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I was recently trying to help someone to identify skills that would help them to find a job. This individual is very technically capable so is seeking a technical role. They learned English as a second language and have a strong accent that can be difficult for a native English speaker to understand.

This individual was happy for me to suggest technical skills that they could improve, however when I suggested that making their accent more clear could help them to find a job, they were very offended. At the time, I viewed verbal and technical skills equally, however in hindsight, I now see that verbal skills can be more personal so I appreciate how I did not make this suggestion in the most tactful way. My intentions were just to try and help this person, not to upset them.

Contrary to popular belief, technical skill is only a very small part of technical roles. The majority is actually interpersonal, so clear communication is key. I was only trying to explain this, I did not want to offend. How do I politely and kindly explain this next time?

Just to be clear, I have apologised to the person and assured them that I do respect their skills. I am now trying to understand how I can improve for the future.

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    Hi James, reading many of these answers, people seem to be very focused on their own linguistic journey and perhaps assuming that you have time and access to be coaching this person. Can you, within understandable constraints, add a little to your answer which sheds more light on your interaction with this person, are they someone you saw once, done and dusted, or are they someone you have ongoing contact with? That might help focus minds on the IP skills part rather than linguistics.
    – Spagirl
    Aug 31 at 13:32
  • @Spagirl I had several sessions with this person where we went through technical skills. The person then asked what else might help them to get a job so I mentioned this. While I have not known this person for a long time, it was also not my first time talking to them. I guess the aim of this question was to ask how most people would, in general, appreciate the topic being broached in a respectful way. Aug 31 at 13:43
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As someone who speaks their second language with a fairly strong accent... it's very difficult to bring this up without being offensive.

Learning a language is extremely difficult. Changing your accent is nearly impossible. After eleven years, I still get pegged immediately as being American (or, in some cases, people think I'm French).

I can tell you from first-hand experience that people who speak with a heavy accent are well aware of that fact and are probably embarrassed about it. After all, why would someone choose to intentionally speak with an accent that makes it harder for others to understand?
Just telling them "you need to lighten up your accent" isn't going to help and is going to just cause hurt.

I don't know how close you are with the subject of the question, but unless you're extremely close friends comments about their accent directly will not go over well.

Instead, what I would have found more agreeable would be to talk about communication without specifically mentioning accents. Suggest speaking perhaps a little more slowly, or planning out what they want to say before actually saying it - basic communication skills that will help regardless of if you have a strong accent, and can help even more if you do have one.

In my experience, talking directly about someone's accent is not your place to do. Instead, talk about something that would be actually possible for the other person to work on.

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    Many people learn to speak foreign languages comprehensibly, there are many online guides aimed at helping people work on their accent, so can you clarify why you say it is all but impossible to improve? Your answer also seems to assume that the individual was already aware they were not very comprehensible, but that isn’t clear from the question. There is also the matter of degree, if people peg you for American, that's fine if they still understood you easily. 'basic communication skills that will help regardless of if you have a strong accent' still require yours words to be understood.
    – Spagirl
    Aug 31 at 12:57
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They can do better

As a French working abroad, I'll take the opposite stance to the current answers: it is important to mention to them that they are hard to understand.

If you've ever heard the average French attempting to speak English, well, you probably know we're not really good at it. English is taught very much in writing in France, and this means our oral communication -- both listening and speaking -- is typically subpar compared to many of our European neighbors, and of course native speakers.

There is, however, no reason this has to be, and this cannot be improved. Like any other skill, it's a matter of training.

But is the accent the matter?

SBI: Situation, Behavior, Impact

Many people used to tell me that my accent was difficult to understand. The problem, though, is that accent is an umbrella term covering many pieces, and therefore this piece of feedback is imprecise.

A framework to provide feedback is SBI (Situation, Behavior, Impact) which aims at anchoring feedback on a concrete instance of the problem, which can be analyzed in more depth than vague "bad accent".

So, rather than complain about "bad accent", which is close to unactionable and therefore will likely lead to disappointment, and possibly anger, it's important to focus on specific words. Later, with a professional, they should be able to identify trends, and address them.

In my case, a clear example was my pronunciation of floor as flour. Needless to say this confused my listeners. They could work it out, but it took more energy, and if there was another few words that also needed working out, they lost the thread of the conversation.

This problem was reported to me, I sought professional help, and trained to address:

  1. My pronunciation; making sure to clearly distinguish the consonants and get the vowels right.
  2. My vocabulary: because English is dumb and there's no generic rule for how a word is pronounced, it needs to be learned.

Those are clear, actionable, points of feedback that I could and did address.

And now, most people don't complain about my accent, though natives can still generally tell I'm French.

