Tips for Listening to Accented Speech

Someone asked me if I had any tips for listening to someone who speaks with a strong accent. I do!

First, everyone has an accent, everyone speaks with an accent, but nobody thinks they have an accent.

Second, it doesn't matter which language you speak or what kind of accent you are listening to, the same strategies apply.

I listen to people who speak English with the accents from their native languages everyday. There are many sound differences and substitutions being made by speakers who have a strong influence of one language upon another and after a while, I will begin to notice and understand them easier. This is all based on the brain picking up on patterns. This takes some time and patience, so I recommend not trying to understand every single word. Instead, zoom out in scope and listen for overall meaning. This will at least help you get the topic and have a chance at participating in the conversation even if that means being able to ask better questions about what they just said.

It doesn't matter which language is influencing the accent, the strategy is the same for every listener.  1) Relax - listen for meaningful words. 2) Observe - use as many contextual clues to help you as possible. The key is to increase your tolerance for ambiguity - you may not understand the meaning immediately, but let it float there for a while and then some missing pieces will start to fill in some gaps.

When you are listening to someone speak in their native language which is different than your own, unless they are making changes to their speech such as slowing down, articulating very carefully, or separating their words, they are going to speak naturally which means making short-cuts and making some parts of the speech difficult to hear. Everyone in every language makes short-cuts.

In American English, we shorten words with contractions ("can't"), leave off endings ("goin"), and make sound changes within words ("you" -> "yuh") and between words ("can't you" -> "canchuh"). We also leave out some syllables and whole words and use intonation to express the meaning. All of these changes make spoken English sound very different from what it looks like in written form. However, we emphasize the important words by using higher pitch and stretching the vowels, so they are easier to notice, hear, and understand. Other languages use change in tone/pitch on specific syllables, some use loudness, some use the addition of sounds or syllables, and some change the word order. Listen for patterns.

If you only caught a few meaningful words, you can use clues from context to help make sense of them. Catch a few nouns and verbs and you can start filling in the missing pieces. If you can tolerate a little bit of ambiguity, you will benefit from understanding the big idea (meaning) at the loss of some little details (sounds).