How to deal with people with foreign accents?

Lately I have had to talk with several people with Indian accents that were very hard to understand. I don’t know what to do other than ask them to repeat what they said when I can’t understand them. Any other advice?

I am looking for a job now so these people are important to talk to for interviews and getting contacts. Ironically the person who was easiest for me to understand was actually in India. I’ve had similar problems with people from China.

Over time, you’ll both (a) begin to understand them more and more, and (b) continue to ask them to repeat. They’re used to it.

I would just say “Sorry, I didn’t understand that, could you repeat?” or some variation until you do understand. People with accents generally know they have an accent, so it’s not like you would be bringing up a touchy subject.

I’m married to an immigrant and spend a lot of time around folks with accents, some very heavy. I just repeat

as often and loudly as necessary.

From the other side: there’s several reasons why people don’t understand what someone else has said (I’m not talking about misunderstandings, just “uh?” moments). Repeating works if the problem was physically understanding what was said and if the person repeating speaks more clearly on repeat, but not if there was a word the other person simply did not know - or if “mumblemumble” “I’m sorry, can you please repeat?” leads to “mumblemumble”.

That one time I was asked whether I wanted okra and said I didn’t know what it was, could she point it out for me, and the server got increasingly angry and kept yelling, louder and louder “okra! okra is okra!” - well, let’s just say it wasn’t a high point in restaurant history.

That is certainly true when you deal with the same people. It is less true when you are always dealing with new people, especially over the phone. I will generally ask them to repeat it once. If they say the same thing in (what appears to me) the same way, I don’t ask them to repeat it again. Down that path lies madness. If I really need the information, I will ask them to email me. If they have been offended by that request, they haven’t yet shown it to me.

I concur with Nava and further state that Indian and people from S Asia generally sometimes use English in a more archaic way then people in N America or UK/Oceania. The well known “do the needful” but also use words in ways that they are not used elsewhere anymore. Rascal or miscreant is quite an insult and “nice” on occasion still carries the connotation of being finely divided while “kindly” still means please and no in a condescending way.

Of course there are still words which are used in S Asia which have become extinct elsewhere, “infructuous” is one and of course there are local idioms which you won’t understand (“auld lange syne” is often used to signify something has ended (and implying sadness at its ending, while “national anthem played” usually means to be terminated", “out of station” means to be on holiday).

So if someone says that “kindly do the needful before you go out of station, else the matter will become infructuous and that will lead to the national anthem of the client being played”, the problem is not with the accent, its with comprehension.

Don’t just ask them to repeat it again, but give them some feedback. Say “I’m sorry I didn’t quite catch that, did you say you want me to harvest the grains in the third month?” (OK, I kid, but some feedback is better than none because they know what particular part you have misunderstood and can adapt accordingly rather than just repeat the same thing more loudly).

There is only one way to get better at understanding foreign accents and that is listening. It takes time, good luck!

I would get used to their accent but in some cases I only talk to the them for 30 minutes or less. If I worked with them every day I am sure I would be able to understand them a lot better.

I saw a TV show the other day and they used subtitles for a person from England which I thought was funny. Her British accent was not extreme, at least to me.

The only way I can talk to Indians is to have them email instead. They have weird emPHAsis and pleased to be of speaking like an illiterate Engrish sign. Alternately, they say the words with no emphasis at all, just all mumbled words with no pauses or breaks. So I end up saying “I don’t understand. No, I don’t understand what you’re saying. I didn’t catch that. Why don’t you email me instead.”

I have trouble with Chinese and Indian accents. Usually I am trying to take a phone message from them, so if worst comes to worst, I just get the number and ask them to spell their name. The recipient can work out what it’s all about.

If you are interviewing, you can get by doing what you’d do on any other interview: rephrase and repeat back what you understood they just told you. If you only understood part of what they said, tell them “I understood XX, but could you go over YY again, please?”

I’m an American and English is my native language. While interning in India, I had occasion to answer the phone at my office one time.

Person: Is [boss] there?
Me: No, sorry, he’s out of the office. Could I take a message?
Person: He is there?
Me: No, he isn’t. Can I take a message?
Person: What?
Me: He is not here.
Person, clearly frustrated: Could you speak English?
Me: :dubious::stuck_out_tongue:

Seriously, you get used to it.

As an experienced world traveller I’ll pass on a couple of tips that have proved invaluable to me.

If someone speaks absaloutley no English whatsoever then speak loudly and slowly and keep repeating yourself, until Johnny Foreigner DOES understand what you’re saying.

If they speak no English whatsoever but they’re native language is one of the Romance languages, ie. Italian, Spanish or Portugese then just speak English but add an “o” on the ends of some words.
An example “Hey you foreign fellow, can you tell me where the Airporto hotello is ?”

I was on a bus full of Americans near the Mexican border once when U.S. Immigration officials boarded it.
They asked if there were any foreigners on the bus.
Being helpful, ! stood up and said “Well I’m British myself but they’re all foreigners”.

Hope this has been helpful to you.

And remember, they’re only PRETENDING to not understand you.

Seriously, I just keep asking the person to repeat him/herself.

Lust4Life gives excellent advice.

I work for a company that is essentially Indian and with a ton of Indian cow-orkers. While you do get used to the different wording, accents and speech patterns over time, one of the things I learned early on was to get a clear phone line. I came to learn that many of the folks I have to communicate with in India are talking on VOIP, speaker phones or cellphones. Where possible - and I know it’s often not - set up a call with a direct connection or a non-VOIP conference call provider. Ask them to use a landline to connect and not a speaker on their computer or microphone hooked to the computer. This will sometimes clear up the problem.

In general - landline (handset) > cellphone > speakerphone > computer speaker. YMMV.

Indeed! I am often in a conference room with a group of people using a speaker phone to talk to another group of people in a conference room somewhere else in the world using a speakerphone. Add in strong accents, stir. YIKES!

It helps to ask yes/no questions if your question can be re-phrased to allow it.

I deal with a lot of Spanish speaking people in my neighborhood and it always cracks me up when they spell things and say

“V” no “V” no the other “V” that’s right “B” :slight_smile:

They’re all nice about it but it seem to the Spanish people in my area of Chicago “V” and “B” are pretty much interchangeable.

Now the Chinese are the ones I have a lot of trouble understanding.