you’re not understanding is only going to interfere with listening and understanding.

2. Write it down. Bring a notebook with you and write down what she tells you about assignments.   Use the writing to give yourself a little time to process.  Any script you use for asking her to slow down will come in here, and it might go like this:  “I’m sorry, I sometimes have trouble with listening comprehension – can you say that again more slowly so I can write it down?”

3.  Try it on your own. After the conversation, sit down with what she told you the assignment was, and take a very basic crack at whatever she told you to do.  Try to figure out what she was getting at.  What could she mean?  You say “Obviously I don’t want to just take my best guess at what she wants me to do...” in your letter.  Um, yeah.  Go ahead and take your best guess at what she wants you to do and spend a good hour on it.

4. Document and ask *substantive* questions. After you’ve tried to follow directions and figure out the assignment for a good hour or so, send her an email, along the lines of, “I’ve gotten started on x.  Just to review, I’m going to handle p, q, and r and then (whatever it is you do).  Now that I’m digging into it…”  Ask any questions you have, but make them as much about the substance of the work as possible (vs. the parameters of the assignment), and do whatever you can to phrase them as an either/or choice.

I don’t know the language of what you do, so I’ll put it in terms of what I do.  It’s the difference between a student asking “What do I have to do for the assignment again?”  (Answer:  Follow the very detailed directions in the assignment description on the class website! This is a very annoying question!)  vs. “I am working on the documentary proposal, and in the “Research” section you ask for background information on the topic.  How detailed would you like that to be?  Do you want me to attach some relevant articles or just summarize?”

The second question is less annoying, and it shows me that the student has the gist of what’s going on, and it’s written in a way that lets me say “Just summarize, please, but make sure you include citations for your sources.”

This practice of documenting the assignment as given and asking substantive questions changes the conversation in several ways:

  • It covers your ass.  If down the road, HR gets involved, you can show you are honestly grappling with the work.
  • It gives you more agency in doing your work.  Take it upon yourself to imagine what you think she wants. What does the project need?  What would work best?  How would you do the project if you were the boss?  Okay, cool, now run it by her and make sure you are on the right track (aka – Cover your ass).
  • If you need to go back to her and ask her to repeat things, you are doing it from one level up, ie, you’ve actually attempted to follow directions and run into a snafu, so you’re hopefully asking better questions about what she means.

4.  Get better at understanding accents, especially HER accent.  Seek out movies, podcasts, radio, music, TV, and listen.  Accustom your ear to the cadences.  That’s what telephone operators in India do so that they can help us fix our computer problems and deal with credit card billing issues. Did they do it because it was fun?  No – it was their economic reality and what the marketplace demanded.  This is your economic reality right now. There is a huge amount of work being done collaboratively between teams in India and America, so the work you put in will not be wasted down the road.

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29 comments
  1. Tim said:

    It helps me to repeat what I’ve understood as part of my next statement or question. This helps us both keep track of where we are in the conversation and prevents one person from moving ahead too fast.

    This helps when I talk to people who are good with computers. I say “Ok, so after I flibberize the widget, I’m going to very carefully reset the fizzler and then…” and the other person can either nod and let me continue, or interrupt me and say “No, no — you’re going to fizzle the widget first and then reset the flibberizer.”

    • Stephanie said:

      Cripes, Tim, everyone knows you fizzle the widget first!

  2. k said:

    OK Mr. White American Native English Speaker. Let’s talk about point #2, namely “relax”. And let’s talk about stereotype threat. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotype_threat

    Basically, stereotype threat is a bad thing that happens to your brain when you’re in a situation that activates stereotypes about a societal group to which you belong. So, for example, let’s say you are a woman who’s taking a math test. Subconsciously, this will put the following zap on your head: “Oh shit, a stereotype about women is that we’re bad at math! If I bomb this test, I will be proving that women suck at math. I’m not just taking this test for me, I’m taking it for WOMANHOOD and I CAN’T FUCK IT UP.” This goes so far that in experiments, women were asked to take tests that weren’t actually about math, but half the test-takers were told the test was a test of mathematical aptitude. Guess who did worse on the tasks? The women who were told the test was a math test! This is some crazy shit, right? How the fuck does it happen to people?

