How to make people stop explaining simple English words to me?
June 29, 2013 1:50 PM   Subscribe

I speak English with a foreign accent. Some people assume I don't speak Engish as well as them. And then speak to me like I'm a child. How can I tell them to stop?

I learned Engish when I was little. I spoke another language first and you can tell by my accent.

Some new acquaintances explain or paraphrase words and expressions, or even slow down to speak. like. this? Very slowly so I can catch their drift, you know?, understand what they are saying?
It's worse with North Americans who assume that I'm misusing British English expressions or slang they don't know.

Do you know of any nice/jokey ways I can respond to this kind of thing?

I don't want to make a big deal out of this when it happens but it really bothers me. I've tried sucking it up but I just can't. I'll keep trying but it will help if I can arm myself with something. A joke. A nice way of telling people it's great they're trying to help but that won't be necessary. A way to say please don't do that, which won't be super-awkward and rude.
I just want to register that I don't want this unsolicited help. Care to do my laundry instead?
Also, I don't want it to invite more conversation on the subject including remarks on how my English is so good! (I get that too but I smile and say thanks and change the subject.)

To give you an example in case you need it, someone recently asked me if I was putting someone up at my place.
I didn't hear what she said so said, "what?" like you do and she asked if I understood the expression "to put someone up". Although I told her I just didn't catch her the first time she continued explaining words she thought I wouldn't get. Like explaining in conversation what "snout" meant, you know, an animal's nose and mouth?
She was otherwise lovely but this one thing just made me dislike her despite all her pleasantness and I wish I could have handled the whole thing better.

posted by mkdirusername to Human Relations (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I would just politely say, "I'm fluent in English, I just didn't hear you" and leave it at that.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:54 PM on June 29, 2013 [11 favorites]

Best answer: When they start explaining what a snout is or whatever, interject: "That's OK. (smile) Yeah I'm a lot more fluent than I sound."

(I think "that's OK" is a good phrase for this kind of firm politeness. In fact I believe i saw that in another askme recently.)
posted by third rail at 1:58 PM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You: "Hey, I'm fine with the odd colloquialism or two you know!"
Them: "The odd what?"
You: "Coll. Oq. Uial. Ism" (walks off smiling)
posted by 0 answers at 2:02 PM on June 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

Does it help if, instead of saying, "What?" you say, "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you."?
posted by JanetLand at 2:04 PM on June 29, 2013 [18 favorites]

I didn't hear what she said so said, "what?" like you do and she asked if I understood the expression "to put someone up".

You need to say something better than "what?" if you don't hear something the first time to make it more clear you didn't hear them as opposed to not understanding them.

On preview, what JanetLand said.
posted by NoraCharles at 2:06 PM on June 29, 2013

I did that with someone who later became a very close friend of mine, and though he never said anything about it to me, it's a little humiliating to remember. (Found out later that he has a PhD in film theory, to boot.)

I'd inject a little bit of complex syntax, deftly wielded slang, or fifty cent words into your initial conversation with people, even if they're things you've practiced to the point they become part of your "new people routine." And don't feel shy about correcting people, as roomthreeseventeen suggests. Many folks are so glad to be able to be a resource to someone that they don't quite understand that they're not helping at all.
posted by tapir-whorf at 2:07 PM on June 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

It might be simpler to work it into conversation when you meet someone that you learned English as a child and are fluent but sometimes people think you're not. Unless you do that and they still explain things? If they're repeatedly assuming you don't know words despite knowing your history, I think a semi-joking "dude, I speak English, remember?" is fine.

