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I am a non-native English speaker working in a software company. Some of my co-workers, especially people in more senior positions, make comments about not understanding due to my accent when a majority of the people in the room have no problem understanding exactly what I said. Occasionally someone will repeat a word back to me with a questioning tone, but in a perfect accent.

Right now I feel uncomfortable, but choose to ignore it. What is an appropriate way to respond to these sorts of comments to get them to stop?

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Hey user, this is a great question! I'm going to make a slight edit to it to make it applicable to more people (and get you better answers). If you think I missed something or can otherwise improve it, please feel free to add an edit of your own! Thanks in advance. –  jmac Apr 2 at 8:27
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It's appropriate for people to ask you to repeat or clarify what you just said if they don't understand it. It's not meant to be offensive, but it's better for people to say something than to sit in silence and have a communication failure. I understand why it makes you self-conscious, but don't worry too much about it. The truth is, no one is judging you or cares, at the end of the day. They just want to get the job done. –  asteri Apr 2 at 15:01
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No offense intended, but the best way to get the "comments" to stop is to learn and correct your speaking skills as appropriate. Based on what you said, it seems like you are saying a phrase or word, they wish to confirm that they properly understood what you said, and thus repeat it back (in a questioning tone). If what they repeat back is what you said, just say "correct" or "yes" to confirm they understood you. Native english speakers will do the same thing amongst themselves when they wish to clarify what was said, it is almost certainly not even considered to possibly be offensive. –  Doc Apr 2 at 19:36
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Just like speaking skills, understanding skills vary. What do you think is the best response for someone who didn't understand you correctly? Btw. this happens also among native speakers. –  PlasmaHH Apr 2 at 21:18
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Thank you all for the answers and comments, and they are all very helpful to me! I'm not sure if I could pick more than one answers here, but I would definitely do so if I could. –  user917099 Apr 2 at 23:07

11 Answers 11

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Kill 'em with kindness.

Always assume people have good intentions (unless they give you a very good reason they don't). Smile, be thankful for their help in correcting you, "oh, I'm sorry, that's what I meant to say!", share a light polite laugh.

The main problem is not what your colleagues are doing, it's your self-perception. You are very self-conscious of your pronunciation, although there is no need to be. You're doing your job well so far and most people have no problem understanding you from what I can see. This will help your self perception and you will worry less about what others might think about you.

Even if you encounter someone who is derogatory or unfriendly, they will have a hard time keeping this behavior up if you don't react to it but stay friendly and confident.

This being said: I'm fairly certain nobody at work holds any resentment against you.

Train your pronunciation. It's simply a matter of practice. Repeat the difficult words and phrases while you shower, read English books to your kids or SO, use voice chat in video games, simply seize every opportunity to make use of your English skills.

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@RenéRoth Fun fact: You had behaviour correct. It's the UK English way, while behavior is the American English way. –  Kevin Apr 3 at 13:11
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@RenéRoth, no fear. Your answer was great, and totally understandable. I just figured that, given the topic and all, a little touch-up here and there wouldn't hurt. Thanks again for the great response, don't worry about the English -- there are plenty of us around who can fix what we find (and don't worry, we make plenty of mistakes too, I edit my own posts quite a bit). –  jmac Apr 3 at 13:21

The way you describe it, it actually sounds like people are trying to be helpful rather than "negative."

I have had this situation before, where a foreign colleague of mine, despite his technical skills, would occasionally mangle a sentence so badly that it would sound like the exact opposite of what he was trying to say (I can't remember the exact example, but imagine if "only the first packet" and "everything except for the first packet" got mixed up). This naturally led to me having to verify and/or correct him.

But for your specific example, then if people are parroting your words back to you, then it is usually the case that they're 95% sure they understood your words, and just want you to confirm them.

In that case, the best response is, "Yes, that's correct."

Either way, they're giving you free elocution lessons on work time. Awesome. Work with it.