    Essentially, with all of that societal bullshit programming swimming around in someone’s brain, their brain has to work way harder to concentrate in situations where stereotype threat is activated. This is called “increased cognitive load” and can be measured in terms of rising blood pressure, increased levels of stress hormones and increased heart rate. People get so desperate not to be a stereotype that their autonomic nervous systems are freaking the fuck out and torpedoing their ability to excel.

    Horribly ironic result? They do badly, confirming the stereotype.

    Now, let’s talk about the situation in which you find yourself. You sound like the kind of guy who’s aware of your racial, cultural, and language privileges in your work situation. Heck, you even signed yourself as “Maybe Racist”. I don’t think you’re racist. I think you MAY be so preoccupied with not confirming the stereotype of a clueless, insensitive white American man that you’re operating under stereotype threat, and that it is hurting your language comprehension skills.

    The good news is that knowledge of stereotype threat tends to mitigate it. So, you’re welcome, and also, I really endorse the rest of CA’s advice. I work in a foreign country and language, and I’ve learned to take notes in front of bosses and then go through the notes with them to make sure I’ve caught everything. This seems unlikely to come across as offensive and it really helps. Good luck!

    • k said:

      Oops, looks like “relax” was actually point #1! anyway…

      • Great points, k! Although I’ve never heard the theory applied in this type of situation, it seems like a good fit.

    • JenniferP said:

      I knew the concept but not the term or the science, so BLESS YOU.

    • I had this experience the other day when I bumped into an old friend who’s black. I hadn’t seen him in 10 years but I immediately recognized him,

      But then I was like “shit, what if it’s not him? Then I’ll be that guy.” So I pulled the old “wait until he’s fairly far away and say his name kinda loud and see if he looks around” trick.

  3. Shannon said:

    I teach ESL and have experienced your problem many a time. My advice for you, especially given your job, which makes me think that you presumably like rules and logical approaches to things is to try to figure out how EXACTLY she says words different than you do. Basically make a list of 20 or so words that she says that you understand and analyze what is different about her pronunciation and yours. To give you an example, I say the word “bag” with a long a “baag”, but if you were to talk to a person from the southern US it’s more likely that they would pronounce it with a kind of short e sound “beg”. This has actually been helpful for me working with other native speakers of English who have accents that are totally different from mine.

    You can possibly do the same thing with her sentence structure if you have difficulty understanding her. Take an email where you do get what she’s saying and see what is different about how she phrases things. Does she put the object before the verb? (i.e. The cake we bought, instead of We bought the cake) Does she maybe use present perfect differently than you do? (I’ve cut my finger! instead of “I cut my finger!) Don’t worry too much about the technical vocabulary, just try to figure out what logic she is using when she is communicating.

    Other than that, if she’s using figures of speech or slang or something, just ask. If she’s recently moved to the US, there’s probably a bunch of slang that you use that might be difficult for her to understand. You might also want to preface any questions about this type of stuff with an acknowledgement that you might be difficult to understand as well.

    ps- Captain, word on the fact that there are a lot of DIFFERENT Englishes. US English and UK English are the most common and considered (by some) to be the most prestigious but they’re not inherently better in any way.

    • JenniferP said:

      Awesome suggestion to develop a glossary of how she says things.

  4. robiewankenobie. said:

    let me just tell you – the captains suggestions are good habits to get into EVEN IF your boss isn’t foreign. i had a co-worker who never ever came to talk to me, and only sent emails. i should have gone to her to clarify, but i ended up doing what i thought she wanted me to do. it wasn’t until she started copying the boss that i realized there was any problem at all. apparently she had come to my boss numerous times to complain. the good news is that my boss thought she was confusing as hell, and came down on my side. had it not been documented? it would have been a she said/she said situation. now, i don’t suggest that you start copying anyone at this point, but it’s good to have these things in your back pocket should you need them.

  5. Maybe Racist said:

    Whew…it took me about twenty minutes of reading and re-reading and trying not to cry and staring at my keyboard before it finally hit me how good this advice is, all of it.

    I tried SO VERY VERY HARD to think thorough past my cultural biases and privileges before I wrote, but it wasn’t enough, I guess. Good stuff about English up there, I’m definitely reading those articles today.

