Understanding unfamiliar accents


I wrote this post on an airplane coming back from an international conference I attended in Thailand. Because of the distance involved, participation at this meeting was pretty light on scientists from North and South America, but had a lot of participants from Europe (primarily the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Belgium) and Asia (primarily Thailand, China, Japan, Taiwan, but several other countries too). It was a wonderful conference: great venue, warm hosts, cutting-edge talks, great food, new people to meet, and some fun sightseeing thrown in. It also brought with it the usual challenges of trying to understand talks and poster presentations and network with important scientists in noisy settings. But this conference also brought home a specific problem that has stymied me throughout my career: understanding unfamiliar accents.

Deaf/HoH academics who depend on oral communication will likely be familiar with the problem that, even in an optimal hearing environment, we better understand those who speak like we do. Unfamiliar or “foreign” is relative, of course. I speak English and Spanish, but, due to the particularities of my upbringing, my best shot at hearing/understanding Spanish is with people who speak Colombian Spanish, or even more, the version of Colombian Spanish spoken in and around Bogotá (indeed, that is the accent I speak with – immediately recognizable to most Latin Americans). My Argentinean and Mexican friends can attest to how obnoxious I can be asking them to repeat themselves. Likewise, for English, I fare best with a northern Midwestern US type of English; Australian, British, Indian and many other accents will leave me floundering. I imagine that the same is true for other deaf/HoH academics, but with different versions of their language they are most used to.

Scholarly research, of course, is a global venture, and it is wonderful that many luminaries in my field hail from around the world. I’m already incredibly lucky that most professional communication is conducted in English, a language I happen to know. But, while hearing people can be quite understanding of my communication difficulties in suboptimal environments, it seems cruel (and professionally unwise) to tell colleagues that I can’t ‘hear’ them because of their accents—especially because many such colleagues have worked hard to acquire their English skills, thus going the extra mile to ensure communication. Because of globalism, the problem with understanding unfamiliar accents goes beyond conferences and professional networking. Many of my undergraduate and graduate students are also from various international locations. I am heartbroken every time I feel that my difficulty understanding my students negatively affects my ability to mentor them.

I have not found ideal strategies to deal with the challenges of unfamiliar accents. Every accent becomes a little more familiar with constant exposure, so I do understand my graduate students (with whom I communicate almost daily) better as time goes by. But it never stops being a challenge, and I sometimes have to resort to written communication in our one-on-one meetings. Since the undergraduates I teach change each semester, I don’t have similar opportunities to become familiar with their accents. For conferences and professional networking, I imagine that real-time captioning would be the ideal solution; but such a resource is not available at all conferences (though it should be!) and is generally not an option for networking. I’ve been excited by the recent advances in speech recognition software, such as that demonstrated by Google Slides, and wonder both if the technology can accommodate a range of accents and, if so, if it could ever become a portable “translator” for deaf/HoH individuals (I know some portable translator apps exist, but haven’t tried them and don’t know the scope of their utility; perhaps some readers can share their experiences?). I’m also curious whether unfamiliar accents are ever a challenge for deaf/HoH academics who rely on sign language interpreters. What other strategies have deaf/HoH academics employed to help navigate the challenge of unfamiliar accents in a professional setting?

5 thoughts on “Understanding unfamiliar accents

  1. Thanks for sharing this!! I have the same experience, and I also feel guilty about it. One thing that I think complicates this issue is lip reading. I typically lipread to supplement the auditory information I get, which really helps with native English speakers. However, because folks with different accents move their mouths differently, I’ve discovered that lipreading sometimes hurts my comprehension of people with accents. I think with accents, the auditory and visual information don’t match up and then my brain can’t make sense of it and stalls out, and I’m left saying, “sorry, can you repeat that??” But in some cases, if I don’t lipread and just focus on the auditory, I do better.

    Not sure if this is relevant to other, I’m lucky that I’m my hearing impairment is not severe, so I get more auditory information than many.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t thought of it that way! But I bet you are right that the mismatch between my expectations for authors and speech reading information is contributing to my difficulties, as I also rely on speech reading for communication. I haven’t tried to consciously suppress the speech reading to see if it may help me out with unfamiliar accents. I suspect with my degree of hearing loss it may not work, but at least it is something try. Thanks for sharing your perspective!


  2. Unfortunately, a lot of speech recognition programs suffer from the same problems with accents other than the ones they were trained on (usually biased towards American English speakers). Trevor Noah has a whole comedy skit about South Africans struggling to communicate with Siri that highlights this issue.


    1. I’m going to look up the skit – I hope it’s captioned! Disappointing to hear that speech recognition apps are not yet flexible enough to process a range of accents. But is it rational to hope it may be a matter of time? Can machine learning eventually overcome this hurdle?


  3. It also brought with it the usual challenges of trying to understand talks and poster presentations and network with important scientists in noisy settings.


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