Some of this would go on even if you were a native speaker, btw - there are enough slight differences between BrE and AmE and people don't always know what those differences are. Someone could think, seeing you not respond, that maybe "to put someone up" is an American expression and they shouldn't have used it.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:13 PM on June 29, 2013

Best answer: (Light heartedly): "Don't be fooled by my marvelous exotic accent. I understand English as well as you."
posted by The Deej at 2:15 PM on June 29, 2013 [23 favorites]

"I'm fluent in English, I just didn't hear you", as roomthreeseventeen suggests, sounds great to me. I worry a little bit that I may do the very thing you complain about, partly because I spend a lot of time around people where I don't speak their primary languages and they don't speak much english, and although I try not to pre-emptively explain words, I do often slow down a bit unconsciously. I would be totally thankful if someone tipped me off about this the first time I did it to them.
posted by Frowner at 2:18 PM on June 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

(I mean, I sometimes accidentally don't switch from "my mandarin is crap, your English is limited, we will both speak slowly" to "we are both fluent English-speakers and we will speak at a normal pace".)
posted by Frowner at 2:20 PM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'll be honest. The suggestions are helpful, but this will still happen even if you apply them. Yeah, sucking it up isn't fun and the patronizing slowing down is irritating. Sometimes there is nothing more you can do than to look at them blankly, turn on your heel and walk off.
posted by infini at 2:25 PM on June 29, 2013

Best answer: Different angle: I spent years in speech therapy. No matter where I go, people think I am from somewhere else. Dutch tourists in Paris thought I was French, Arizonans thought I was Australian, New Yorkers think I have a southern accent. Now I live in the former CSA and nobody knows what to think. It stopped bothering me and became an advantage. You can work this. Be exotic.

It's tough at work though when people think you are stupid because your cadence and inflection are a bit off. And then you realize that they are treating you like an idiot because of the particular way you say words. Baffling assumptions.

Hang in there.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:25 PM on June 29, 2013

Response by poster: Don't want to threadsit but I should clarify that I work and interact in a mainly English-language environment and actually write (in English) for a living.
It was a bit of a red herring that I mentioned saying "what" rather than "sorry, I just didn't hear you" which is an equally likely response. I did actually say to this particular person afterwards. Anyway, my hearing's fine so that doesn't happen very often. My problem is not saying "what" or not using enough fancy words. (Perhaps I should do what Mr. Yuck says and work the exotic angle.)

Marked the jokey answers as my favourites because I think they would work the best with people I've just met. People I know quickly learn to appreciate my "charming" and "exotic" accent at work and elsewhere and I'm good at cracking jokes if people have misunderstood me because of my accent : )

Thank you for great answers so far and for the food for thought!
posted by mkdirusername at 2:45 PM on June 29, 2013

Best answer: I just wanted to say that I have a terrible habit of using too many words or using unnecessarily confusing phrases, so if I ever get the opportunity of a "do over" because someone didn't hear me, I'll often repeat the same sentiment but in a more concise way. It has nothing to do with my opinion of the listener and everything to do with the fact that I can't seem to express myself efficiently at the speed of a normal conversation.
posted by telegraph at 2:45 PM on June 29, 2013 [17 favorites]

I'm so sorry that this happens to you. Casual racist imbecilities like these can be harder to deal with than outright aggressions, simply because they seem so innocuous to those doing it to you, so despite it being perfectly valid, you end up feeling like you've overreacted when you get mad. It really sucks.

As infini notes, there really isn't anything you can do or say to stop this from happening with brand new people, because in general people can't get it through their heads when they hear your accent.

With people who do it over and over again, I would probably just roll my eyes and say something like "look man, I've been speaking english almost as long as you have, gimmie a break".
posted by elizardbits at 3:06 PM on June 29, 2013

I think there are only a few social errors worth running the risk of embarrassing a well-meaning person in order to correct, and that this is not one of those.

If they continue to have anything to do with you they'll probably realize their mistake soon enough, and when they do, it might be an occasion for them to reflect upon the kindness and good will you showed in not rubbing their noses in it-- and that could form part of the basis for a friendship, as it may have done in tapir-whorf's case.

If you never expect to see them again, correcting them would seem only to be an exercise in assuaging wounded pride, and could be counted on to make it less likely you'll get whatever you may have wanted from talking to them in the first place.
posted by jamjam at 3:10 PM on June 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've experienced this a lot in Japan, either because the person never in their wildest dreams expected that a foreigner could speak Japanese (there are people who cannot actually process that, but they are few and far between), or they cannot get over the fact that a foreigner is speaking Japanese, or my pronunciation and body language (culturally-appropriate body language and unspoken social queues are huge, but are rarely if ever addressed in foreign language acquisition) are off.

