A native speaker and a non-native speaker walk into a bar.
I know, I know; bear with me. They walk into the bar and it’s happy hour, so there’s some background noise as they settle in and order a drink. They are new acquaintances, colleagues maybe, and they’re trying to get to know each other. But the conversation is a little slower, a little more stilted between them than if two native speakers were having the same conversation.
As linguist and cognitive scientist Melissa Michaud Baese-Berk writes for Quartz, that’s because non-native speech is more challenging for a native listener to understand. In other words, it can be harder to understand someone who speaks with an accent, even if they are speaking your native language well.
Non-native speech deviates from native speech on a variety of dimensions, ranging from how single sounds are produced to speaking rate. All of these acoustic qualities can make non-native speech more challenging for native listeners to understand. It’s similar to how other types of listening challenges can affect perception—think about the difficulties of listening to speech at a noisy cocktail party.
Oftentimes, the burden is placed on the non-native speaker to work toward becoming more easily understood. But there is more the listener can be doing to make the conversation a success. Mostly, Baese-Berk says, they can practice. Seek out media, such as TV, film, radio or podcasts, that features non-native speakers to become more familiar with the acoustic qualities and pace of the speech.
If a native English listener spends some time listening to Mandarin-and French-accented English, not only will she get better at understanding speakers from China, France, and Thailand, but the effect seems to extend to those from Guatemala, Korea, and Russia. Researchers, including me, are still investigating the exact mechanisms that underlie this adaptation.
If you’re still struggling to understand, you can start by slowing your own speech down, writes Elise Marraro, an American who lives and works in Europe, for The Muse:
When the phone rings, I allow it to ring once or twice, then take a deep breath before I answer. And whether I’m on the phone or in person, I force myself to talk slowly, and in a slightly lower octave, which in turn causes others to do the same and makes the conversation easier to follow.
If you’re missing important words or phrases, start by asking the other person to repeat themselves; if that doesn’t work, ask more questions for context clues or ask them to spell the word you don’t understand. Repeat back what you’ve heard to verify its meaning. Writing notes, particularly in a professional setting, can also help to slow down the pace of the conversation and make it more obvious where you are missing key information.
Keep inviting these conversations into your personal and professional life and, over time, all that listening will lead to better understanding.