I’ve been interacting with non-native speakers of English for almost as long as I can remember. Throughout my time at university I participated in various programs to help international students and I’ve always been one to gravitate toward international people, no matter where I am. I think being around these people has given me an advantage to understanding non-native English speakers when they speak English. I can now say that I have no problems understanding people who speak English, no matter how badly or how strong their accent is. In fact, I tend to not hear accents at all now.
When I was living in Russia I became desensitized to the Russian accent. Many of my friends and students asked me again and again about their accent: was it noticeable, what is sounded like, if I could tell if they were Russian, etc. But I honestly couldn’t tell them because I was used to their way of speaking and could no longer hear an accent because I was listening to them as I would anyone else.
Earlier in the year I visited my family in America and brought along two Russian girl friends. My parents commented that they had difficulty understanding the girls at first because of their strong Russian accents. Of course, I didn’t realize they had strong Russian accents until this point. Now that I’m back in America and haven’t spoken to my friends and heard their voices in some time, I now understand what my parents meant. I recently spoke on the phone to a Russian friend and almost didn’t recognize her voice because I heard a very strong, thick Russian accent. After 15 minutes on the phone I could no longer hear it.
That interaction got me to thinking about accents and proximity. Although I still understood her perfectly, her accent came across acutely after not speaking with her. So I developed a theory that the more contact one has with an accent, the less one hears it. I presume that this will work with any accent. I have a good friend who is British who I’ve known for a few years and I can no longer hear her accent at all.
So how can this help us? Well, if you’re having difficulty understanding your new friends, colleagues, etc. (or vice versa), don’t worry, it just takes time. Also the more experience you have, the easier it becomes to understand other people, so keep trying and you’ll get there eventually.