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Hey Kaz, I made an edit to try to clarify the question, so you may want to see if the asker makes an edit and then make an edit to your answer if necessary. My reading was that there are certain members who make comments about not understanding due to accent, while others in the same conversation have no problem repeating the same words back afterwards (so it's only some of the members). I could be wrong, so let's see what the asker says about it. –  jmac Apr 2 at 8:34
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I think my answer still applies. In the edited case, there's a divide between theclose co-workers and "those in more senior positions." It could be as simple as the closer co-workers knowing more about the details of your work and being able to fill in the gaps, where those in senior positions don't know the nitty-gritty, and need clarification. –  Kaz Dragon Apr 3 at 8:20

Accents can be changed. While it's nice that "most people" can understand you, if even 5% of your colleagues are having trouble when they first meet you, then your accent is a career-limiting problem and you should work to reduce it. If two people are equally strong technically, then the person who speaks more clearly is a better hire.

I have lived in the US all my life, but there are some strong regional accents that are difficult for outsiders to understand. For example, I once overheard a man say he had lost his "cockeys". It took me a minute to realize he was a Bostonian and was looking for his car keys. I'm from western Pennsylvania and we have a pretty strong accent too: "We're goin' dahntahn. Yunz wanna go? Jew watch da Stillers yesterday? Dey was awesome." Ambitious professionals reduce their accents to be easily understood by everyone, and you should too.

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Especially if the 5% who have trouble understanding you are the senior ones. –  HLGEM Apr 2 at 14:34
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I don't want to be disrespectful, but your answer as seems to me a bit arrogant (especially coming from a native speaker without the need to speak a foreign language). In my opinion it is ridiculous to expect a non-native speaker to speak without an accent. It is something completely different to lose an accent in your mother tongue (which I could manage to do quite easily) than in a foreign language (which I most certainly will never do). –  dirkk Apr 2 at 16:07
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@dirkk: I said "reduce", not "eliminate". Many non-native speakers retain some accent but are perfectly understandable by almost everyone. –  kevin cline Apr 2 at 16:36
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@dirkk The question is phrased in a way that I assume he/she already is understandable to almost everyone. You can always get better, but I don't feel that a simple "Get better" is an actual helpful advice. –  dirkk Apr 2 at 16:42
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@dirkk: By "almost everyone", I didn't mean understandable to most motivated people after some initial effort. I meant immediately understandable to 99.9% of listeners on first meeting. Most of the non-native speakers I have encountered in software shops are that proficient. –  kevin cline Apr 2 at 17:12

Generally speaking, it is your responsibility to make yourself understood. As a non-native, you do have a harder job than a native.

It is legitimate for your colleagues to comment on your accent if they don't understand you. If they're mocking you or disparaging you, it's definitely inappropriate. However, there is a good chance that they simply don't understand you. Keep in mind that different people will have had different exposure to accents like yours. Just because a majority understands you doesn't imply that everybody understands you.

Different languages have different pitch ranges, and the ear (or rather a part of the brain that interprets signals from the ear) is to some extent trained to focus on certain ranges. The people who don't understand you might be less sensitive in your range. This can be compounded by them being slightly hard-of-hearing, in a way that doesn't impact their comprehension of most natives but that hinders their comprehension of your accent. If that's the case, they may not even be aware of it — and if they are then it's often a sensitive subject, because it's a sign of age (which by the way could explain why more senior colleagues have more trouble understanding you).

You may need to articulate more or speak slower. On their part, they may need to pay more attention, to devote some conscious brain processing that they wouldn't need when listening to natives. The level of background noise can also be an issue (for instance, I find it harder to understand English against a noisy background than my native language, even when I'd understand the same people perfectly in a quiet environment).

If they repeat words back at you, it may be to confirm what you said, in which case you should acknowledge (orally or by nodding). They may also do this because you mispronounced a word and they're letting you know how to say it correctly. It could even be a combination of both if they're not sure how you'd take corrections. Do clarify with them whether you want to be corrected when you make a mistake; if you chose to live in a country where you don't speak the language natively, there's generally a presumption that you want to learn and improve, but it's best if you clarify your wishes with your colleagues.

Conversely, if you have trouble understanding your colleagues, do tell them. It's their responsibility to make themselves understood too. Depending on your level in the native language, you may or may not expect to understand everything, but make sure at least to let your colleagues know when you understand and when you don't, and do ask them to speak more distinctly or louder if necessary, or to seek environments with less background noise.