    I appreciate all the comments too, especially Shannon and kenobie. One of my big problems is, Shannon, that I’m NOT all that experienced with “rules and logical approaches to things” (I’m a video game developer, and my skill set isn’t easily categorized, but I’m more artist than programmer), and I’m struggling with THAT side of things as well. Nevertheless, I think your approach is neat (maybe even sort of fun), so I’m trying that too.

    And I’ll definitely do the documentation thing as well. I think I’ll change the script a bit, but I could stand to take better notes as it is.

    I’ll be honest: a lot of the assumptions you made about me really hurt my feelings. But I appreciate the time you took to give me some help, and I definitely feel uplifted and more hopeful about my future here.

    Thanks!

    • JenniferP said:

      Oh man, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings! I don’t think you are a giant tool like Prince Charles, I just wanted you to really change your frame of reference and remove the idea that the way she speaks is wrong because it won’t help you connect with her and at the end of the day you need to connect with her.

      I’ve lived and worked overseas a lot, and in college I struggled with four semesters economics – both the material and the fact that it was taught by heavily-accented professors and TAs, and I did not know at times if it was the concept or the language barrier that was in my way. I also took 6 years of French and was afraid to say anything because my teachers harped on my accent so much to the point that it was paralyzing, and I recall shouting “WELL, YOU SPEAK ENGLISH WITH A FUNNY ACCENT, TOO, BUT I PRETEND TO UNDERSTAND YOU” on a pretty craptacular day.

      The stuff about stereotype threat is golden. Slow down, relax, trust that you will get it. As you follow Shannon’s suggestions to develop a glossary of how your boss talks, it will also help you figure out which of the things you don’t understand are technical issues and which are language. It sounds like you are mounting a big learning curve on a lot of fronts, so give into that and be really gentle with yourself around how you figure this out.

  6. aprilhl said:

    I see this much less as a problem with racism (though, as a white american, that is something we ALL have to confront and be working on to check our assumptions and ideas) and more as a possible hearing problem.
    As someone who has had similar problems on multiple occasions, the idea to just “relax” or “listen to more accents,” is… yeah, kinda presumptive that I’m already not trying as hard as I can.

    I have a really hard time sometimes understanding what people say — not because I’m not listening, or not used to the accents, or am frustrated they’re not speaking perfect English (because I am not!) but because I have a really hard time processing what people are even saying.

    It’s not that my hearing is bad — I’ve had it checked several times (though none recently), but if there’s any kind of background noise at all, I am not hearing probably 1/5th of the words that you’re saying.

    (I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out what people mean though from the other 4/5th.)

    To be completely honest, I suspect I have a sort of Auditory Processing Disorder–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auditory_processing_disorder

    Recognizing that it’s a possibility, explaining to people this problem, has helped me a lot. (And watching even English movies with subtitles, too, but that’s a different issue…)

    Of course, it still drives my boyfriend crazy. but he’s lived this far with it. ;)

    • JenniferP said:

      Thanks for identifying a possible underlying cognitive issue – the letter writer has a history of trouble processing accents and it might be a hearing problem.

      • aprilhl said:

        yeah. as the person below says, listening to an accent a LOT helps, but OP if it’s been a while and you’re not understanding your boss any better — it might be a processing issue. in which case, even alerting the other person that *you* are the one having trouble understanding, but not because of them, helps alleviate a lot of frustration on both sides.

    • Kerri said:

      I have this same problem! In addition to background noise (of which there is a lot in my workplace) I also have difficulty with some of the lower ranges of sound. Since some accents wind up using these lower ranges more, I tend to have more problems with those accents. My labmate, Mumbles McGee, has no accent, but is still impossible to hear half the time.

      Explaining the problem to people really does help.

  7. Karen said:

    I work with someone who has a strong accent (English is her second language). I cannot believe how much the passage of time has helped in my understanding of her. She’s brilliant and speaks marvelous English, really, but it just took me a while to develop an ear for how she pronounces certain words. Sometimes there is still a beat of silence while I replay everything in my head and only THEN to I understand her. But things are way better than when we first started working together.

