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All of my development colleagues (software development company) are based overseas in India (I'm in the UK). I'm in a junior position and a lot of my development relies on being taught how to do things by my overseas colleagues.

I have a very hard time understanding the accents of my colleagues and often find myself asking them to repeat 4-5 times before I just sort of say okay and move on.

It's obviously not their fault and I feel like it’s starting to hinder my progress a lot.

Has anyone else had success finding a workaround in such a situation or have any ideas how to bring this issue up without sounding like a total jerk?

18 Answers 18

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Unfortunately, there's no shortcut, it really is a matter of getting familiar with Indian accent, speed, and inflections. These can be very challenging.

That said there are some things that will help.

If your company hasn't invested in good conference-call/phone equipment, they should, this is exactly what that stuff is designed for!

Use a really good headset with over-the-ear-cups on both ears and a good microphone so that you get strong, clean audio. This should be the case with the folks in India as well. If you can get video to see faces, that also helps with context and comprehension.

You will still have trouble understanding them, that's OK. When talking to folks in India, I have found it useful to repeat back part of what they said and ask them to fill in what I am missing. That's better than asking them to say everything over again.

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    Writing helps sometimes. Just say "I'm sorry, I'm having trouble catching that; can you type it for me?" – Hosch250 Mar 26 at 20:31
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    I understand this answer, and its probably the right one but I do really sympathize with the OP. I've been working in a role for 5 years and still can literally not understand 1 word in 10 spoken in some Asian accents, despite hearing them most days at work. – Vality Mar 26 at 21:25
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    @a.mac Also if you do go the video call route, note that in India I believe it's fairly common to use a head bobble to indicate agreement or understanding. I'm not sure if it's a thing in video calls, but when I first saw a colleague do it, I thought he was shaking his head in disagreement throughout our conversation and couldn't understand why. – Paul D. Waite Mar 27 at 8:37
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    @MatthieuM. "at equivalent sound quality" is key, though. I've often been in situations where network connections were not strong enough, and then adding video degrades the audio quality considerably, so it's not a silver bullet. – Reinstate Monica Mar 27 at 12:14
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    @Vality I'm a native English speaker and I often couldn't understand things my Scottish housemate said, despite knowing him for years. Accents are really hard. In my experience most people in the US and UK have real trouble understanding mine (NZ) even though we're all native speakers. – Player One Mar 27 at 14:52
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Communicate with them via email. That also has the advantage that you can review their emails later in case you forget something. It also helps with the timezone difference.

  • Have to upvote this, but still talk to them about some things... – Solar Mike Mar 26 at 15:34
  • Yeah I’ve been doing it as much as possible but a lot of the information is over phonecalls in our daily scrums and backlog refinement rituals. Is it rude to just say can you send me an email of my actions at the end and I’ll get back to you rather than answer there & then? – a.mac Mar 26 at 15:37
  • Does these daily scrums involve other UK coworkers? do they also have a hard time understanding them? – user86742 Mar 26 at 17:57
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    Sending an email after a conversation summarizing is a good way to ensure that you were on the same page at the end. – Gabe Sechan Mar 26 at 18:25
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    We used to have that, the Indian team came over the crappy speakerphone and whoever was dealing with them would say "too much for the standup, we'll take that offline, I'll email you" while the rest of us laughed at him. Most of the time it is the speaker phone - we had same issues between 2 UK locations. I'd just go to a chat app and cut out the standups entirely. – gbjbaanb Mar 26 at 20:03
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I also had this problem when I first started working for an international company where I had colleagues around the globe. Like you, I was struggling to acclimate to specific accents (some rather heavy) that I had little exposure to before. I had a "lightbulb moment", though, when one of my office mates visited an overseas office. When he joined in on the weekly call, I had trouble understanding him too. Turns out they also had problems understanding me, but were too embarassed to say anything about it.

Before you blame your problem on the accent, don't underestimate the effect that your communication equipment is having on your conversations. Phone systems filter and compress audio to save bandwidth, which loses some of the audio information and makes it more difficult for your brain to process. Old-fashioned analog landline phones seem to distort the least (they only filter the sound), while mobile phones plus VoIP and satellite systems add compression that can be lossy. Speakerphones and low-quality headsets will also reduce call quality. The sum total of all of this audio quality loss made my accent-deciphering problems much worse. More importantly, it made it extremely difficult for me to acclimate to the accent.

