Pardon me? Heavy accents can complicate everyday conversation

Six tips to make yourself understood.


Speaking clear English is second nature if you grew up with it, but for many newcomers to Canada, it’s a struggle to make themselves understood.

More than 7.7 million people—or 22 per cent of Canada’s population—reported speaking an immigrant mother tongue, either alone or with other languages, according to 2016 Statistics Canada census data. For many of them, day to day communications—on the job, in the store, at appointments—may be complicated by hard-to-understand accents, which causes concern for those trying to make themselves understood, said Shea Thompsen, a University of Alberta speech-language pathologist.

“People may speak English, but with a pronounced accent, so that adds to the challenge when they are getting used to a new culture, settling themselves as a family and trying to find work,” said Thompsen, who helps people modify their accents through workshops offered by the university’s Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research.

“My clients will sometimes say they’re having a hard time on the phone or talking to a store clerk or a waitress who can’t quite understand what they want, so that person ends up having to point. These are everyday life situations most of us take for granted.”

The challenge affects everyone from doctors who need to give clear instructions to patients, to students whose marks partly depend on oral classroom work, she added.

Accents—the speech sounds we are born into and learn as we grow—become a problem if they don’t quite fit into a second language due to consonant substitutions like v for w, or by using an alternate set of vowels. The melody of a language, which includes elements like pitch, stress and rhythm, also varies.

“Some languages like Mandarin or Arabic tend to have a staccato feel to them, while others like Spanish or French are more blended.” Even English is spoken differently around the globe, Thompsen noted.

Here are a few steps to modifying a pronounced accent:

  1. Take notice if people are responding to you with ‘Pardon me?’ or if they lean in when you speak, frowning in concentration. “Those are signs the listener is working really hard to figure out what you are trying to say,” Thompsen said. “Then you know there’s a communication breakdown.”
  2. Slow down when speaking. “Even with accented English, if you slow down, you are giving your listener more time to decode what you are saying, because they are able to eventually translate those sound substitutions you are making.” Do this by speaking at an easygoing pace, by stretching out vowel sounds to make words more understandable. Try not to pause between words when speaking. “Check your blending by putting your fingers to your throat. You want to feel continuous vibration of your vocal cords.”
  3. Listen to conversations on TV shows or news broadcasts to pick up the rhythm of the English language, then practice what you hear. Start small with words or phrases and build up to longer utterances.
  4. If possible, see a speech-language pathologist to identify target sounds—the new sounds of the language you can learn to increase intelligibility. A professional can also point out which sounds don’t fit into the Canadian English accent. “There will be new vowels presented and you may learn how to produce consonants in a different way.”
  5. Once you master those new sounds, plan to use them. “Don’t just practice with single words—practice at the sentence, monologue, and conversational levels,” said Thompsen. She recommends conversing with a trusted partner or practicing a monologue alone. “Work up the language hierarchy by practicing in longer-speaking situations, then start branching out and using it in the real world.”
  6. Stick with it. “It’s a process and it takes time to modify an accent because there are so many small adjustments to make. Focus on a couple of target sounds at a time. Once those are mastered, add a few more in and continue to grow. Don’t expect changes overnight, but the more you practice, the faster you will advance.”