    I’ve accepted that my brain/ears/etc are just not that good at this kind of thing–for example, I am also a person who puts on subtitles when I’m watching movies from, say, Ireland or Scotland. Do not take me to see Trainspotting in a theatre; we will both be miserable and you will probably stab me before it’s over.

    I totally agree with Jen’s advice. Especially #4. Start renting some Bollywood movies, help your ears along.

    And if you do have to ask her to repeat something, put the blame on yourself. The right framework for that kind of request is not “Your English isn’t as good as you think, so please slow down & repeat” but rather “My ears are slower than my brain today, can you repeat that?” I’d develop a couple of neutral or self-deprecating phrases like that to keep in your (figurative) back pocket at all times, so when you have to ask, you’re comfortable and not anxious about it.

  8. Q said:

    I once worked primarily with a large group of technical writers all based out of Bangalore, India. I found that they all spoke British English well, but amazingly and astoundingly fast. It was like English spoken by speed freaks. All of them. Then the ones in Mumbai that I managed did the same thing. So, not only are you listening to British English spoken with a heavy accent, it’s also being spoken really really really fast. Zoom! There goes the point!

    My American co-workers and I all realized around the same time that we were *all* having this comprehension issue. Once we figured out it wasn’t just one of us, it was all of us, we had a group conference call. The Americans expressed our dismay at not being able to understand everything that the writers were communicating to us, and asked if the Indian writers could slow down their speech while on calls. Since we phrased it as an “It’s not you, it’s us” issue, the Indian writers didn’t take offense, slowed down their speech, and we all celebrated many happy Diwalis together.

    So maybe if you tell your boss outright that your ear can’t catch everything just yet, and to ask her to slow down or that you might need clarification on a few things until you can listen through the accent would help?

  9. tarana said:

    So many great suggestions here! I agree with robiewankenobie – Captain’s advice is gold when it comes to communicating with co-workers/bosses, regardless of where they are from.

    Developing a glossary is a good suggestion too.

    I’ll speak as someone from the subcontinent who moved to the States 9 years ago(and spent some formative years in England). It took me a while before I could understand the American English accent and learn the new pronunciations and ‘names’ for common items. For instance, ‘trolley’ became ‘shopping cart’, ‘dustbin’ became ‘trashbin’ or ‘garbage’, ‘dicky’ became ‘boot’ or ‘trunk’ (yup, the trunk of a car!), ‘pram’ became ‘stroller’. If I said route (root) instead of route (rout), no one knew what I was talking about. I’ve even had people laugh at the way I pronounce words or at the specific terms I use (I say ‘thrice’!) :)
    I could go on.

    Here’s why I felt the need to leave this comment.
    My accent always prompted people to wonder ‘how I spoke such good English’. My assertion that English was a native language was always surprising. I didn’t mind this when I was new to the country. It was a mutual learning experience. However, when people I had known for months or years couldn’t understand what I was saying, it frustrated me and made me very defensive. I stopped trying to use simpler terms (drawing more of the “I can’t believe how good your English is”) and actively worked on my pronunciation and accent. Speaking slower helped me too, because people in India speak a lot faster than most people in the US (depending on your location).

    What I’m trying to say is that maybe your boss is also feeling a little defensive, besides frustrated, at not being understood. Especially in this environment where a lot of people look at foreigners as the ‘job takers’, she may be a little extra sensitive about her accent and making it worse for herself and you.

    Would it be possible to joke about it? I agree with Karen – a possible way would be to take the onus on yourself and may be laugh about it?

    Lastly, I bought a couple of books for my Irish never-been-beyond-Ireland-Mother-In-Law before her first trip to India (she’s 75). She loved them. I haven’t read the first, so can’t recommend it one way or the other, but it may be worth checking out at the library. I apologize if I’m being presumptuous.

    - Speaking of India (http://www.amazon.com/Speaking-India-Bridging-Communication-Working/dp/1931930341/ref=pd_sim_b_4)
    - CultureShock India (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0761454845)

    • JenniferP said:

      Thank you, I was hoping you’d weigh in here! And I want to hear stories of your Mother-in-Law’s adventures in India.

