By Craig Storti

Even the most fluent, bilingual speakers of English as a second language—people who speak English better than a lot of Americans do—sometimes speak with an accent that natives can’t immediately understand, especially if the conversation is by phone.

In many cases these people do not realize they speak with an accent, and it can accordingly be frustrating for them when native speakers do not immediately understand what they’re saying. It’s frustrating for two reasons: everyone from their own culture understands them when they speak, so they are not aware or don’t really believe they speak with an accent, and after all, they’ve learned English, so isn’t that enough?

To be honest, many Americans sympathize with their non-native speaker colleagues. They appreciate that they have done the work to learn English, and Americans usually feel badly when they don’t understand them. In some cases, they pretend they understood and try to accomplish whatever needs to be done without the foreign speaker’s input. This is well-intended, perhaps, but not very effective, especially if that person has essential expertise or an important perspective not to be found elsewhere. Nor does it help such individuals any if they don’t realize that other people have trouble understanding them. And finally, it’s also somewhat patronizing—we don’t pretend we have understood native speakers when we have not, so why should we pretend with non-native speakers?

Another strategy self-conscious native speakers sometimes follow is simply to do as much work as possible without communicating with their foreign-born colleague, either by doing their work for them or finding another native speaker to work with. This is almost never a conscious strategy, but it is no less wrong-headed and ineffective for not being deliberate.

And some native speakers, of course, do not sympathize at all with colleagues who have a strong accent and are quite frustrated and annoyed by them.

Whether they are sympathetic or hostile, native speakers who find it difficult to work with colleagues who have a strong accent clearly need a better strategy than pretending, trying a work-around, or becoming upset. A good place to start is to be honest: explain to the other person that you can’t understand them very well (you can always take the blame if it makes you feel better) and then ask them to slow their speech down, repeat what they’ve said, or put something in writing (in an email or instant message). It’s also true that the longer people spend time in the U.S., the less pronounced their accent will become. For their part, non-native speakers can be proactive, asking others if they have understood and offering to repeat.

One thing is for sure: ignoring the problem will not solve it.

Craig Storti, a consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of India, describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work together with native Americans. He can be contacted at: [email protected].