In all three cases, there's nothing that can be done. If I say, "Well, I speak Japanese perfectly fine", it becomes confrontational and awkward. So I don't bother.

With coworkers, I never really experienced that problem, or if I did it was just a few coworkers who were idiots anyway.

To avoid the explanations and on-the-spot grammatical lessons, I really focused on a) using situation-specific register. That is, I tried to speak like a professional in a professional setting. Register is the "levels of politeness" we all hear about in Japanese, but the same thing happens in English too. And register is not just something that non-native speakers have to master. Rhetoric is a key workplace "competency" or skill. Compare how construction workers talk with how bank tellers talk. Construction workers, as a rule, don't need to use elevated register, but bank tellers certainly do to inspire confidence. If they don't you feel inclined to be uncomfortable, and the same thing happens in Japan when the "wrong politeness" is used.

B) I focused on my pronunciation. Japanese folks are not used to hearing foreign accents. I think people in North America are much more used to it, but accent is something you could try to work on.

C) Body language. Are you modelling the appropriate social queues? Do you mimic North American body language? People find it confusing, or, at the very least, a red flag is raised.

But I sort of gave up on asking people not to treat me like an idiot. As I worked on my register, pronunciation and body language, I got the "dumb" treatment less and less.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:11 PM on June 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

I also do what telegraph relates. Sometimes it isn't you.

Another thing to try is to move your ear closer to the person in a distinct "I didn't hear you" pantomime. I also use "say again?" or "would you say that again?" in casual conversation, and it tends to universally get me a straight repeat of what was said, rather than someone using different words. Especially on goddamned cell phones, which are a constant mess of misunderstanding.

A third thing is to try to soften your accent a little, or at least visit a dialect coach to see if there are any specific words or pronunciations that jump out as seeming foreign. Like if someone pronounces "H" with a "hay" at the beginning, I rightly or wrongly assume that they haven't interacted with English speakers very much.
posted by gjc at 3:15 PM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Acquaintances/strangers are trying to be kind. People who know you well will realize that you hear more than you speak. Thus, no problem.
posted by Cranberry at 3:16 PM on June 29, 2013

I'm a native English speaker with a 'weird' accent, so I have different frustrations, but maybe it's a bit relevant to you. Honestly, if someone has just met me and they feel the need to comment on how I say 'been' or whatever, I'm just not going to be friends with them. It's pretty likely they're not the sort of person I want to be friends with. I just kind of sit there and think "Well, at least I know I weren't probably not going to be friends." I've never said "Actually, I'm not okay with you mocking how I speak," and only once has someone else spoken up and said it's not cool. I've definitely not figured out what the witty response is.

The 'I don't like you' response isn't much good in professional contexts, unfortunately. There's no good way to call them out politely.

I guess I'm saying I kind of doubt there is a satisfactory solution. 'This person was condescending towards me' is a decent enough reason to decide you don't really like someone. (I mean, in your snout example, even if she had good reason to believe you might not know what 'snout' meant, it's still condescending to explain it, rather than wait for you to ask or noticing whether you look confused or not.)

Like if someone pronounces "H" with a "hay" at the beginning, I rightly or wrongly assume that they haven't interacted with English speakers very much.

There are large numbers of native English speakers who say 'haitch'.
posted by hoyland at 3:37 PM on June 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

I would say to try and use more idiomatic English and slang when you speak. Depending where you live, dropping a few casual 'ain't's or y'all's into the conversation might make you seem more like a local. The trick is probably learning to use slang correctly, though.
posted by empath at 4:13 PM on June 29, 2013

If you don't like how people are communicating with you, it seems to me that you have two choices: 1. try to change how people perceive and communicate with you, or 2. change what you're doing to make them perceive and communicate with you that way.

