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Difficult Accents

In the Society for Science & the Public’s ScienceNews blog, Janet Raloff puts her finger on an issue that may at first seem minor and not politically correct, but is nonetheless important.

Raloff refers to how strong foreign accents can make it difficult for talented and actually articulate scientists to communicate effectively. At a recent international conference, “while I could understand most of what was spoken during the majority of presentations, there were a few that I just couldn’t fathom, no matter how hard I tried,” she writes. “The presenters I’m referring to are smart. They’ve done clever work. And now they’re trying to share their findings with the world. Except that their non-native inflections erase any chance of the audience following more than what’s on their PowerPoint pages.” This can advance neither science nor their reputation, she adds.

That’s a tricky issue. As a non-native English speaker pointed out in a feedback comment, foreign speakers are already making a significant effort to speak in another language. So in return “it will be very reasonable that native English speaking people shall be wider in their interpretation of our language mistakes,” the reader says. As a non-native English speaker myself, I agree that sometimes a greater comprehension and exposure of native speakers to foreign accents would help. But you cannot count only on that.  

Raloff sees getting someone else to talk for you while you are perfecting your accent as a possible solution. “Sometimes it might be as simple as handing a typed paper to another person to read or asking a colleague to describe what you’ve done,” she wrote in reply. “The goal should be to minimize confusion and mistakes — and to help people get appropriate credit for their research accomplishments.”

In my view, it might be a short-term solution, but it’s unlikely that one will be able to progress that way. If you live in an English-speaking country, after a while your accent should start improving. But if you are based in another country, international conferences will often be the only setting you have to speak in English yourself.

Raloff also suggested giving a written hand-out of your talk to the audience, and this seems a better option to me. In another feedback comment, a native English speaker who often gives talks in foreign languages also recommended paying greater attention to preparing slides.

Perhaps another solution, provided you have some native English-speaking colleagues or friends, would be to ask them for their honest feedback and a little bit of help with the pronunciation.  

One comment on “Difficult Accents”

  1. Stu West says:

    It’s interesting to see this discussed on the science careers blog, because while there obviously is a communication issue in some cases, it’s not necessarily a careers issue. In other words, being a non-native English speaker can actually be an advantage as a scientist, in the same way that my grandmother used being deaf to her advantage when someone said something she didn’t want to hear.
    I’ve heard about this — let’s call it “selective comprehension” — from a few different people, and obviously at first I was ready to dismiss it as knee-jerk xenophobia, but I have come to think there’s something to it. There are also lower expectations to be met if colleagues and employers think your English is not that great:
    As a Native English speaker, I am expected to understand and utilize all kinds of innuendo and nuance that maybe foreign postdocs never experience, because it’s not expected.
    I love this example, where a foreign postdoc – whose English was nearly perfect, so far as I could tell – said that the data in his figures had been “manipulated.”
    And nobody blinked.

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