In a recent BBC article (sorry don’t have the link so you’ll have to take my word for it), a survey showed that foreigners found natives to be the most difficult to understand, saying they often found it much easier to understand other non-natives. I’m sure you can relate to that and it’s a criticism I hear all the time.
What’s more, it’s a very tricky situation to deal with at all. You don’t want lose face – you definitely don’t want to be perceived to be ‘stupid’ because you don’t understand and you don’t want to offend the native speaker especially when it’s down to their ‘terrible’ accent that you are not familiar with. So how to approach this very awkward situation: here are my 4 tips.
1. Honesty is the best policy.
Always make it clear you didn’t understand sth, (how can the native(s) know, if you don’t tell him/her/them). Repeat a few times and if you’re lucky the ‘native’ will pick up your cues and will hopefully start to speak more clearly and slowly. However, this is often short-lived and they soon return to their ‘norm’. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that, what did you just say?” or “Sorry, I’m afraid, I didn’t understand/get that, could you repeat it / run it by me again, please.” DON’T use “I don’t follow you/ I’m not with you” because they relate more to the content and not the language.
2. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.
If they don’t ‘get’ it and are oblivious, then it’s time to nail them. ‘I sorry but I’m really having difficulty understand what you are saying. Could you speak a little slower, please.’ ‘I’m afraid, I am not familiar with your accent and am having trouble understanding you. Could you try to speak a little clearer for me/us.’ N.B. the good thing about formulating your request in a quite ‘complicated’ way is that they see your English is impeccable and hopefully realise that the ball is in their court.
3. Bide your time.
If it is in a (formal) meeting, a group discussion, I would always recommend you wait until a break and approach the person/people personally to explain the situation rather than blurting it out in the middle of the meeting.
4. Gang up on him/her – lose the gun!
You could always ‘get backup’ from some other colleagues, whether it’s true or a little white lie because it also takes the pressure off you (as the individual).
Better courageous & clued up than a coward & clueless.
If you find yourself in this situation, pluck up the courage to address these issues rather than being left with a lack of information, misunderstandings, or in the worst case no information whatsoever.
to take sb’s word for sth (jdm aufs Wort glauben), survey (Umfrage), to relate to sth (etw. nachvollziehen), to perceive (wahrnehmen), to offend sb (jdm auf den Schlips treten), to be down to sth (auf etw zurückzuführen sein), to approach sth (herangehen), awkward (heikel), “Honesty is the best policy” (Ehrlich währt am längsten), cues (Hinweise), short-lived (von kurzer Dauer), “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” (Wirf die Flinte nicht gleich ins Korn), to be oblivious (etw gar nicht bemerken), to nail sb (jdn drankriegen), impeccable (einwandfrei), “the ball is in their court” (Sie sind am Zug), “Bide your time” (Warte auf deine Zeit), to approach sb (auf jdn zugehen), to blurt sth out (mit etw rausplatzen), to gang up on sb (sich gegen jdn zusammentun), “lose the gun” (Weg mit der Knarre), white lie (Notlüge), courageous (mütig), to be clued up on/about sth (über etw gut Bescheid wissen), coward (Feigling), to be clueless (keinen Peil haben), to pluck up the courage (sich ein Herz fassen), to address (a topic/issue) (Thema angehen)