1

Over the years every now and then I end up working with people whom I have trouble understanding in English. I am not a native English speaker and usually they are not either.

Here I want to indicate that I don't consider this their fault and I do not want them to feel bad about it. It is more to me not being able to understand the message they are trying to say. Usually this is either due to accent or because of their native language way of speaking interfering with English pronunciation where words loose some letters all together.

This presents itself as a problem for me because sometimes I have to ask for more than 3 times for repeat.

Reason why I see it a s problem is both for work related tasks and for social conversation. Work related things can be mitigated to a degree by using Github and pull request comments, but that can be done only so often. Social things (lunch breaks, after work beer, etc...) can't really be mitigated and I have a fear that it might start to be a problem for me down the road.

One of the solutions I found to work would be to repeat the parts I understood to get them to fill the gaps, but sometimes I don't even get that much from the conversation. Some people suggested spending more time conversing with people in question might improve situation, however I don't interact with people in question that often to begin with, usually because we don't work in same team.

I already checked the previous questions asked in workplace, but they are mostly related to calls. The usual response is to invest into better equipment or to switch to email communication, however this is not applicable for in person conversation.

I am looking for any advice on how to deal with this on my end to hopefully increase my level of understanding. Other than forcing more communication which I have fears is already awkward to begin with, is there any known method which could give me some better chances of avoiding this issue?

Also second thing, should I maybe apologize to people in question and how would I do that politely or should I not mention it at all?

Some more context. This is not related to one nation, it has happen with more than 3-4 nations so far. I work in Germany as developer.

3

I am on the other side of the coin and converse with many developers who are also not English speaking as the primary language. I find two main types of results from these conversations: 1) The developer says outright that they did not understand, don't get it, and sometimes try and paraphrase what they did understand. and 2) they say yes yes yes, go away but it becomes evident later, they did not understand at all.

Developer number 1 are great. Keep asking. If you have to ask 10 times to get it, ask 10 times. If you feel that you would like say "sorry for the time, I sometimes find it hard to ..." then that is fine but this is not required but can be useful if you sense the person you are asking - getting a little edgy.

As a point of comparison: I also ask multiple times over and over if I do not understand something. This is not just a language matter.

Keep on doing what you are doing, and do not worry about it. Just, obviously as suggested continue to study the language.

  • I really appreciate you sharing your side of things. I always make sure for work related things to do number one and it works to extend since the environment is more quiet and I can focus on other cues instead of just spoken sounds. Social ones tend to be difficult since they are usually in places where there is a lot of noise which makes things way harder, like company broadcast meeting, after work bar, etc... For the comment, I am worried that it would put even more pressure on the other person or make them feel bad which I want to to avoid – Miroslav Saracevic Dec 6 '19 at 23:44
4

Exposure is your best avenue.

I'm a developer in the american midwest - for a long time, we didn't really have a large minority population or a lot of 1st/2nd generation immigrants. My exposure to different accents was pretty limited growing up, and generally limited to east-asian during college. Because of that, when I first started interacting with coworkers with thick south-asian accents (Indian, Paki, etc) I had a lot of trouble understanding them.

I'm much better at it now, and it's not because they're talking fundamentally differently - it's simply because I've gotten much more exposure to people with that accent over the last several years.

But... that's the avenue you're purposely trying to avoid:

Some people suggested spending more time conversing with people in question might improve situation, however I don't interact with people in question that often to begin with, usually because we don't work in same team.

... and ...

Other than forcing more communication which I have fears is already awkward to begin with, is there any known method which could give me some better chances of avoiding this issue?

... you're basically indicating you're trying to limit your exposure. But that's the exact opposite of what you need to do if you want to get better at this. (Or put it another way, there's a reason "Immersion" is the most successful way at learning a new language.)

So how should you deal with it?

First up, don't avoid it.

But also, put in as much effort as you can during the conversation - pay as much possible attention as you can, trying your hardest to decipher meaning as they're talking. One of the unfortunate things I found myself doing is that I wouldn't pay the conversation my 100% full attention. Because most people don't spend all their attention on a conversation - they're mind wanders at least a little a bit, especially while the other person talks. Which isn't a problem... unless you need to be spending more mental effort to understand what the other person is saying.

Finally, after all of that, don't feel bad about asking for someone to repeat/clarify a word, even multiple times. Because that happens with people that speak the same language from birth. "Oh, X to Z! I thought you were saying Ecstasy!"

  • Also, exposure is free and plentiful and low-stress... on the Internet. Listen to radio. Listen to podcasts. Use language partner matching services like italki.com. Watch streamers from other countries on Youtube. A wide variety of English accents and dialects is always available. – Luke Sawczak Dec 7 '19 at 0:19
  • I am not really avoiding it, I am more concerned about other parties starting to avoid me due to me never understanding them. Also, as said on comment below, this is way more pronounced in social interaction where there is a lot of noise and other people where it is hard to focus on all the other visual cues. Nevertheless I value your insight. – Miroslav Saracevic Dec 7 '19 at 0:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.