My heart is big, my ears are crap
September 9, 2011 9:49 AM   Subscribe

I have often have trouble understanding what ESL speakers are saying, and I pretty much feel like a jerk after asking someone to repeat something a third time.

I recently started grad school, and many of my classmates are not native English speakers. I've already run into several instances where I simply couldn't understand what someone was saying when my classmates seemed to have no problem with it. These are people who I'll be doing in-depth group projects with, and I'm scared of coming off like an obnoxious tourist, constantly asking them to speak louder and repeat what they said. It's something I hope to get better at, but until I can improve my hearing & comprehension skills, I'd like some tips on how to address those limitations when I have trouble understanding someone.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Focus. When you hear them begin to speak, focus very carefully on listening to them, and make a conscious effort to interpret what they're saying. Don't do anything else while you're talking to them, don't think about anything else. As much as you want them to slow down while they're speaking, you also have to slow down and simplify your brain function while they're speaking. Get your brain to work only on translating their words into a comprehensible message.
posted by litnerd at 10:02 AM on September 9, 2011

I work with a lot of non-native speakers of English.

It would help to know if this is an accent issue or strictly a communications style/not speaking the language well issues. (For example, many people from India are native English speakers, but some may have accents that the ears of an American, Canadian, or British person may not be accustomed to.)

And from what countries these people are from as I have found different techniques have worked with people from different places.
posted by zizzle at 10:04 AM on September 9, 2011

It helps me understand people if I move my lips (just a tiny tiny bit so they don't notice) the way they do as they speak; something about mimicking the production of sound helps me parse the language. It also helps me focus on them visually.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:05 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your brain actually listens to some things, and filters others out as noise. I find I have a much harder time understanding people with very thick accents if I am trying to do anything else at all while I'm trying to listen to them. I need to engage my whole brain until hearing and understanding someone whose accent I am deeply unused to becomes as second nature as hearing and understanding someone who sounds more like me.
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:05 AM on September 9, 2011

I used to work for an immigration lawyer, so I spent a lot of time talking to folks who speak heavily accented English. I am also really, really bad at understanding it. And I also pretty much feel like a jerk when I have to ask them to repeat themselves.

But it was my job to figure out what they were saying. As a student, it's your job to figure out what your classmates are saying. So you can't let yourself feel too bad about it. You've gotta do what you've gotta do.

So what I'd do was this: the first time someone said something I couldn't understand, I'd say, "I'm really sorry, but I'm having a difficult time understanding your accent. Could you please speak a little slower for me? [sheepish smile]" Everyone was always totally happy to comply.

If you phrase it in a I'm-the-dumb-one-here-not-you way, no one is going to be offended.
posted by phunniemee at 10:06 AM on September 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

What I've found helpful is (1) being mindful of which sounds are difficult for native X-speakers to pronounce, (2) what common mispronunciations are for native X-speakers, and (3) where their English language experience comes from - a UK-educated ESL speaker and a US-educated ESL speaker will pronounce words differently. All of these factors come into play - for example, I once worked with a German woman who had learned English as a 3rd language while living/studying in France. Her accent in English was French, but the sounds she had difficulty with in English were sounds I knew native German-speakers had difficulty with. Obviously, this is easier if most of the ESL speakers you're encountering are from the same language background, but it can be very rewarding to train yourself to listen for differences between different language backgrounds. YMMV, I'm especially nerdy about this stuff.
posted by pammeke at 10:11 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with phunniemee - people are usually not offended if you're straightforward about not understanding their accents and make it about *your* inability to understand rather than *their* inability to speak intelligibly. You won't come across as obnoxious. If you can ask them to repeat in a way that gets them to use different words, that can help too.

And if you're working with the same people, you will very likely get used to their accents and find them much more intelligible. Although not always. Try not to stress about it, and try to see it as fun (you'll probably get some funny misunderstanding stories out of it, I know I have loads).

Other than that, use context clues and really look at the face of the person who's speaking. If you're having trouble with one or two words that the person keeps saying, try sounding it out to yourself, that works for me sometimes.
posted by mskyle at 10:17 AM on September 9, 2011

If you're planning group work sessions with these people, try to choose a quiet place (e.g. a group study room in the library vs. the cafeteria in the student union). I have the same difficulty understanding accented English, and I've found that it's worse in a room with lots of background noise.
posted by vytae at 10:20 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is a good talent to develop--depending on your field, you may need to work with people from all over the world. Depending on where they're from, you may be able to find movies featuring people with those accents (even if they're lighter) speaking English. Most libraries will let you search their DVDs by subject/keyword -- country, which is one place to start. Watch the movies with subtitles/CC turned on to help you get used to those language features.

