In my training classes, I teach a lot of people whose native language is not English.  Save for a few years of High School German (nur ein bisschen!), I only speak English, however.  While I LOVE listening to the accents I am exposed to, it does pose a problem in communication sometimes.  Today I had an Indian (as in Asia, not American) and a Greek accent present.  I usually find that if my mind is ready before listening to a thick accent, I can listen with little problem, but if my mind wanders only a little, it becomes very difficult and I usually have to ask for a clarification (side note: I expect that this is the same situation that these listeners face when they try to hear what I’m saying.  It’s bears a good reminder to slow down and enunciate when translation could be even a slight issue).Today I was explaining a phrase that included a word of Greek origin.  When I mentioned it, my student’s eyes lit up, I acknowledged him ready to listen, and what came out of his mouth was just not clear to me.  So I did what is both polite and necessary.  I asked him to clarify his comment, then had to ask again.  The third time is usually an embarassment for both of us, and I was about to resort to spelling when he fessed up that he was telling me what the Greek word was, so in fact, it was Greek to me!  We got a great laugh out of it, he added some rich heritage on the word that I could never have come up with, the rest of the class found it great, and we moved on.I’ve seen both students and teachers fake it when an accent got in the way of understanding.  Nodding and saying “yes” when the context was clearly not a yes question, just to move on and be done with the exchange.  This is demeaning to both parties and doesn’t help communication at all.  Some cultures promote such listening ‘skills’, and it can be difficult for them ever to ask for clarification, believing it is an insult to ask you to repeat yourself.  All of this adds up to a communcation challenge, especially if the group is a mixture of cultures an speaking abilities.I’m reminded of my uncle who retired as an international pilot for American Airlines.  He finished his career flying to mainland Europe.  I asked if language was a problem and he said, “Oh yeah, you better believe it.  Sometimes a French controller speaking English is worse than no controller at all!”  So what did he do?  “Ask, ask again, and if necessary, ask a fourth time.”  A perfect example where the message MUST be communicated, and accent or language barrier or not, the only way to finish the communication is to simply get clarification in any way possible.

When language and/or accents can be a problem, concentrate on listening and make sure the message is received.