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Funny story: years ago I worked in a shoe repair with a Chinese and Laotian (I'm western US). When they wanted to speak with the Vietnamese in the next store, they had me translate, from English to English, because they couldn't understand each other's accents. Not so funny story: because of that exposure, I'm pretty good with many north Asian accents, but Indian accents have a completely different cadence, and are much harder for me. With more exposure, I'd do better, but right now, I'd have to ask them to repeat a lot. –  thursdaysgeek Apr 2 at 17:18

Is it possible these senior people spend less time with you than the others? I know a lot of people in the US who complain about phone support people from other countries and can't understand due to their accent. Since I have friends and coworkers with the same accent, I don't notice it as a problem.

I know it is tough on you, but try not to jump to conclusions and take offense. It takes time to get use to people when they talk differently. Get feedback if possible. You may need to speak slower (I doubt that, but you never know), but my guess is you need to speak louder. Make sure you are projecting your voice. It's understandable when people speak softer because the are self-conscious about some people not being able to understand them.

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I am a non-native speaker myself and it is true, some have trouble understanding what I say - It's been happening to me for so long that I take it as a given. I get nailed by native speakers just as often as I get nailed by non-native speakers.

Just because the majority of people in the room understands what you say does not entitle you to the presumption that ipso facto, everyone must understand what you say. You are presuming malice where they may be none. If someone does not understand what you say, what should he do according to you, keep his mouth shut?

When someone tells me that they don't understand it, I ask them what it is that I said that they don't understand. I try again, saying it again, slowly and deliberately. I will even spell out letter by letter whatever word or phrase of mine they are not getting. Saying the same thing in a different way is another tool in my tool set. I instinctively know when someone is being malicious, but my experience of 100% of the individuals who say they don't understand something that I said is that they are not being malicious when they say that - If someone wants to be malicious with me, they know me well enough that they could easily come up with plenty of ways to annoy the daylights out of me that are much more effective than whining about my speech patterns - with lying to my face, for example, and bullying others being on top of my list. But telling the truth about me is definitely a capital offense - it ranks right up there with inviting me to a hackathon and not providing any free food :)

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As many of the responses have noted this situation isn't limited to non-native English speakers. As an Australian I often find that Americans can't pick up on some of my pronunciations and ask me to repeat myself.

I've found that these communication problems are often fixed by three things that you might want to particularly try to out in your speech patterns:

  1. Change your emphasis. Often certain accents emphasise different syllables: for instance a Australian will pronounce 'calendar' and CAL-endah, where a Singaporean will typically say cal-ENDAH. There a similar difference in the word 'processes'; Australians will say PROH-sesses and an American from the north east will say prah-sess-EES. Try to listen for which syllables your workmates emphasis and copy them.
  2. Fake your accent. A few years ago in Florida I stood next to an Australian named Neil Morrison as he checked into a hotel. Later I tried to call his room via the switchboard only to be told that there was no one by that name staying there. It took me a little while to realise that if I imitated an American accent and pronounced his name more like More-son than Morry-son they immediately knew who I was looking for. I find imitating the listener's accent quite emotionally difficult, because I feel like I'm taking the mickey. However, I've found that what sounds to me like being rude is actually a favour to them because it makes me more understandable.
  3. Slow down your talking speed. I have two Japanese sisters-in-law, one living in Australia who speaks English almost all the time and one in Japan. I can understand the Japanese resident much easier because she is careful with her pronunciation. By comparison I can barely understand my local sister-in-law because she speaks so fast that her words get jumbled. You may find you have a similar problem, and the simple answer is to slow down the cadence of your speech.

Accents are tough to change, but reducing misunderstanding is worth some effort.

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Just for reference, most folks from the UK/Ireland/Australia/New Zealand have a far easier time faking an American accent than vice-versa. Most of the non-North American dialects involve intentionally dropping sounds, while the 'standard' American accent involves enunciating everything (just reading all the sounds that are spelled out). So this is a great tactic for those that learned a different type of English, not so great for Americans/Canadians visiting the UK or Australia (though I tend to find they have little trouble understanding my accent). –  jmac Apr 3 at 4:33
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I'm a native English speaker and I use all those tips to influence people. Emulating the local accent is hard but worth it. Speaking more slowly can make you sound more authoritative as well - you sound more deliberate, as if what you're saying has been thought about. –  Jasmine Apr 3 at 16:08

Language barriers can be a real problem in communication - even among people who speak the same language but different dialects or with different accents. If they simply need some clarification, or to confirm that what they have heard is what you have said, then provide them clarification.