I did two things that worked together to resolve my problem. First, I used my office mate (who I normally have no trouble understanding) as a control group to identify the communication equipment that was contributing to the problem. For me, that involved buying a decent headset for myself and convincing the remote team to use a headset instead of a speakerphone. If you don't have a human control group, you can also leave a voicemail on the remote team's system, then call back and listen to the voicemail (you'll be able to hear what your familiar voice sounds like once it makes a round-trip through the various audio systems). Second, I found a co-worker in my local office that had an accent rather similar to that of our remote team. I purposely found/created opportunities to interact with him in person, where audio quality would not be an issue and my brain could compensate using non-verbal cues. I was a developer and he was on our test team. I would walk over and discuss bugs with him instead of doing everything over email. I'd stop and chat for a minute when we ran into each other on the way into work. Aside from getting to know a pretty neat guy, I exposed myself to enough of the accent that I became much better at deciphering it.

In total, it took me 3-4 months before I got to the point where I really felt confident that I could go through a full hour-long meeting without any communication problems. There's no way I could have done that completely over the phone, though. The accent and the audio quality problems were two separate issues that I had to identify and solve independently. My brain could work and compensate for one of those two things, but not both at the same time. I encourage you to take a holistic look at your problem and see if there's more to it than meets the ear.

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    +1 for avoid speaker phones! – Neil_UK Mar 27 at 14:23
  • @Neil_UK Oh yes. There exist good ones, but most are awful, especially when used in an open office with lot's of background noise. – Tonny Mar 27 at 15:32
  • @Tonny or in a conference room that echoes like you're inside a metal can – bta Mar 27 at 16:39
  • Old-fashioned analog has a hardwired bandfilter, 300 to 3500 Hz. VOIP can do much better, but this depends on the codecs supported on both sides. In theory, there's nothing stopping VOIP from achieving CD quality (PCM 44kHz, 16 bits). And it's not like that requires a particularly complex codec or excessive bandwidth. By 2019 standards, even uncompressed audio is low bandwidth. – MSalters Mar 28 at 15:11
  • @MSalters "there's nothing stopping VOIP from achieving CD quality" ... except for IT people :) At home, yes, I get very good quality. Any time I've been in an office full of VOIP phones, I could tell that IT had the call quality cranked down because they were stingy on bandwidth and afraid of the load from a hundred simultaneous calls. – bta Mar 28 at 17:41
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Is video chat an option? I have found that in some cases I can understand foreign speakers in a face-to-face conversation, but not as well in a phone conversation. Being able to see the person's mouth and take clues from their body language can be quite helpful in decoding what might sound indecipherable with only audio.

  • Especially with India, this doesn't really help. They have a body language so even more different than the accent compared to UK. I sometimes got even more confused when speaking with Indian developers face to face than over the phone. – Thomas Mar 28 at 11:59
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You do need to learn to understand the dialect of English that most of your colleagues speak, and that is used in meetings. Anything else, such as supplementing meetings with e-mail, will be a workaround that will limit your progress.

Indian speakers seem to me to talk very fast, so it may help to ask them to slow down, rather than just repeat what they said.

Ask to be allowed to record the meetings. Listen to the recordings, both to get information that you may have missed, and to practice listening to the dialect. Hearing the same material several times may help you get the meaning. The more you associate what you are hearing with meaning the easier it will be to listen.

I had little trouble adapting to hearing California American when I moved from London to California because I had watched a lot of TV and movies in that dialect.

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    +1 for videos. There are a lot of videos by Indians in English in Youtube. – Pere Mar 26 at 22:13
  • For example search for "Indian English" on YouTube etc. Here's an example (it also describes their attitudes to their accents) Do Indians Know How Their English Accent Sounds? youtu.be/dJgoTcyrFZ4 – chasly from UK Mar 27 at 13:31
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    LOL - A colleague at IBM from Britain naively asked an secretary here in US for a "rubber." She ran in a panic to her supervisor. – MaxW Mar 27 at 20:47
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Here's another way to get more familiar with the accent: Ask the colleagues to recommend some English-language podcasts (with Indian hosts), and start listening to them.

Because the podcast hosts are probably deliberately speaking a little more slowly and clearly than they might in actual conversation, they first are good training wheels to understand the phonemes better.

But then for even better practice? Boost the speed! I listen to almost all podcasts at 1.1x speed (I use "Podcast Addict" on my Android phone, which allows .1 intervals); "You Must Remember This" is so over-enunciated that I find it intolerable at slower than 1.3x. You can also slow them down when in the training-wheels phase: There was one podcaster who was so fast that I normally delayed him to 0.8x.

YouTube also allows you to alter speeds, but I think they're in bulkier increments: 1.25, 1.5, etc.

The best way to learn to listen more is practice, but since you can't make random colleagues talk at you for hours, podcasts in the given accent (and preferably about something you're interested in) can be a great tool!

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    +1 for Boost the speed – user44522 Mar 26 at 18:45
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YMMV, but I've always found that when I talk to people with accents and explain to them that their accent makes it hard for me to understand, they're usually accepting of that, rather than angry. Simply bring up the subject like,

Hey guys, sorry but I'm having a lot of trouble understanding what you say to me because of the difference in accent. I'm working to try to understand you guys better, but please bear with me when it's hard for me to understand what you're saying.