Even if you come up with the perfect way to change how people communicate with you (and you won't, 'cuz communication is a deep faculty not entirely under conscious control), you'd have to keep repeating that tactic ad infinitum. So I'm not sure why you'd choose that route. Wouldn't it be a lot simpler to work to lose your accent?

If you feel you oughtn't change the way you speak just to suit other people, I'd point out that the same holds true for the people who choose to talk to you like they would a foreigner. Mutual toleration makes sense, and so does your fixing the issue leading to the situation you dislike.
posted by Quisp Lover at 4:53 PM on June 29, 2013

I had a kind of awkward moment recently with someone who speaks English as a second language but fluently that is probably similar to what you are describing a couple of weeks ago. I don't remember the specific word or phrase, but I do remember that I had repeated something more slowly and that he took mild offense and said that he spoke the language fluently. That was fine with me and I felt mildly embarassed, but I guess my side of it is what some people have said already, which is that it really wasn't anything personal. It was just a reaction to someone who has a bit of an accent and who I knew didn't speak English as a native. I have a lot of foreign friends and acquaintances and so am used to slowing things down for them once in a while, I think it is a natural thing.

Conversely, I speak French and live in a French speaking country and constantly have to deal with people switching to English when I speak French with them or don't understand something right away. Sometimes I do get offended at this, so I undestand where you are coming from. My French is actually fairly decent (confirmed by native speakers!) but that doesn't mean I don't miss something once in a while. In a perfect world people would just repeat themselves in French but a little more slowly, but in the real world everyone speaks English, unfortunately! So, now I am rambling, but can say at least people are slowing down instead of switching to your native language!
posted by thesnowyslaps at 5:08 PM on June 29, 2013

And also . . . In the situation where you feel you really want to say something to let people know that you are fully fluent, I would go with what a couple of others have suggested and err on the side of making light of the situation. I think a joke would be less awkward than some sort of semi-accusatory sounding comment. I mean, depends on the situation and the person I suppose but I think it is better to assume they are just trying to be helpful.
posted by thesnowyslaps at 5:11 PM on June 29, 2013

This may seem unfair, because obviously you have done nothing "wrong" and your problem stems from the ignorant (if well-meaning) assumptions of people you meet -- but you might want to consider speech training for accent reduction.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 5:49 PM on June 29, 2013

Casual racist imbecilities like these

I'm sorry, what? I get that OP is finds this annoying (and sympathize, finding myself in similar situations when I'm speaking french) but OP describes a situation in which strangers are trying to be helpful. Helpful in an annoying (to the OP) fashion, but there is no sign this is unkindly meant, much less a 'casual racist imbecilities'.

I agree with several upthread that I'd appreciate being told quickly in a conversation. I'd suggest something like suggested above, "Oh, I'm familiar with the colloquialism, I just didn't hear what you said the first time," and move on. If they persist and try to explain words to you, you could smile in a friendly way and say, "I actually have lived here for X years - now, if you want to explain Australian colloquialisms, I'm all ears. I still don't precisely understand the etymology of 'crikey'!" And smile, allowing them to share the joke.

Good luck.
posted by arnicae at 5:51 PM on June 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: "Oh, I'm familiar with the colloquialism, I just didn't hear what you said the first time,"

This reminds me of a relevant observation. I'm well-educated and people pick that up fairly quickly. Yet, still, if I fail to hear a word or two, and they're "fancy" words, people will often substitute a simpler word when I ask them to repeat.

I could see myself getting indignant about this, but since I have sufficient perspective to understand that it's not that a judgment's being made about me, per se, but it's more of a conversational hiccup on the part of the speaker, without conscious judgment of my intelligence, I've learned to just let this go by.

It's one of the 3000 ways in which "it's not about me".
posted by Quisp Lover at 6:08 PM on June 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for fascinating answers that were insightful on multiple levels.

FWIW my accent is fairly soft - it's mostly long/short vowel confusion and overstressing consonants because of first language interference - so I don't feel the need to change it because it doesn't interfere with comprehension. (Some words like fairy VS ferry that are pronounced differently in British English come with context or else a joke!)
Intonation, slang and all that jazz are fine. Not American English mind you, 'cause that's not what I speak and I don't live in the US.

