Have you ever tried speaking English with a native speaker, knowing your words were correct, but the person couldn’t understand your accent? Did you suddenly become shy, embarrassed, and stop talking? That’s a typical problem for many English learners, and it’s a common reaction to have. You even feel guilty for making a “mistake” and not being understood. After all, if a native speaker can’t understand you, you must be doing something wrong, right? Wrong!
English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and millions of people speaking English have accents that are not considered “normal” English accents. But what does “normal” mean anyway? Normal is a concept that is relative: it means something we are used to; it doesn’t mean it is the only way that is “correct”. For example in India, everyone speaks English with an Indian accent. Therefore, they have no trouble being understood by each other. Likewise, a French person speaking English to another French person will have no trouble being understood—for them they sound “normal”. But if those people speak to someone from England or the US, or South Africa, or Australia, or Canada, or South America or Russia, they may have difficulty being understood. And this can cause people to become embarrassed, and that results in an immediate communication breakdown. This can be very problematic whether you are in a personal situation, or at work.
So what can you do?
First of all, don’t panic, and don’t shut down. If someone asks you to repeat yourself, don’t assume you have made a mistake. The best thing to do is to keep calm and repeat your words, slowly and clearly, even if you have to do it a few times. You may even need to describe something in another way if there is a particular word that is causing the problem. You might use a phrase like, “My accent is giving you trouble. Let me say it another way.” Don’t think you have the courage to do it?
Here are 5 reasons you should stop feeling embarrassed of your accent and what to do instead:
1. It’s not all your fault. You must practice and make an effort to use correct pronunciation of course. But the listener also has a responsibility to try to understand you. They should take into consideration that English is not your first language, and that you have an accent that they are not familiar with. If they are traveling to your country for the first time, it will take them some time to become used to hearing English with your particular accent.
2. You are not stupid. Your accent has nothing to do with your level of intelligence. You may be saying something profound and intelligent, using correct vocabulary and grammar. If the other person can’t understand you, you should both find a way to solve the problem by speaking more or explaining in another way. You may even try writing down the word or words causing the problem so they can read them.
3. The listener probably feels embarrassed too. When someone asks you to repeat yourself several times, they start to feel uncomfortable and feel bad for not understanding. When you realize that you both feel awkward, you can laugh about it and try again. Try to stay light-hearted and confident!
4. “Normal” is a relative concept. Even native speakers who think their accent is “normal” can have difficulty understanding each other, and it doesn’t mean that one accent is more correct than another. For example, a Scottish accent and an American accent are very different, and people often have real trouble understanding each other. But you won’t see either of them feeling embarrassed for not being understood—they will repeat themselves with confidence until a common understanding is found.
5. Our differences are what makes life rich! If everyone spoke exactly the same way, much of the charm and humor we can find in each other is lost. Many native speakers will tell you they find foreign accents cute, exotic, or even sexy! Your accent is part of who you are, part of what gives you a unique character that makes you interesting to others. You can always improve your pronunciation through practice, but don’t try to suppress your accent completely—what a pity that would be!
So the next time you are speaking English and someone asks you to repeat yourself, just do it! Say it loud and say it proud, no matter how many times it takes. Don’t shy away or try to run away! And if you don’t believe me, listen to Safwat Saleem talk about overcoming the embarrassment he had of his Pakistani accent. His advice? “Speak up!”