Why you no understand?

Although I’m very used to hearing English spoken by non-native speakers, I do sometimes have difficultly understanding some of what they say. This is often because of mispronunciation and/or misplacement of word stress. Sometimes people have to repeat a word several times before I work out what they’re trying to say.

The same happens to me when I’m speaking other languages. I do my best to get the pronunciation and intonation correct, but am not always successful, which leads to confusion in the minds of those I’m talking to.

Sometimes it’s not the pronunciation, word stress or intonation that lets me down, but the way I put my sentences together and/or the words I use. I may get the words in the wrong order, or use words that are unusual or obscure. Fortunately in some languages you can get away with mixing the words up, as the word order is flexible.

I was talking about this with a Japanese colleague this morning. She told me that at a party she went to recently, where there was a mixture of English and Japanese people, the English people were all speaking English slowly and clearly to make sure that Japanese could understand them. Later she overheard the English people talking amongst themselves and found it quite difficult to understand them as they were speaking at normal speed and using lots of slang.

Regular contact with non-native speakers of your language can help to accustom you to a variety of foreign accents and ways of speaking. In the cases of languages few people study, their native speakers are perhaps less likely to have heard foreigners attempting to speak their language and might be less tolerant of mispronunciation and grammatical errors. I’ve read that this might be true for Czech. Does anybody know if this is the case?

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning, Pronunciation.

11 Responses to Why you no understand?

  1. Weili says:

    I personally find Mandarin Chinese to be relatively more tolerant of mispronunciation and grammatical errors not because of the number of foreign speakers (although this is changing) but mostly because until the later half of the 1900’s, there are actually very few “native” Mandarin speakers.

    Although Mandarin was chosen to be the official spoken Chinese around early 1900’s and have been the official spoken Chinese of the government, due to war and chaos it wasn’t truly taught on a nation-wide scale until at least after the 1950’s. Also although Mandarin was spoken by the highest percentage of Chinese, namely those that live in the north, there are various dialects of Mandarin as well such as the Northeastern Mandarin, Sichuan Mandarin… etc.

    It’s very interesting to travel around China and hear all sorts of Mandarin accents. Although the younger generation can almost all speak fluent Mandarin and can be considered “true native” Mandarin speakers, many of their parents aren’t.

  2. Joe DeRose says:

    This is a fascinating subject; thanks for raising it.

    An interesting phenomenon I have noticed is that people from dissimilar linguistic backgrounds can often understand each other easily in English, even when their accents are so thick that I, as a native English speaker, have difficulty understanding them.

    Along the same lines, I think that I have a very thick accent in French. French speakers seem to be able to understand me well enough, but they are clearly focused on the conversation in a way that makes me suspect my pronunciation is a challenge for them. But I have a fairly easy time conversing in French with speakers from other (non-English) backgrounds.

    I suspect that there is some linguistic or scientific principle at work here. Perhaps to the native speaker, it’s a case of “not being able to see the forest for the trees” (i.e., being so focused on the precision of the language that a mistake is jarring enough to damage the train of throught).

    In a similar vein, I am studying Arabic now, and my instructor has drilled it home that we must have “laser-beam” precision on the long vowels vs. short vowels, and on pronunciation differences between the emphatic and non-emphatic consonants (some of which are difficult for me to distinguish even in side-by-side comparisons). He says that Arabic speakers will not be able to understand mistakes because (1) every combination of sounds means something distinct (i.e., nothings is meaningless and thus easily ignored) and (2) they get fewer tourists who are able to speak any of the language at all, so they are less attuned to possible errors.

  3. Joseph Q says:

    Love the title, in response to the japanese colleague of Simon, I find that when my Japanese professor speaks to the class she speaks at an understandable speed, but whenever I approach her, I find that I can’t understand some of what she says because of her speed. Same thing happens when I hear native Japanese or Frenchmen speaking amongst themselves. In regards to understanding people of your native language, here in the United States there are many hispanic immigrants that muddle the pronounciation, stress, etc but since I grew up hearing my mother speak like this and many others I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to that sort of broken, mispronounced english. But I have found that when other groups of immigrants (such as chinese) speak to me in the same way, I have a harder time understanding.