Thanks for giving me some perspective, y'all :P

Tiny ramble: I've taught academic writing to native and non-native speakers, as well as English as a foreign language, I'm a good Scrabble player, *love* word games in general, and I'm funny and witty after coffee. Yet every so often someone will pack in loads of assumptions after hearing me speak half a sentence and I can be touchy about it because English is actually my primary language and I became fluent in my childhood, reaching native-level competency by the time I was twelve. I've had to defend myself against people telling me I shouldn't be teaching EFL or couldn't be as good as a "native speaker" so that's played a role in how I feel. I talk to myself in English and love writing for a living (and could not do it in my first language 'cause I'm not good enough). I actually speak my first language with an English (aka foreign) accent so go figure.
posted by mkdirusername at 7:01 PM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just for a different perspective: I have a terrible time understanding some accents, even when they are very slight. Other, thick accents I have no problems with. There are some very interesting-looking British movies I've been unable to watch because my TV doesn't do Netflix closed-caption. I'm talking an accent that really doesn't sound like much deviation from my own pronunciation, but something just isn't clicking in my brain and I miss every twelfth word.

Could some of the people you are speaking with be slowing their speech not because they suspect you don't understand them, but because they are sometimes struggling to understand you, and they unconsciously are trying to slow the pace for their own comprehension?

Could you just assume this is the case with all of them so you can pity them their poor, leaden ears instead of feeling insulted yourself?
posted by tllaya at 8:23 PM on June 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sorry, what? I get that OP is finds this annoying (and sympathize, finding myself in similar situations when I'm speaking french) but OP describes a situation in which strangers are trying to be helpful. Helpful in an annoying (to the OP) fashion, but there is no sign this is unkindly meant, much less a 'casual racist imbecilities'.

I'd like to add that it is casual racism, or rather, if you'd prefer a less hot button word, instant assumption, that because you look foreign and have a different accent than the speaker (everyone has an accent, d'oh!) that either your language ability or comprehension must be flawed in some manner.

I agree with those who say that you can't be rude in the majority of situations but random passersby or other guests at a hotel, sure you can if they look at you and immediately slow down to say "Hel lo. I am X vi-sit-ting from Aus-tray-liya" or whatever.

Asking OP to tone down their accent is no different from the above. Do we ask those with strong Texan or other Southern accents to speak clearly so we can comprehend them? Have you ever spoken to a "native" of some parts of England? (Yorkshire!)

"Helpful" not being patronizing or rude is the equivalent of sending 1 million used underwear to poor Africans - if its charity it must be good by default, no?
posted by infini at 10:06 PM on June 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I had a great French language immersion teacher who told us on the first day of class that she would not repeat something more than once when doing oral testing. Because in real life, a speaker won't give you more than 2 chances to hear something. The third time she will change her word choice.

She was right. This rule of thumb holds pretty true even in conversations between2peoplewith a shared native language. So it's not all about thinking that you don't speak the language well.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:09 PM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just tell them what you told us. They are just trying to be helpful. It's not their fault they don't know your background.
posted by Dansaman at 12:26 AM on June 30, 2013

"It's not the language I have a problem with, it's your mumbling."
posted by blue_beetle at 6:56 AM on June 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

You may be asking for an antidote to condescension.

I keep looking for, but can't find, an anecdote by S.I. Hayakawa. I remember it this way: he was at a formal dinner at a language seminar. His dinner partner kept speaking to him in painfully simple sentences. At one point she said something to the effect of "You likeee American food?" He simply smiled and nodded.

Then the MC called Hayakawa to the dais, where he delivered one of his marvelous and erudite essays. When he returned to the table, he turned to the lady and said, "You likeee speechie?"

