What Do I Do If I Can’t Understand My Coworker’s Accent?

What Do I Do If I Can’t Understand My Coworker’s Accent?

Irritated secretary answering phone

Recently in a pronunciation class for non-native English speakers, I overheard a discussion among students. They were saying,

I don’t get it. Some people understand me just fine, but a few never do! It’s really discouraging. When I speak they have a confused look on their face. In fact, my manager told me I had bad pronunciation. But the thing is no one tells me which words they don’t understand clearly. It affects my confidence and makes me never want to speak up!

When I heard this, I wondered, Do they have any idea of the negative impact that these comments or facial expressions have on confidence and collaboration? I mean, of course, it’s frustrating when you can’t understand your colleagues’ accents, but with a little more consciousness and empathy, we can more effectively handle communication.

Here are four tips to help you facilitate communication with colleagues who are non-native speakers of English and foster an intercultural work environment.


1) Recognize Your Biases (Because We All Have Them)

We carry a lot of generalizations about people who drive Hondas, people who are old, people who are rich, people who use big words, and people who have accents.

People who grew up not speaking English will most likely always have an accent. Repositioning the tongue a micro-meter up, rounding the lips a little bit tighter, and channeling more air up and out your nose might sound easy in theory but it’s analogous to rubbing your stomach, tapping your head, and jumping up and down—while upside down on reality TV. Possible but not everybody’s goal in life.

As native speakers listening to non-native speakers speaking English, we can recognize our biases and consider the unfamiliar. While it might not sound like the English you’ve heard on TV your whole life, times are changing and we need to consider how consonants and vowels may take on slightly different characteristics when said by a person speaking English as a second, or third, or fourth language.

When listening to a coworker with an accent, recognize you own biases that you have. Rather than judging the non-native speaker, consider how your biases might be stopping you from getting your work done.

As a teacher of English, I listen to students with thick accents all the time. I can understand them because I want to understand them. I focus, sometimes get confused, ask questions, and move on. It’s like every other conversation I have throughout the day.


2) Seek Clarification: Don’t Crush.

There’s an empathetic way to seek clarification that will aid communication instead of crushing the person’s confidence and potentially resulting in the hesitance to speak up in the future. Some ways to kindly seek clarification are:


  • Instead of saying, “What?, use paraphrasing, “If I understand you correctly, are you saying…?”
  • Ask for an example
  • Ask them to repeat slowly
  • Ask for the spelling of a word
  • Watch facial expressions – stay neutral

A dose of empathy is needed here. If you have ever tried learning a second language, then you know it can be one of the arduous tasks a human being can ever take on. Keep that in mind as you listen. And remember, not everyone has to talk just like you in order to make a valuable contribution.


3) Get It in an Email Afterwards

Practically speaking, if you have checked your biases at the door, you’ve been engaged the coworker in empathetic conversation to become familiar with his or her accent, and you still can’t understand him or her to the point that you can’t get your work done, it’s best to engage the coworker through email.

Develop a habit with your coworker of reconfirming what was discussed in groups or one-on-one meetings in an email that is sent out shortly afterwards. In this email, clearly state the reason for the meeting, what was discussed in the meeting, and the actions that will take next. Either you can write this email or the coworker. The two of you can alternate so that the work is shared.

Through email, you can gauge whether communication was successful, and if a hiccup occurs, the two of you can go back to the email and discuss how two very different, valid interpretations can be read out of the wording that was chosen.

While face-to-face interaction will always remain ideal because they facilitate bonds that facilitate communication throughout the company, sometimes the ideal is not within our reach. If you have tried my first two suggestions, maybe email will ease tensions.


4) Suggest Communication Coaching to your Work

Individual or small group coaching is the best way to help non-native speakers of gain confidence in their communications skills by building awareness of pronunciation trouble spots and providing specific tools to solve these issues. If you don’t feel comfortable correcting your co-workers’ English skills, hiring a communication coach will provide your business with a time and place when and where these issues can be approached and resolved.

Many companies proactively offer this kind of workshop to their non-native speaking employees. Some companies are reluctant to hire language coaching because they fear that employees will perceive it as punishment. The truth is that everybody has room to grow when it comes to communication skills and pronunciation courses for non-native speaking employees is just one kind of language workshop.

Fostering a safe environment in a diverse workplace is asking all employees to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. No one individual is perfect. Likewise, no specific group or demographic is the ideal that all employees should strive to become. We all have the ability to set goals and level up not only as an employee but as a person.


Lighthouse Communications offers courses on effective communication, presentations and meetings. What makes Lighthouse Communications unique is its ability to tailor workshops to the needs of non-native speakers of English. This article has been inspired by the Pronunciation Bootcamp Workshops Lighthouse Communications has done with businesses around the Bay Area. Individual coaching is available on request.

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