They should be receptive to that; I'm sure they have (or have had in the past) a similar problem dealing with Brits as well, so it's a two-way street.

Aside from this, rather than asking them to repeat what they've said, pick out exactly what the problem is. Are they talking too fast? Using jargon/slang you don't understand? Mumbling? Something else? Determine what it is you're having a problem with specifically and ask them to fix that however they can so that you can understand. Of course, you have to do it nicely and with respect, but they should be invested in helping you so they should be amenable to this as long as you aren't rude about it.

  • +1 for the reminder that the OP's accent probably gives the Indian co-workers trouble at times, too! – godlygeek Mar 27 at 6:41
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    It might be more politic to claim you're on a bad connection. Indicating that the accent is a problem could make people feel self-conscious, or lead your boss to think that you're the wrong person for an international collaboration. – CCTO Mar 27 at 18:49
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We were a team working out of India and were facing similar issues with a sister team in Taiwan.

What helped us was a 15 day visit to Taiwan. I found that having spent some time talking to them face to face in the same room gave me a lot of clarity regarding their intent and content despite having trouble understanding the accent.

Once we were back to India, the cues we gained from the trip helped us communicate much better.

This might not be a very viable option economically but you should inquire if your employer might send you to visit the team for a couple of days. You should see a huge bump in communication improvement.

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It’s obviously not their fault...

Are you sure about that?

If I'm speaking English to a non-native speaker, and I talk quickly, using idioms and jargon, isn't it really my fault?

In that case it's perfectly appropriate for the non-native speaker to ask me to repeat myself until I say it in a form they can understand.

I'm not saying your co-workers are doing anything wrong, but it's not really your fault either. Communication is a two-way street.

...often find myself asking them to repeat 4-5 times before I just sort of say okay and move on.

Just moving on and hoping to glean meaning later through the context of the conversation is worse than asking them to repeat themselves. That can lead to confusion and errors later on.

It's awkward and difficult, but if you really don't understand what they are saying, you need to let them know. If there are others in the conversation who speak in a way you can understand, you can ask them to "translate."

Eventually you will learn better to understand what they are saying, and at the same time they will learn how to speak in a way you can understand.

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Another tip (although unsure how practical this would be with India):

Try to use a land line, or at least an audio connection that does not compress the audio in any way.

I once worked with someone in the U.S. who was crystal clear over a land line, but unintelligible over any lossy cell or VoIP codec.

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    ALL voice communication uses compression, one way or another. Starting from limiting the audio frequency spectrum, to choosing a sample frequency as low as possible, to choosing the data bits per sample, to very complex digital algorithms. Nowadays, most communication is digital, so "does not compress the audio in any way" is a technical impossibility. Moreover, the question is about the way the colleagues from India speak English (with specific accent), and it is not about the quality of the communication line. – virolino Mar 27 at 11:37
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    I find landlines to be among the worst forms of "telephone" communication in terms of fidelity, particularly long-distance. An odd choice. – Lightness Races with Monica Mar 27 at 13:27
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    However, in my case, it DID make a difference. The colleague was oriental, with a heavy accent, that somehow confused the linear predictive codec, resulting in gibberish. Over a clear (by North American standards) line, the accent was heavy, but I could easily make out what he was saying. – David Jones Mar 27 at 23:29
  • Yeah, this doesn't eliminate the analog-digital-analog loop, just uses the phone company's choice of codec instead of yours. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Mar 27 at 23:29
  • @virolino: Nonsense. Given that it's voice, the frequency is already band-limited to 20kHz at best. "Bits per sample" can be converted to dB at 6 dB per bit; 16 bits gives 96 dB. You have to yell really hard to exceed that. That gives us L16 encoding at 44kHz, which is RTP/AVP standard payload #11. – MSalters Mar 28 at 15:17
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I have found that using screenshare feature from softwares like anydesk, teamviewer, etc helps a lot if you need to discuss work on either of your computers. Just a suggestion may not be applicable all the times but it helps.

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    Yeah - we use Webex screenshare sometimes and I can sometimes gather what they are saying based on where the cursor is haha – a.mac Mar 26 at 17:38
  • Same here but I am the Indian in this case :) – Rohan Mar 26 at 17:39
  • Interesting! Maybe I need some Indian friends to practice conversation with haha – a.mac Mar 26 at 17:40
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What no answer seems to be talking about is with communication, context is key.

If you don't understand what they are working on, in a broad sense, you will struggle to make sense of it.

If you generally understand their tasks, you can miss a few words, and you'll be able to figure out what they are saying.

Before the meeting, you should take a browse through whatever means you have available to understand what they are working on. In addition, you will be better prepared to offer advice.

In addition, you should also be prepared for a few issues not relating to accent or line quality. This is an actual conversation from a previous company I had with someone who spoke brilliant English and was from India.

Me: I've sent you a review about what you've submitted, I just have a few points that you need to address

Other: I will read the review and revert

Me: No. I just need clarifications on a few things. It's probably fine.

Other: As I said, I will revert

There is a cultural aspect at play here where "revert" means "reply". Where I thought they were going to revert the work they submitted instead of replying to my feedback.

Another example:

Other: I don't think I could have done it any differently. Isn't it?

Me: Sorry, I don't get what you mean. What are we talking about?

Here "isn't it" is shorthand for "isn't it true".

With conversation people throw a couple of these cultural curve-balls in there, it can really knock you off balance if you're a listener, aren't aware of them, and can't ask clarification.

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    Definitely. My partner has been working extensively with testers in India, and she's run into a number of these. Brits know about US English having "vacations" instead of "holidays", or American cars having a "hood" instead of a "bonnet", but we aren't generally aware of the differences in Indian English. It's not that they're mistranslating - Indian English is an entire separate dialect. – Graham Mar 27 at 7:41
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Tell them to speak slower. This helped in my place. Since the Indians with which I work, some are talking quite fast and they even eat vowels.

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Other answers already stated that you need to use high-quality gear and infrastructure. Of course, that's the first thing to do. Makes life a lot easier.

I want to talk about a different aspect. You are kind of learning a new language. Thus at the end of the day, it is just a matter of training.

Just do the following. Choose your favourite "accent-colleague" and tell them that you want to train Indian-English to improve communication and ask whether they are up to helping you out a little.

Then, add appointments to their calendar of about half an hour (maybe every two days? Whatever suits both you!). Casually chat about the work, private life or whatever topic comes to your mind. Just make sure that you talk about a diverse range of things.

Start by talking very slowly. Every time you feel like you start to lose track, take out some speed again. Do this until your partner talks like usual.

Other answers stated hacks like listening to podcasts, videos etc. This is of course also a good practice and should significantly speed up the learning process in the talks.

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I had a similar issue, but now I have a huge advantage in that I'm the guy in charge and the Indian team is doing my bidding. This means that I get to ask them them stuff and they have to explain things to me.

What is interesting about this is that when I went from being just another "ear on the call" to being fully engaged and asking questions my understanding of the accents improved greatly. I sometimes still have trouble when we get new people on the team (facility with English, both spoken and written, can be very variable - even amongst native speakers) but I find I quite quickly get the hang of new accents now.

So, my advice is to try to take a more active role in the scrums: ask questions, paraphrase answers back to the Indians and do ask them to repeat stuff if you miss it the first three times (blame the phones)! Aside from anything else, being more engaged in this fashion will help boost your profile and help your progress.

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Assuming you're using the best phone money can buy ... If you can build up a good relationship with someone whom you understand more than others, you can ask them to help 'translate' after the meeting. (In conjunction with sending the email out at the end) Having frequent talks with just one person which include non-work related chat will really help you get used to how they talk.

You seem to be worried that you might insult them by not understanding them; but more than likely they already know... so don't worry about that, and doing anything to try and show that you're trying to resolve the problem will build bridges.

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I have a number of Indian colleagues in my office (South African) and after 1.5 years working closely with them I still get the occasional hiccup with accents (4-5 retries sounds about right). The shortest way to resolve this is writing the unclear word (by hand, or typing).

To be fair, very few of us, including other South Africans, are native/home language English speakers, so accents are sometimes problematic with other cultural groups too, just as I was struggling to make myself understood to e.g. Canadians and Americans when over there (I thought my English is pretty good) or to understand some of Switzerland's German dialects - but not others - while there (I speak "standard" German).

While frustrating, this is usually taken with humor rather than offense. Perhaps discuss it in a humorous and relaxed way with your colleagues and come up with a way that will work for all of you. I do not think demanding of others to change their dialect is productive, there's a lot of instinctive muscle memory that will need to be unlearned.

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Talk to your management about this. Not about the fact that you don't understand your colleagues (this is merely a trigger for your argument), but about the bad practice you're under: nowadays most companies, working with people overseas, are using written communication (instead of oral communication), especially in the software development business, for different reasons:

  1. It's clearer: there are far less misunderstandings in written language than in spoken one. (E.g. just imagine passing on a screenshot instead of explaining it)
    Also, how can you copy/paste something your colleague just told you? :-)
  2. As it's written down, you can always refer to it (a Chinese saying says that the weakest paper is stronger than the strongest mind, in order to convince people to write important things down).
  3. Direct contact is not needed: you can send a written request/response to somebody, and (s)he might pick it up when starting to work. Written communication is very well suited for working in different timezones.
  4. Very important for management: the price of written communication is far lower than the price of spoken one (telephone costs/network infrastructure).

protected by Jane S Mar 26 at 22:43

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