Why it’s hard to understand accents

Why it’s hard to understand accents

Do you have more difficulty understanding speakers with strong or foreign accents?

If so, you're not alone—it's one of the most common complaints I hear. Whether it's an overseas telephone call centre, or trying to follow the dialogue on an American drama or film, someone can speak the same language as us, but be almost incomprehensible.

Why do we have so much trouble with accents, and are there any answers?


Now who’s the one with the foreign accent?

I remember when I visited New Orleans a few years ago whilst attending a conference that the hotel staff had real difficulty understanding me! This genuinely surprised me because I'm normally told what a clear and easy to understand voice I have. But there was an obvious look of concentration on their faces as they strained to grasp my meaning.

I could see from their body language and facial expressions that they were struggling, so what did I do? I tried to make myself easier to understand... which I found only served to accentuate my acutely British accent! How could two people, speaking the same language, struggle to understand one another?

And this, at a time when many Brits complain about ‘americanisms’ creeping into UK parlance (“I'm good, thank you. You?”)

Downton Abbey? I can never understand those foreign dramas!

So I was fascinated to read about recent research from the University of Utah on the trouble a British accent causes Americans.

They recently investigated the effects of all sorts of characteristics of speech on clarity, including how fast people spoke, whether background noise was present, and whether the speaker was male or female, and—of course—the speaker's accent. 

You can probably guess who had the most difficulty… and with whom.

Yes, if you’re an American trying to follow a fast-talking British female in background noise, that would be something of a nightmare for you! Conversely, younger adults with good hearing tend to have little trouble.

In other words, if you have a reduction in hearing, and you're older, you're likely to struggle more with accents. The research says so.

Is it age or something else?

But let's stop a minute. Is it actually down to some sort of ageing effect? Do we hit a certain point in our lives when American dramas stop making sense? Or might it have something to do with exposure to an accent?

As someone who's grown up regularly hearing the American and Australian accents on TV dramas and soaps, which our global village has made possible, I can't help thinking that some of the older people I know simply didn't grow up with the same exposure to other accents that I did. They grew up with so-called BBC English at a time when it was rare to even hear a regional accent on the radio or TV. In other words, perhaps individuals who are now older simply didn't get the practice they needed when they were younger to form the recognition circuits in the brain.

So if I'm still writing this blog when I reach the age of the older people who participated in the Utah study, I'll let you know! Because if the trouble with accents is to do with age (i.e. some sort of break down in mental processing, perhaps?), I should find that I can no longer follow the American sit-coms. But if I can, that would suggest accent exposure is a crucial component.

An experiment to try

If that's the case, and practice can improve our accent understanding, there's a very simple experiment you could try. Get yourself an American drama box set – usually they have around 20 hours worth of viewing material, which will be useful.

For the first episode try watching it as you would normally, and keep a tally of how many times you miss what's being said. This will be your baseline. Then watch the next three episodes with the subtitles on, whilst reading along trying to imitate their accent. Now try watching the next three episodes without the subtitles and keep a tally of how many times you miss what's being said.

Has practice made it any better? If not repeat the exercise: with subtitles on for 3 (reading along mimicking their accent), then three off. When you get to the end of the box set compare your tally of mishearing with your original baseline.

So why are accents so tricky?

A good analogy is to think of one of those young children’s jigsaw puzzles, where there’s a shape cut out of the board and you have to insert the correct shape. With our own familiar accent, the “shape” of someone else’s speech easily fits into the pre-cut hole. 

But with an unfamiliar accent, the shape doesn’t quite fit. So we have to work much harder to find the “closest match”. This takes up valuable mental resources. If we were timing ourselves doing this with a real jigsaw, it would slow us down. The same happens processing an accent: it slows us down, which means that we find ourselves trying to figure out what someone said whilst everything else has moved on.

More Mental Effort

If processing an accent is taking up valuable mental resources, there's less capacity available for anything else that might be competing for our brainpower (faster speech, interference from background noise, less familiar subjects matter…). In other words, it takes more mental effort.

An interesting side-effect of this is that because understanding someone with an unfamiliar accent doesn’t just “flow” for us, our subconscious mind mistakes this lack of ease for evidence that “something is wrong”. The result? We find ourselves doubting the accuracy of what we’re being told!

So perhaps the next time you get a call from an overseas call centre, you need to think about how their accent affects not only your understanding, but also your attitude to what they’re telling me! Of course it also works the other way: when we're the one with the foreign accent, will our listener doubt us because they struggle to understand us? Now that's a sobering thought!

Making our own accent easier for others

With this in mind, think about when someone finds us difficult to understand; what do we do? We usually try to speak more clearly for them. This has the unwanted effect of exaggerating our accent, as I found in New Orleans. But the trick is to make our own accent sound more similar to the person we're trying to communicate with. This often “feels wrong” to us, because it seems to our own ear like we're being false or mocking the other person’s accent. But actually, we're making it easier for them – and easier for us to understand them.

Which also has one more side-effect worth a mention here. Having a more similar accent helps us build rapport and increases another person's liking and trust of us. As accent studies of children found, children tend to unconsciously seek out friendships with the children who the accent most similar to their own. Indeed accents are considered to be one of the underlying causes of prejudice against ”the outsider”.

 Final word on accents

The final thing to remember with accents, is that one person's native (i.e. own) accent is another person's strong accent! We often think we don't particularly have an accent ourselves (unless we've relocated) – or at least not a strong one. But to someone else's ear, we do. Because all we mean when we talk about “having an accent” is how far from our own accent someone else's manner of speaking is.

And that means we're all in the same boat here. So when it comes to accents, perhaps we all just need a bit more understanding about understanding.

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