Listening With an Accent

A sweet old lady named Mary “Pink” Mullaney died this week. It’s OK if you never heard of her. I hadn’t either until her obituary went viral this week. Pink’s family shared some her wit and wisdom instead of the typical sad and sombre list of accomplishments. While her tips for life are varied and at least one could speak to almost every person, this one spoke to me: If (new friends) are from another country and you have trouble understanding them, learn to “listen with an accent.”

The skill I’ve probably improved most while living overseas is listening, but I didn’t start working on my listening here in China. I first started listening with an accent when I was about 18 years old. I started attending a new church and one member, Randy, had cerebral palsy. He had trouble controlling his jaw and tongue, which made it difficult for him to talk. But that didn’t stop him. He was an active preacher, going out into the ministry almost daily to share his beliefs with total strangers. He gave speeches to the congregation. He was friends with everyone. He had a wife, children and grandchildren. He even studied Spanish!

The first time I went with him in the ministry I didn’t understand a word he said, but I seemed to be the only one as other people carried on perfectly normal conversations with him. When I got home I remember my mom asking me what I thought of him. I said, “I couldn’t understand him, but I think he must be very funny because he made everyone else laugh so much.”

Over the next decade, I learned to adjust the way I listened so I could understand him. Mainly, I learned to pay attention. He wasn’t someone you could casually listen to half-heartedly and understand. I had to focus on him. I learned to read his face, his lips, his eyes, his eyebrows, to better see what words he was trying to form with his errant tongue. I also got to know him. By getting to know his personality, his likes and dislikes, and his mannerisms, I would be able to fill in the gaps if there was a word or phrase I couldn’t quite make out. Because of his disability, Randy spoke with his own unique accent. If I wanted to understand him I had to learn a new way of listening — to listen with an accent.

The listening skills I gained through my friendship with Randy continued to help me while living abroad. On nearly a daily basis, I meet people with an accent different from my own. I couldn’t learn all their native languages if I tried. But I’m able to communicate with almost everyone I meet largely based on my listening skills. Even with people who do speak my language, learning to listen to each person’s unique accent helps me communicate far more effectively than if I was simply trying to hear their words. For example, my husband does not have the history of listening to accents that I do and even though my Chinese isn’t much more advanced than his, he still often defers to me as interpreter. Most times, though, he doesn’t have to ask me “what did he say?” I can usually tell from his body language, a squint in his eye, an uncomfortable shift on his feet if he is having trouble understanding. When I see these signs, I’m usually quick to maneuver the conversation by answering questions in complete sentences so he knows what was asked.

Listening with an accent involves much more than just knowing that Germans pronounce the “w” as a “v” and that the Chinese pronounce an “x” like a “sh.” Listening with an accent is something we should do with every person we meet. Everyone speaks differently, and not just with words. I listen to my husband’s words, body and eyes to know when he is uncomfortable. I listen to my daughter’s inflections to know when she is sad or worried. I listen to a cab driver’s smile to know when he is being genuinely friendly or trying to rip me off. I listen to the lips of people speaking English with a Chinese, French or Russian accent to understand their words.

Listening with an accent means learning a whole new way of observing how people speak. The amazing part is learning someone’s accent even if that person has the same mother tongue as you.