Understanding Your International Students is a book that's meant for teachers. It's a little too simplistic and outdated in terms of cultural information, but has pretty good information on specific pronunciation issues for a list of languages. Your school library may have it if you're interested. Knowing what the specific issues are might make it easier for you. And yes, as mentioned above, imitating some of the sounds yourself might help you hear them.

I would NOT mention their accent if you ask them to repeat. That may make them feel self-conscious, embarrassed, insulted, worried, afraid, etc. (depending on the person). They may do their best to ACT like they're happy to comply, but many of them are probably dying inside. (I teach ESL professionally, and many students have asked me, with varying levels of anger/hurt/confusion, why Americans make such a big deal about their accents, are so rude about their accents, constantly mention their accents, etc.) I might just say "I'm sorry, I'm not good at listening. Can you speak a little slower for me?" Regardless of whether this is the exact truth, it's kinder, shorter, and more helpful -- making the speaker tense is probably not going to help him or her speak slower and more clearly for you. :)

You can also ask them to write down key words sometimes. I'm pretty good at listening to different kinds of speakers, but I sometimes tell people "I'm not good at listening -- I'm better at reading!" (which is true, really, even for listening to people with my exact same accent.) Asking them to use different words is good, too. Just say "Could you say that again, but use different words?" Don't use an idiom like "Could you put that another way?"

Good luck! It'll get easier.
posted by wintersweet at 10:21 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

"I'm sorry, I am struggling to understand you. Can you say that another way?"
posted by DarlingBri at 10:24 AM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also if it is more than just an accent but they really are new to english please recognize that they might not understand you as well. I am in grad school with a massive contingent of esl students and it bugs me when professors use slang or idioms without explanation. Some of the students will speak up and ask what smokestack chasing is but some wont. Think of your task as reciprocal: you help them out by not using obscure slang or idioms without explanation and they help you out when you ask them to speak slower, write things down, or repeat themselves.
posted by boobjob at 10:32 AM on September 9, 2011

I've always struggled to understand heavy accents as well, and I used to give up after about the second try (by doing the nod-and-smile routine so they'd think I got it.)

After I got a job on the reception desk, I really can't duck out of the conversation until I get it, so I've learned to be persistent. I have found that rather than keep saying things like "what?" and "sorry, could you say that again?" it seems to help if I repeat back what I think they might have said. It seems to help them figure out exactly what I didn't understand so they know what to repeat or re-word, or where to slow down. Because lots of times if I simply ask them to repeat, they say the entire sentence the exact same way and I don't hear it any better the second time.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:32 AM on September 9, 2011 [11 favorites]

I hear ya. I have issues with deciphering thick accents, or even worse, my disabled father back when he was alive. I'd ask him to repeat something ten times and I swear he'd just get more and more pissed at me.

I listen to the Ouch podcast (put on by British disabled people, it's really hilarious), and on the last podcast they did (mp3 link), they were discussing what the etiquette is when you just don't understand what someone is saying. One of the hosts was saying that after asking someone to repeat themselves ten times he'd just give up and pretend that he understood it-- but it was obvious to both parties that he didn't. They called up a fellow with cerebral palsy who has a speech issue and asked him what he thought, and he said the polite thing was to keep asking them even if you have to ask a bunch of times. (He then pointed out that he'd had the same problem understanding people too.)
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:41 AM on September 9, 2011

Treat it like you were learning any other foreign language: total immersion. Hang out with these folks after class. Be up front and honest and say you're new to listening to ESL speakers.

It'll take a couple of months, but after a while it will become no problem. After teaching ESL in Japan, I have absolutely no problem understanding ESL speakers no matter where they are from. It's a skill that has come in handy!
posted by KokuRyu at 10:47 AM on September 9, 2011 [3 favorites]

This won't necessarily work for everyone, but in my case I've found that practice/repeated exposure helps a lot in terms of making different accents/speaking styles more comprehensible. Podcasts, films, movies, etc. where people speak English with a variety of accents might help. I've found that there seems to come a point after a certain amount of listening where suddenly things "click" in my brain and someone who was nearly incomprehensible to me until then starts sounding much clearer. (And it's not even just non-US accents that can be tricky for me -- when I first met my partner's father, who was born and raised in rural Iowa, I seriously wondered if he was even speaking English at all -- but now I can generally understand him fine).
posted by aecorwin at 10:49 AM on September 9, 2011

Serene Empress Dork has a good point. Just saying "What?" isn't a good "conversation repair strategy" (it even irritates my husband ;)). It's better to say "You think this result was most strongly influenced by ...?" or "What most strongly influenced this result?" in an inquiring but not cross way. Assuming, of course, you understood the rest of the sentence!