  10. One thing that I haven’t seen mentioned by any of the other commenters: maybe your boss is just a poor communicator. It could be that the unfamiliar accent is making things worse, but could it be that your boss is just bad at being a manager and communicating work assignments? Are any of your coworkers experiencing similar problems? Or maybe the way you communicate and learn best is different than her defaults (for example, learning best by reading as opposed to learning best by doing.)

    The other suggestions above will probably be helpful to you anyway, but there are a number of other strategies you could try that aren’t specifically related to accents.

    Unrelated, my favorite non-American English phrase used by Indian coworkers is “please do the needful.”

  11. “It’s nothing personal, but I need you to slow down and use simple words because even though it sounds fine to you, your English skills do not match your native language skills”.

    I suggest that instead of saying that the responsibility for the difficulty lies with your boss (“your English skills do not match your native language skills”), you say that it lies with you (“can you please slow down and use simple words, because I’m having trouble following you”). The responsibility for the difficulty in communicating lies with both of you, but people are more likely to accommodate you if they don’t feel like you’re blaming them. Also, do you understand your boss’ native language? If not, avoid saying, “your English skills do not match your native language skills,” since you can’t make that assessment and it sounds condescending (it’s entirely possible that she’s also crap at communicating in whichever language is her first language). Additionally, if English isn’t her native language, do you know that she thinks her English “sounds fine?” I know a lot of people who speak English as a second (third, fourth) language, and they are more than aware that while they’re fluent, their English has holes in it. Saying, “even though it sounds fine to you,” is snotty and implies that her judgment of her language skills is deficient.

    I grew up around people who spoke English with a variety of accents (Mandarin, Spanish, Korean, Romanian, German, Japanese, Turkish, Tamil), but the two times I had to stop people and ask them to repeat themselves because I had no idea what they were saying was with native American/British English speakers–one with a heavy Scottish accent and one with a heavy Wisconsin accent. Everyone’s mileage varies!

  12. denelian said:

    i have the EXACT same problem. and it’s not just “foreign” accents – i have trouble understanding some elderly people, some teens, etc.

    in my case, i have dyspraxia – it’s sort of like dyslexia, except it’s hearing things instead of reading things. this isn’t necessarily a suggestion for this specific situation, but have considered getting tested for a cognitive or learning issue? if you do have dyspraxia or something similar, then you can take that knowledge to your boss ["hey, boss, we've been have communication issue, and i just discovered that i have this problem, X, that is most of the reason." and then follow the advice of the people who tested you - i have to say, Captain Awkward's suggestions? are pretty much EXACTLY what my tester's suggested i do to help mitigate the problems] and you can take the info to HR and ask THEM for help [and they should either know how to help, or be able to research ideas to help]

    good luck!

  13. Wendy said:

    An American getting snarky with an Englishman about Imperialism? Captain Pot please meet Kettle. Oh and Prince Charles is right Americans do horrible things to the English language but thats nothing compared to what they do to it in some parts of the UK (ever been to Glasgow?) so who cares what he has to say about it.

    • JenniferP said:

      Oh, goody, the Assumption Game! Let’s play!

      My assumptions:

      Lots of places in the world (like India) adopted English as a direct result of British conquest (true).
      Prince Charles has expressed “concern” about how people outside of the English Upper Crust are diluting and ruining that language (also true).

      Your assumptions:

      That I am blind to or in favor of my own country’s “adventures.” (Untrue)

      That I am unaware of dialect diversity within the U.K. (Also untrue, and it hurts my feelings, because Scottish accents are my favorite!)

      I used Charles as an example of the absurdity of getting hung up on the “correctness” of any given dialect of English. It’s not my fault that pudding is going to be your king.

  14. piny said:

    Yeah, this is a common problem for my students and coworkers, too. On all sides. And it’s dismaying that we have so little cultural space to discuss it, since the problem is only going to get a whole lot more common.

    I think my advice would be, Dude, just talk to her. In two senses:

    First, try to have more casual conversations with your boss when you’re not under time pressure or professional pressure. Say hello. Ask how she is. If you can find excuses to bring things to her attention, do that. Don’t make yourself obnoxious, but try to develop a more chatty working relationship. Because, really, you don’t need to develop familiarity with Indian accents. There are more than a billion of those and counting. You need to develop familiarity with her voice. And you need to get more comfortable with her on an interpersonal level, so you aren’t nervous all the time.

