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  • Writer's pictureShelley Purchon

How to understand unfamiliar accents

Do you speak to people from around the world? Do you sometimes struggle to understand them? Understanding people with unfamiliar accents can be especially difficult on the phone - accent training can help.

Here are 12 tips from our workshop 'How to understand accents.' We hope these tips help you to have less stressful, more productive conversations with people from around the world.

Increase your exposure to accents.

For example watch international films, or look for YouTubers from around the world. Research has shown that if you listen to a few foreign accents you’ll get better at understanding all foreign accents.

listeners …generalize what they learned in training to a novel talker from an unfamiliar language background.”Baese-Berk, Bradlow and Wright, 2013

Know yourself

Accent bias is real, and it's unconscious.

"One study found that speakers with non-native accents were less likely to be recommended for a middle management position, despite the fact that the interview was scripted and all speakers said the same thing." Psychology Today

If you don't know what accent bias is or know how you are triggered, it can be harder to understand certain accents. This is because your feelings can get in the way when all you what to do is pay attention.

Notice your feelings, then rise above them.

Accent bias is not the only factor at play. Unfamiliar accents can require more cognitive effort, so you may find yourself experiencing negative feelings towards the speaker. It is important that you don't act on these feelings during the conversation. Everyone you speak to deserves the same service, no matter where they come from.

Calm yourself

Put aside feelings of defensiveness, or panic, or irritability. Just keep listening.

Have faith

Data shows that as we continue to listen we begin to understand.

Results showed that the native listeners adapted to the foreign-accented speech over the course of the single talker presentation condition”  Perceptual adaptation to non-native speech’ by Bradlow and Bent. 

Reduce distractions and noise.

Could your headset be better? Could you close a door? If you can find ways to improve the sound quality and reduce distractions, both you and the caller will benefit.

buy yourself some time

If the caller has an enquiry, make conversation first. This gives you the chance to become accustomed to the person's speech patterns before you start to talk about something complex.

think of accents as codes

We can think of accents this way because the features of a 'foreign' accent tend to be consistent. They arise because a sound does not exist in the speaker's first language, or one sound is indistinguishable from another sound.

"Remember that accents are just codes. You say 'th', they say 's', or 't', or 'f' or something else. Just start cracking the code." Heather Hansen, Accent Bias & Linguistic Inclusion Speaker


It's fine to ask for clarification and there is nothing wrong with admitting that you haven't understood. Make space for the other person to say things, and use constructive and sensitive phrases to reach an understanding. Here are phrases which others have found work well-

  • 'So let me check I've understood correctly, you're concerned about x, y, z. is that right?' Gemma W, LinkedIn

  • "This is what I think you said.... Help me if I haven't got it right." (Judy Thompson, TEDx Speaker and Author)

consider syllable stress

Notice the rhythm of the person's speech. Which syllables do they emphasis? Maybe they are simply emphasising a different syllable from the one you expect to hear? For example you expect to hear 'INternet' and instead they say 'interNET.'

If you struggle to notice this, accent training can help.

Think about how words are written

If you are stuck on a particular word, consider its spelling and work backwards from there. If you listen to a confusing word and imagine it written down, this can reveal its meaning. Try saying the word in your head. For example you hear the word 'wiffy'. What can it mean?

(Answer: WiFi)

Sign up for training

In our accent training you will hear accents and notice their features. With increased exposure and awareness you will become more adept at understanding unfamiliar accents. We also train our clients to speak and write in a way which is more accessible for people who speak English as a Foreign Language.

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