  4. Polly says:

    I think that if you’re trying to speak an unpopular language, you’ll usually be held in high esteem by those natives. For example I would guess that most Finns would probably take it as a compliment that someone would learn their national language rather than, say, Swedish, which is also commonly spoken in Finland, especially since a visitor could get along quite well just speaking English. I know that the few Russians I’ve encountered were always very glad to hear that I have an interest in learning Russian.
    I used to tone down my vocab and slang when speaking to “foreigners.” I no longer do this. It’s the golden rule: I wouldn’t want others to speak to me in some watered down version of their language. I’d rather learn the real language. That kind of thing may keep others from developing their language skills. Once I realized that I stopped trying to do others that “favor” which is really a disservice.

  5. Ben L. says:

    When our American instructors instruct us in Mandarin, we have an easier time understanding them than understanding the teachers. I suppose non-native speakers of any language will have more linguistic tendencies in common with each other than with the native speakers. What Weili was saying is quite intuitive.

    I always feel a bit silly when a non-native English speaker gets very close to their intended word but loses me with the last five percent of accuracy. As an example, today in Mandarin class, I tried to use the word “jiading” (3, 4) to mean “presume”. In context (and not before three repetitions), the teacher thought I was trying to say “jueding” (2, 4) meaning “decide”. Finally, after pronouncing the word as carefully as I could, I made the teacher to understand which word it was I was trying to use. She clarified that it was most often a word used in formal writing, not in the more day-to-day situations we were studying. Register seems to be one of the easiest mistakes for non-natives to make.

  6. “Sometimes it’s not the pronunciation, word stress or intonation that lets me down, but the way I put my sentences together and/or the words I use. I may get the words in the wrong order, or use words that are unusual or obscure.”
    And we Elvish linguists go about composing poems in Sindarin, or trying everyday chat in Quenya. But I wonder what the Elves – were they still around – might say if they witnessed our clumsy attempts at the Eldarin languages, based on the scanty corpus available, some grammatical paradigms and lots – lots! – of inference… 🙁

  7. SamD says:

    I’ve taught English as a second language, so I have been exposed to plenty of English spoken by non-natives from a variety of countries and language backgrounds.

    I suppose the experience has helped me figure out what non-natives are saying, but there have also been times when I was genuinely stumped by what I was hearing. In some situations, another non-native (from the same country) would be able to explain what the other person said or meant.

    Similarly, I often find Spanish easier to understand from a native speaker of English than from a native speaker of Spanish.

  8. prase says:

    To answer the question about understanding strangers speaking Czech language: It is usually not a big problem. People in the Czech rep. are used to hear foreign accent in Czech, mostly from foreign workers (usually Ukrainian) and members of the Vietnamese community, which is quite populous. The risk of misunderstanding is also reduced because Czech tends to use longer words and there is only a little chance, that an arbitrary corruption of a meaningful word would also have some meaning. Other positive things are only five distinguished vowels (their length can change the meaning, but usually is not important), no role of the stress and the absence of peculiarities like emphatic consonants of Arabic or tones of Chinese.

    There is also some redundancy in grammatical structure (mutual use of case endings and prepositions or dependence of the verb endings on subject gender for example) which helps to identify the errors and reconstruct the intended meaning. This works very well, when the errors are only in the pronunciation. On the other hand, the resulting complexity
    of the grammar makes it easier to learn the (approximatively) correct pronunciation first.

  9. BnB says:

    I used to manage a group that did deep technical support by phone. In Silicon Valley, you hear all kinds of accents all the time, so if all we were supporting were this area, we could tolerate all kinds of accents on the phone. But we had to support all of the US, and in some places — particularly the South — they were intolerant of accents — both in being unable to understand, and in getting angry for having to try to understand — so we had to make sure that people on the phones had very little accent.

  10. New Zealand Coffee Lover says:

    I’ve grown up around people with numerous accents, so I can understand many.

  11. bathrobe says:

    “there was a mixture of English and Japanese people, the English people were all speaking English slowly and clearly to make sure that Japanese could understand them. Later she overheard the English people talking amongst themselves and found it quite difficult to understand them as they were speaking at normal speed and using lots of slang.”

    I find this sort of thing all the time. But speed and slang are not the only cause.

    A more important problem for me is the difference between a conversation involving oneself and one that is carried on between two other people on their own terms.

    In a conversation involving yourself, you are familiar with the material, you have control of the topic, you know the background, and you can control the flow (s/he asks a question, you answer).

    But when native speakers are talking together rapidly, the topic is not necessarily one you’re familiar with (since they are the ones setting the topic, not you), you have very little control over the rapid-fire responses from different people, the background very easily runs into the unfamiliar, and you are totally unable to control the flow, which goes on regardless of your presence.

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