    Do all the other stuff, too, but start with the one accent you need.

    Oh, but also–if you live in an urban area, you probably have access to a bunch of ELL professionals. They need to practice their English, and figure out your funny accent. Look around on craigslist or couchsurfing.com for an ELL conversational partner. If I were you, I’m not sure I would even mention your problem. Just offer to let them talk at you for an hour or so over coffee.

    Second, I think it would be a good idea to let her know what the problem is. Don’t blame her, but don’t blame yourself. (And definitely don’t use any self-deprecating phrases that imply that you have some general listening or comprehension problem. Especially, for chrissakes, that you have some sort of disability. That’s not true, and it’s not the sort of misleading statement you want attached to you as an employee.) I’d say something like, “Listen, I need to talk to you about something a little awkward. I don’t want to be impolite, but I sometimes have trouble understanding you when you speak. That makes it difficult for me to understand your instructions. I think you may have noticed, and I’m really sorry if I’ve made you feel frustrated by asking you to repeat yourself all the time. I think you’re a wonderful boss, and I really enjoy working with you. I’m trying to work on the problem and improve my listening comprehension. If there’s anything you’d like to me to do, please let me know. You’ve been really patient with me so far, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

    She’s probably had this problem before, and she’ll probably appreciate your candor, as well as your efforts to stop being all freaked out and inefficient all the time.

    • JenniferP said:

      Wild applause, and with an actual useful script that the Letter Writer requested.

      • piny said:

        Thank you! I think all of your advice was good, too–I actually referred this page to someone I know.

        I know it’s a thorny issue, since the definition of “good” English is bound up with all sorts of racist assumptions. We place a religious emphasis on “good,” even in reference to some beleaguered operator who speaks the language of her country of origin, the other language of her country of origin, the language of her adopted country, and more than enough English to do her job. And I agree that it’s very important to approach this woman, the boss, courteously.

        Our cultural emphasis on Real American English is causing problems for a lot of people on the other side of the issue, too. These days, I bet most English business conversations involve SLE and “funny accents.” Most big companies have offices all over the world, and English connects the US to Venezuela, and China to Canada, and India to Argentina. But the Wall Street Institute and The Big Bang Theory don’t prepare anyone for that, and so everyone feels frustrated and ugly.

  15. Tradtional Married said:

    I wanted to comment on this because I’ve had a similar problem. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, there were only three chemistry majors in the biochemistry lab I was talking, and the biochem students in our school being kind of cliquish, the three of us ended up as a lab group. The two of them are from Rwanda, and spoke Kinyarwanda, French, and English. I speak French and English. No problem right?! They’re both lovely people and after working together for awhile we became great friends. But it was rough at first, because 1) all three of us tend to speak softly, to the point where if we do the American thing and stand kind of far away from each other (relatively) while talking, nobody could hear anything. We ended up standing pretty close together, which I later learned in the normal thing for where they’re from. Learning! 2) English was their THIRD language. So me mumbling in English meant I was pretty much incomprehensible to them. Sometimes, we would talk in French, because their French is better than their English and my French was almost as good as theirs. This lead to problem #3: when I learned French, I learned the accents and such that you’d use in Paris. Not in Rwanda. So at first, I couldn’t understand ANYTHING they said in French. It was really frustrating to not be able to understand, because I knew that I knew French! Bah! Accents! I should be able to understand, right? But we were all patient with each other, and I repeated stuff slower and they repeated stuff slower and we got along great. By the end of the semester we were joking in French and English mixed together and having a great time. (and we did great in the lab!) The funny thing? Now, when I need to talk to Quebecois people in French (I live in Canada now), their accent sounds “wrong”–the “right” French accent to my ears is now theirs.

    I just wanted to add my anecdata to support what others have said above–if you spend enough time hearing a particular accent, you can get used to it, and comprehension will improve. I guess the grain of salt to this though, is that I have really good hearing and don’t have any brain/ear disconnect problems. It might be worthwhile to go get that checked out. My husband has a problem like that, I’m not sure what it’s called but he hears sounds funny, in a different way than they were said by the person he’s conversing with. As a kid he went to some therapy, and it got better and most of the time doesn’t give him problems anymore.

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