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  • 'This problem was reported to me' Could you expand on how it was successfully reported to you as that is the nub of the OP's problem?
    – Spagirl
    Aug 31 at 13:00
  • @Spagirl: I don't remember exactly, but I imagine it would have started with "Did you mean floor?", and from there a discussion on how floor is pronounced differently than flour. Or generally people asking me to repeat myself. At some point I took the hint and sought help. Aug 31 at 13:25
  • I'm concerned that your advice boils down to 'help the person pronounce individual words better', which might work if this is someone OP sees regularly, but if it was a one-off session with them they may have needed to convey that there was a broad problem with the pronunciation of many words, and not be in a position to start coaching the individual on specific words.
    – Spagirl
    Aug 31 at 13:30
  • @Spagirl: That is not what I intended, so there's clearly room for improvement. My main point is that "accent" is too vague, and that the feedback should be specific. Vague feedback is bad feedback, it only makes one feel bad, without giving any clue as to how to solve the problem. Instead, my point is that one ought to be as clear as possible about the exact problem -- in my case it was not pronouncing certain words correctly -- because then this is actionable feedback. And I explicitly recommend seeking professional help to address the identified issue. Aug 31 at 13:49
  • 'Accent' may be insufficient for the Job Seeker (JS) to solve the problem, it isn't insufficient to communicate to them that there is a problem. The OP may not have the skills them-self to diagnose precisely what makes JS hard to understand, but OP didn't ask us how to precisely advise someone on improving the clarity of their speech, they asked us how they could point out the benefits of improved clarity with a reduced risk of causing offence.
    – Spagirl
    Aug 31 at 14:10
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When you say "I suggested that making their accent more clear" did you actually say "you need to make your accent more clear"? Because that's not something that's actionable.

For me, the advice I have received that I have found helpful is to suggest specific pronunciation (in my case was about the pronunciation of "t" in "city", "pity", etc. in American English, which does not exist in my native language) and how to fix it. This entirely depends on the native language of the person, so you need to know their native language, and then find specific pronunciation that you find can be improved, and suggest that.

You can start by a comparison with how native speakers pronounce that sound, and compare how they pronounce it, and how to fix it.

On the flip side, though, I believe figuring which sounds need to be fixed might require some linguistics knowledge of what made their accent an accent. I, for example, didn't know that my way of pronunciating "city" is different from how native speakers pronounce it, and only realized this after the advice was given to me, which was explained specifically for people speaking my native language trying to speak English. So if you want to give specific advice like I mentioned above, perhaps you might need to do some researching first on what are the common differences (perhaps calling it "differences" instead of "problems" might convey it better) between the person's native language and English.

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  • I tried to suggest techniques that other friends who have learned English as a second language told me they used to make their verbal communication more clear. I have one friend in particular who sounds like they are from London even though they are from a non-English speaking country. In this case, perhaps I should have phrased it as "communication skills" and introduced these two people, rather than phrasing it as "make your accent more clear". Aug 26 at 9:24
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    For me "communication skills" refer to the choice of words, expression, gestures, etc, but not accent. I'm not sure whether it's because of my linguistics background, but for me I would appreciate more being advised to "improve my pronunciation" than "improve my communication skills" or "make my accent more clear".
    – justhalf
    Aug 26 at 10:29
  • As someone without a linguistics background the difference between 'improve your pronunciation' and 'make your accent more clear' is at best opaque to me. Gaining knowledge about the person's native language and making detailed suggestions is not an interpersonal skill, its a linguistic skill. OP doesn't want to know how to personally teach the person improved pronunciation, they want to successfully communicate the need to.
    – Spagirl
    Aug 31 at 13:17
  • @Spagirl, yep, that's why in my answer I suggested them making specific aspect that needs to be improved and is actionable. I gave one example from my experience. What's your experience? What was helpful to you?
    – justhalf
    Aug 31 at 13:44
  • Can you clarify what about "you need to make your accent more clear" isn’t ‘actionable’? I get that it’s isn’t all the information the person needs to achieve greater comprehensibility, but it is all that is needed to inform someone that there is a problem. One doesn’t need to know the solution to draw attention to the need for one. The fact that this is about language is secondary to the ISP aspect of delivering criticism constructively.
    – Spagirl
    Aug 31 at 13:56
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Sadly, many people who bring up the topic are approaching it from a standpoint that's ungenerous at best, and I think there is rather a lack of accepted idiom to discuss this professionally.

What I'd ask is whether you honestly had trouble understanding some of this person's speech, or whether you understood them just fine but feared that others might have difficulty. If it's the former, then what I'd recommend is that as each incident occurred, you politely ask for clarification. As in (for one example from my own experience) "sorry, are talking about metrics or a matrix?"). If the speaker finds themselves asked this frequently, it's up to them to undertake further pronunciation work. It also identifies particular words they can take to a language coach for focused effort.

If there's enough of this that the resulting delays result in less discussion of the person's skills in a given interview, then their language proficiency has limited their skills assessment. An interviewer may need to simply write "unable to assess" in some cases. It's really up to the speaker to decide whether their language skills are what's holding them back.

If it's the latter, if you were basically able to understand them, then I would recommend doing nothing. There is no real reason to think that any future co-worker (or interviewer, or client) will have any more trouble than you do. And if (as may be the case here) they approached you specifically in the context of their technical skills, then other aspects of their presentation may simply be off the table, whether it's their pronunciation or their mismatched jacket and pants.

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