If you speak with them frequently and need to have them understand you better, talk it over with them and find some way to make it easier for them to understand, either by working on a way to mitigate the accent, or helping them to understand it better themselves. Be non-confrontational. If they are making an effort to understand you, you should help them in any way you can.

If, however, the issue is not that they don't understand you, but that they refuse to make an effort, or worse yet, that they have implied there is a problem with you personally *because of your accent, that could be a case for discrimination. If it is severely affecting your work, and attempts to help them understand or come to terms with it have failed, you should talk to your supervisor about these difficulties at work (depending on your location, this type of discrimination might not be allowable in the workplace).

Try to have patience with them as they try to understand, and hopefully they will try to show the same patience for you - without being patronizing. If they are not putting in the effort, and you need to work with them regularly, and this will start to adversely affect your workflow, ask a supervisor for help.

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Some accents are, unfortunately, hard for native speakers to understand. If you are getting this a lot, you probably have one. That's unfortunate, but far from insurmountable. Since the people you regularly work with understand you OK, it's likely that people get used to your accent. Senior people have simply not yet worked with you enough to get used to it.

If the only comments you are getting are people asking you to repeat things, or asking for clarification or confirming they understood something, you absolutely do not want them to stop. Saying "stop asking me to repeat things" is the equivalent of saying "I don't care if you understood me or not", and you don't want to say that to senior people. It may be irritating to you, but it sounds as if repeated interaction will make the problem go away.

There are a few things you might consider to improve the situation, if it's one you are going to be in for a while. Ask your immediate colleagues if there is something that makes you hard to understand. Sometimes non-native speakers pick up odd grammatical constructs which are understandable if the hearer thinks about it, but just 'off' enough to make them check you meant what they thought you did. If that's the case, maybe get one of them to point out when yo say something a native speaker might find odd. You could try the English Language and usage StackExchange site.

Try to put yourself in a position where you interact with native speakers as much as possible. Deliberately socialize with your native speaker colleagues. You might consider some public speaking classes, or joining something like Toastmasters.

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Thanks for the suggestion to Toastmasters! I didn't know them until now :D –  user917099 Apr 2 at 23:03
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You could try the English Language and usage StackExchange site. It depends on @user917099's level of English I suppose, but English language learners might be more helpful than the advanced English site. –  starsplusplus Apr 3 at 10:17

You should make one thing absolutely clear: it was obvious for the people that have hired you, that you're non-native, and your English/accent is far from being perfect (I assume there was at least one spoken interview), but they have nevertheless give you that position. It means, your technical skills have mattered in the way that made language problems an acceptable issue (but still an issue).

It's perfectly OK for anyone, who has problems understanding you, to ask you to repeat. It's not OK, when someone understands you and pretend not to understand, only to show his 'superiority' (maybe English is the only thing they are actually better than you?)

So if your English is not good, you must count with it, that some people will have problems understanding you. But other coworkers must also accept, that you will be crippling the language and they must live with it (because not they, but their bosses decide, who will be in team).

You should consider improving your English, for example by attending some language courses for foreigners. It's up to you to decide, if you'll stay in English-speaking country/company for longer. Maybe you don't connect your future with English, but as a software developer, you'll surely benefit from speaking it better. But you must be aware, that learning a language take long years, and you have the right to be treated with respect for that time.

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Reading your post it seems to me that you write English perfectly so if you speak English as well as you write it I don't think you need speaking classes. If you feel that it's systemic discrimination first talk to your supervisor, if that doesn't resolve the problem follow the appropriate procedures in your judicial jurisdiction to file a complaint. If you feel that they're helping you then take the help. Under no circumstance "kill" anyone with kindness, you'll just kill yourself. Remember that teams are first and foremost base on respect between team members.

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Reading, writing, listening and speaking are different skills and one may have different levels of proficiency in each of these. –  Sebastian Negraszus Apr 8 at 20:35

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