Category Archives: meetings

Understanding unfamiliar accents

-Ana

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?

How to work with ASL-English interpreters and Deaf academics in academic settings

Just like their non-Deaf colleagues, Deaf academics teach students, discuss and present their research, attend various professional meetings, and give media interviews. Communicating and sharing knowledge with others is a critical part of academia. However, not everyone has had experience communicating with somebody using sign language, and many non-signers are unfamiliar with the protocols of working with ASL-English interpreters. Ashley Campbell, the staff ASL-English interpreter at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Linda Campbell, a Senior Research Fellow of Environmental Science at Saint Mary’s, have put together a rich set of resources: a series of tip sheets on how best to work with interpreters in various academic scenarios. By sharing these resources with The Mind Hears, Ashley and Linda provide quick reference tools that will simultaneously educate and lessen any stress around facilitating communication through interpreters. Though originally written to facilitate ASL-English communications, these tip sheets can be applied to any settings that incorporate signed language-spoken language communications.

The tip sheets can be found at:

https://www.smu.ca/faculty-of-science/environmental-science-work-with-interpreter.html

Do you have ideas on further tip sheets to add to this resource? Are there other recommendations that you would add to the existing tip sheets? Please let us know what strategies you have found useful in educating non-signers, and help Ashley and Linda expand the reach and utility of the resources they have created. Write to Ashley at Ashley.N.Campbell@smu.ca or share your thoughts in the comments below.

Ashley Campbell

Since 2015 I have been the staff ASL-English interpreter within the Faculty of Science at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada. My first exposure to sign language was in Belleville, Ontario where I lived for a short period early in life. Many years later I took ASL night classes for enjoyment and through learning the language and culture I became interested in studying it more formally. I graduated from an interpreting training program in 2010 and along with interpreting have volunteered for both provincial and national interpreting association boards. I have a passion for sharing knowledge with the mentality of “each one, teach one”. When I’m not working I am a mom to a very active toddler, cooking feasts for my family, and enjoying the odd Netflix program.

Linda Campbell

Dr. Campbell is a Professor and a Senior Research Fellow at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.  She moved to Halifax from a Canada Research Chair (Tier II) faculty position at Queen’s University in Kingston. Her research and teaching at Saint Mary’s University focus on contaminants in the environment and on sustainability / resilience issues, with emphasis on aquatic ecosystems and water resources. Currently, Dr. Campbell’s research group is examining environmental contaminants across the Maritimes and around the world, with projects looking at impacts of legacy gold mine tailings from the 1800’s and contaminant transfer in aquatic food webs, birds, bats and humans.