This is a lot easier than forcing the speaker to go through the whole sentence or stop and think and guess what part you might have missed.
posted by wintersweet at 11:04 AM on September 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I suggest you might want to spend more time chatting and listening with/to ESL students outside of school . I know grad school is tough and study will consume all your time. But spending even couple of hours a week with ESL students will make a huge difference. I noticed that people who have not been previously exposed to ESL are having really hard time trying to understand us :) But in a matter of few month it improves dramatically, given you spend enough time chatting with ESL students. And we can tell you very interesting and fun stories, believe me!
posted by ivanka at 11:16 AM on September 9, 2011

Seconding immersion. Assuming a shared language, it takes about 5 hours of participation in the form of communication and you're good for life for that particular set of circumstances.

Plus one additional hour if you're a North American talking to a clerk in a store in London. That is craziness.
posted by sleslie at 11:21 AM on September 9, 2011

Are you studying science in graduate school?

If so, all of you should carry a notebook at all times to sketch concepts for communication purposes. This is a critical skill that even speakers of a common language need to develop in grad school in science. (Admittedly, my background is in molecular biology, but I would bet it's the same in other fields.)

Draw when you talk to each them, and hand the pen over so they can talk and draw their thoughts - your field will have a culture of ideograms that you need to get used to using constantly.

It's hard to overstate the importance of developing this skill (if someone doesn't do it, I feel overwhelmed and start to suspect them of bullshitting me, no joke), and it will solve 90% of communication problems across languages if the field of study is shared.
posted by Jorus at 12:07 PM on September 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing immersion. American English is my first language. On a 2-week trip to India I spent the first 2 - 3 days saying, "Excuse me?" constantly, and then my ears adapted. Yours will too, I think.
posted by tuesdayschild at 12:13 PM on September 9, 2011

Serene Empress Dork has a great method for ensuring clarity while not asking "what? huh?"--those also imply that volume is the problem--a hundred times. I have started doing this now because I get phone calls from foreign ship captains in my line of work and while most of their English is passable, when they're explaining technical or really obscure ship-related issues, if we get too far down the road and I've misunderstood, a lot of time is wasted. So it works really well for me, and it doesn't seem jerk-ish to keep restating what they're saying because it's technical, complicated stuff that would bear repeating in any language--if you're dealing with lots of non-native speakers, I'll bet you're in a technical field too.
posted by resurrexit at 12:29 PM on September 9, 2011

Recasting (repeating what you think they said in a different way) is an excellent suggestion, and it does help the speaker to understand what it is that you do not understand. I work with quite a few international students, and many of my friends are not native to the United States so I've gotten used to speaking to people who speak English as a second language. Also, the suggestion to ask them to repeat what they said in a different way is a great suggestion. I've found that my friends and collegues completely understand and are not offended if I say "I didn't understand what you said. Could you say it again?"
posted by patheral at 1:41 PM on September 9, 2011

I agree with all those saying that your ears will adapt. For now, try repeating to yourself, to the best of your ability, whatever you misunderstood, and then see whether it makes sense if you change the vowel sounds. You might hear "leaving" when your classmate is saying "living", or you might hear "peaknuckle" when they are trying to say "pinnacle"--that one happened to me. Also, emphasis can make a huge difference so play around with that too.
posted by seriousmoonlight at 4:18 PM on September 9, 2011

I work in an environment where the accents run from mild to completely opaque. Unless something is absolutely vital I find it easier to let the immediate statement go while the conversation continues and I build context.

Sometimes I play dumb and go with "I don't follow that", which often gets the person to restate what they said using different words.

The flip side of this is that I pay very close attention to how I say things. It helps a lot if you've ever studied another language: you'll have a pretty good idea of the basic vocabulary they'll know, which can also help you in guessing what they're saying to you.

The problem with all this is that it is mentally exhausting. However, it can hold you over until you've know individuals long enough to track them.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:03 PM on September 9, 2011

I'm on the flipside of this and I don't even have the ESL component for some reason as an Aussie in the Midwest a lot of people have trouble understanding me until they get the hang of the rhythm and emphasis I use. I have since caught onto the rythmn of how they speak around here and then I found it a lot easier to be understood and to understand.

Can you maybe work on trying to get the rhythm of how they are speaking. If say there a lot of people speaking English that are originally from India or China, browse Netflix for some English language films set in those countries and you will get more exposure and get your ear in so to speak. The best way to get the hang of it is exposure and practice so strike up lots of conversations and practice, practice, practice.
posted by wwax at 7:13 PM on September 9, 2011

Negotiate meaning. So not just "repeat, please", but work from what you do understand.

"You are saying something about atoms? That the spin is clockwise?"

Now you are working together to uncover the part that you didn't get.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:31 AM on September 10, 2011

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