I so hope this is a true story, but if it isn't, it ought to be. I suppose my point, if there is one, is that the offender will eventually realize what a dope he is, but probably not until after everyone else does.
posted by mule98J at 10:31 AM on June 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

You know, after reading this yesterday, I let it simmer in the back of my mind for a while before answering because it strikes me that you might be jumping on the defensive a little quickly here.

Now bear with me. I've moved around the United States a lot (I mean a lot), and I've lived in all four corners of the contiguous US, barring Maine and I've spoken to people with a wide range of accents just here in the US. But I also have friends from a multitude of countries who learned English from just about everywhere in the world that speaks English. I'm pretty good at working out what other people are saying, even when they have heavy accents. I have a Master's in English with emphasis on Linguistics and I have TESOL certification. What I'm saying is, I like language. But there have been times when I've had to ask people to repeat or rephrase what they say because I didn't understand their turn of phrase or visa-versa.

For example: a friend of mine had family visiting from England, but they were originally from Pakistan. I knew very well they all spoke English fluently and one of them asked me this question, "How are you finding Virginia Beach?" Finding Virginia Beach? On a map? What? I had no idea that he meant "How do you like Virginia Beach?" I'd never heard it asked that way. It had nothing to do with his fluency or mine, we just spoke different forms of English.

Another time, a gentleman from the South said this to me, "I have to carry my car to the garage tomorrow. Can you ride me back?" How the heck was he gonna carry his car to the garage? and why? and I sure as heck wasn't gonna ride him anywhere... What was he talking about? It took me a moment to work out that he had to take his car in to get fixed, and needed a lift back. This guy wasn't stupid in any way, shape, or form. He worked as a programmer and made pretty good money. He had a college education. The miscommunication had nothing to do with his command of English or mine. They just speak differently in the South is all.

Last instance: A young man, also from the South, was telling me a tale of woe about moving to the big city and having trouble picking up shouties. That just... I had no idea. So, yes I had to ask him to repeat the phrase, which he did, word for word. So I had to ask him what a shouty was. He laughed and said the word slowly as shorty and seeing my continued confusion reworded it as woman. So, he'd been having trouble picking up women. I must confess, talking to him was always a linguistic treasure trove. He was born and raised here in the USA, but spoke a completely different English than I did. He tried to tone his vernacular down, but whenever he got excited, it was just too hard sometimes, to follow him.

What I'm saying is, if someone tries to explain a turn of phrase or a word to you, it might not be because they think you're not fluent in English. It very well could be, as in the above examples that they might think you just aren't familiar with the phrase or word that they're using. Not everyone knows every word in the English language, I don't care how fluent you are. And not everyone speaks the same English. I wouldn't be so quick to take offense if someone thinks you misunderstood them.

A gentle, "I know what you said, I just didn't hear you" works. By the way, I had to say that a lot to my international friends because they thought I didn't understand their accents, so it works both ways. Or, "No, that's British English, it means this..." if you're using British English here in the USA is okay. Or even, "I speak English quite well, please continue..." which several friends of mine used, especially in the South. They all work. I've seen them work. There's no reason for anyone to be offended by you saying them. As soon as your new acquaintances know that you are, indeed, fluent in English, they'll stop.
posted by patheral at 9:32 PM on June 30, 2013

Response by poster: I will strive to be less defensive in the future because a common thread here has been the fact that everyone misunderstands everyone sometime.
There's plenty of times I'm inarticulate or just switch from internal monologue to speaking thoughts outloud making no sense to anyone else, and many of my friends speak in all sorts of different ways and we can all misunderstand each other in funny ways.
Lots of different words or expressions, private jokes and all the rest that need to get translated or explained.
Like is tea lunch or dinner or just a cup of tea? Do you like pudding or dessert? Are you drunk or angry when pissed?
That's not what I had in mind when I posted this question, but hey it can't hurt to be more mindful of any of this.

For the specific instances I had in mind that are not just about the wonderful ways our dialects differ from those of others, I'm now armed with gentle, self-deprecating jokes and a better sense of perspective.

Thank you, hive mind. You are stronger than my puny consciousness!
posted by mkdirusername at 1:45 AM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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