A step-by-step method for Understanding Difficult English Accents
So you consider yourself pretty good at English.
You can have natural conversations with your teacher, colleagues, and that Swedish girl you spent all night talking to online. But what about Aarav from India with the thick accent who calls at the worst times? Or that Texan who works for the US office who doesn’t speak English but mumbles it and sounds suspiciously like George W. Bush?
What did he just say? Was that a question or did he just demand something?
I am sure you’ve noticed some people are easier to understand than others. Country, region and even your mental state can affect comprehension. It’s not a mystery that some accents are simply easier to understand than others.
To give you a very clear idea of how many English accents there are, watch this lovely video here:
But how can you understand difficult English accents? Are there specific methods to make it easier?
Let’s talk about why some are difficult and what you can do to become an Inglês Ninja at understanding strong and difficult accents.
Here are a few factors that have an affect on English
Country and learning foundation– Have you ever noticed how easy it is to understand a Brazilian speaking English? This person learned English in the same manner as you. The intonation, syntax, and accent are the same. The word placement is the same, the vocabulary is the same, and even the mistakes are the same. So when you take someone from a different country, for example China, they are coming from a totally different language learning foundation. Oftentimes they stress different sounds and syllables in words and make English sound strange to us.
Vowel sounds – What creates accents among the same language is how the vowels are pronounced. An example of this would be the word “head.” Comparing various English accents you would hear it pronounced as “hed,” “had,” and “hayed”. It’s vital that you create an understanding of how a speaker uses the vowel sounds in English.
Here’s an example of a British “U”, mate…
Your confidence level – When you realize someone is going to be difficult to understand, a mental block is put up leaving you stressed and nervous. Comprehension in any situation is made difficult when your stress levels are high. You ever get mixed up or get confused with what your girlfriend or boyfriend said while you were fighting? Yeah, like that.
So what can you do? There’s got to be a solution, right? Well, where there’s a will there’s a way! Of course there is a solution and here is a method that will prepare you to handle that 5 pm call from Aarav in Mumbai.
1) Be realistic – Some people are just plain hard to understand even if they are from the same place as you. How often do you ask other Brazilians to repeat themselves? It happens all the time. Putting things into perspective will help you approach the conversation with a desire for connection and not put you in a position of defense. It’s OK to ask someone to repeat themselves a couple times if you are polite about it.
2) Select accent – Each accent has its own quirks. Some are much harder than others, and you’ll need to decide which one to focus on. Remember, one at a time is best. You should give yourself a month of solid training before you need to work with this accent. My students tell me that Indian, Irish, Asian, and American Southern accents are the most difficult to understand. Make those the ones you excel at!
Here are the most difficult accents according to a poll on usingenglish.com…
3) Find resources -Go online and find content in your selected accent. I’ll use an Indian accent as an example. What you are going to look for is content from India, in English. It’s important to find content with transcripts or subtitles so you can read along with the audio. This is vital for getting accustomed to the different sounds they use.
– Look for Indian movies in English online or rent some DVDs (if that method still exists). Most will have English subtitles available.
-Watch TEDtalks from Indian speakers. Here are 5 great ones –> http://www.thebetterindia.com/9030/5-ted-talks-indian-speakers-miss/ (Try to watch the ones on ted.com and not YouTube. There you will find the subtitles and transcripts.
– Go on YouTube and look for English lessons for Indians. There are hundreds of options because everyone wants to learn English in India just like here in Brazil. Through these videos you will hear the Indian accent but at a slower pace allowing for you to decipher what is said and also pick up on the subtle sounds of the accent.
– Podcasts are always a valuable tool. Search for “English for Indians” or simply “news from India” and you’re bound to find several options.
– Find a teacher or language partner online from the country with the accent you’re trying to improve. This is a great way to get exposure to that accent in a low-pressure environment. You can find language partners and cheap private teachers on sites like www.italki.com
-Try to find content that is relevant to your area of expertise. If you’re in IT, for example, find content that is about IT from Indian resources. Having prior knowledge of the subject will help you understand more of the content you are listening to and you’ll be able to focus more on just the difficult sounds in that accent instead of a bunch of new vocabulary.
4) Practice -Lots of practice is vital for anything you wish to improve upon. You need to practice daily for at least 30 minutes. This is another reason you’ll want to find content that is interesting to you so you’ll actually enjoy practicing! Enjoying the process is extremely important if you want quicker results.
Now that you’ve prepared for your these tough business calls like Rocky in Rocky Balboa (Rocky VI), there are some techniques to follow during these conversations.
1) Relax – Before and during the conversation remember to relax. Take deep breaths and try not to worry too much about understanding everything. Stress and anxiety will prevent you from being fully present and interfere with your listening abilities. Don’t be afraid to ask the other person to slow down. There’s no need to be afraid of this. But if you feel like you need an excuse, simply tell them the connection on the phone is bad so the blame is put on Brazilian communication services and not you.
2) Clear distractions – Make sure you find a quiet place, preferably away from your colleagues. This will help you stay focused on the conversation and not on what the people around you are thinking. If your colleagues sitting around you are laughing the whole time you’re on the phone it won’t help you at all.
3) Write things down – Because you’ll be spending more energy than usual on understanding the other person talking to you, it will be easy to forget important points. To avoid this, write down the main points the other person says using as few words as possible. If you write too much you’ll lose track of the conversation, so just write down key words that you think will help you remember the context. This will take practice and you’ll need to learn how much content is enough for you to write down. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll easily be able to follow conversations and write at the same time. Practice makes perfect!
4) Review the information and ask questions – Towards the end of the call, quickly look over your notes. If there are any doubts, feel free to ask questions to clarify what has been said. But don’t just ask yes/no questions. Ask questions that require the other person to give you information (substantive questions.) Start your questions by reviewing what was said, and try to connect that with what you didn’t understand. For example, “So, you want me to take the body out to the river, and then what am I supposed to do with it?” By doing this, you are showing the other person that you are really interested in understanding everything, and it also gives you a chance to become certain of what it is you’ll need to do.
Getting better at understanding difficult English accents will take time. Don’t expect instant results. However, with the right preparation and correct behavior during conversations you will be able to get through the more difficult moments.
If you want to be proficient and confident in English you’ll have to be able to handle the more challenging conversations. Even for me, a native speaker, I know there will be some people who are just really tough to understand. But, by being truly interested in what that person has to say and asking politely for them to help me understand what they are trying to say, I know that I’ll get through the conversation just fine. Now get focused and take care of business!
And what about you? Which accent do you think is the most difficult? Are there any techniques you’ve used to make it easier for you to understand? Share your insights below. I’d love to hear them.
Oh, and here’s a free resource list on great places to training 5 difficult English accents: