Why Asian English Speakers Are Hard to Understand
I moved to the US from Japan when I was 16, and in the 30 years I’ve lived here, I’ve noticed the ease with which Europeans communicate with native English speakers even when they have heavy accents. In contrast, Asian immigrants seem to have a harder time being understood by the native speakers. Asians typically blame the problem on their accents and their pronunciation but Americans, particularly urban Americans, are used to hearing a variety of accents. It seems to me that there is something else at work causing the difference between Asian and European ESL speakers.
Compared to the Japanese language, some of the phonemes in English are very subtle (like the th sound). So, over the phone, when we are spelling a name, we provide contextual information, like, “M as in Mary. S as in Sam,” and so on. The subtleties are lost over the phone, and we cannot differentiate between N vs. M, S vs. F, and so on. The Japanese language does not have this problem. I believe English is a more context-dependent language because there is a constant need to fill in the information lost in the subtleties.
Even when two native speakers are talking to each other, often they can’t hear each other well (e.g., noisy bar, subway platform, poor quality phone connection, etc..) but they THINK they hear everything. They are actually filling in the missing information from the context.
The reason Europeans have an easier time even with heavy accents is that their cultures are still very similar. They are able to provide better contextual information as they speak. Because Asian cultures are so different, Asian speakers are not able to provide enough contextual information in their sentences and their body language. Even if they can speak with no accent, their sentences can come out sounding foreign, like the automatic translation provided by Google—grammatically correct but incomprehensible. This makes it hard for Americans to understand especially if the speaker has a heavy accent.
A friend of mine is a pilot for Japan Airlines. As long as he is communicating within the context of air travel (like speaking to the passengers on the plane about the delays and weather forecast), nobody has trouble understanding him. This is because the cultural context in this instance is very narrow and well-defined which allows everyone to fill in the gap easily. But he has trouble understanding and being understood outside of this context because of the wide range of contextual possibilities.
If a French person were talking to an American about how he was treated at a particular restaurant, neither would have any problem understanding the cultural context since the restaurants in France function very much like the restaurants here in the US. But the restaurants in Japan work very differently. In fact, their customs in restaurants are so different that some Japanese people take an etiquette class to be able to eat at Western restaurants. (You can see an example of this in the movie, Tampopo). When you are deficient in the cultural knowledge to this degree, accent becomes a secondary issue. Even with flawless pronunciation, you could still have trouble being understood because the listeners have no idea what you are referring to.
Many native speakers find Indian English speakers hard to understand, even those who have been speaking English all their lives. We readily recognize Indian accent like we recognize Southern and British accents. So, the problem is not lack of familiarity. I think it’s the lack of contextual information because the Indian culture too is very different. We mistakenly believe that the problem is their accent.
What do you think?
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This is an internally consistent theory, but does not really connect with my own personal anecdotal observations.
I have very poor hearing, and I really a great deal on context, and contextualising speech, to work out what people are saying, and that's the same whether they are native English speakers, Europeans, or Asians. I certainly haven't noticed Asians employing less contextualisation.
What I have noticed is that the recognition of English words relies a lot on stress patterns. Our unstressed vowels turn into schwas or obscure vowels so the stress pattern also affects which vowels get pronounced in their true colours. (One example: a group of European ESL students told me they had dined at "mAk-dun-ahlds" and it took several minutes before I twigged they had been to "mək-DON-əlds". A change of stress can make an English word unrecognisable.
I understand that the Japanese language is unstressed, whereas the European languages tend to be stressed, albeit not as irregularly as English. So ... I don't know, but I'm wondering, if there is a lasting difficulty for Japanese users of English, whether this might be due to the need to acquire the habit of using stress patterns?
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In my experience of tutoring Asian students on how to write the basic, four-page, college-level analysis paper (aka "bonehead English" as required for all graduating from the University of California, etc.), the biggest difference between Asian and English/European languages is SYNTAX.
As we use it in both English and European languages, syntax provides the purpose of constructing a sentence/phrase with a concept of order. Example: The brown dog jumped over the fence to chase a blue ball. Some European languages place adjectives after the noun, but the basic syntax is still noun/verb with modifiers such as adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, etc. So although the words are different in English and European tongues, the concept of a sentence is the same. Not so for the Asians. I am not fluent in any Asian language, but helped dozens of Asian-first/English-second speakers pass required college writing courses by focusing on sentence structure and emphasizing how they needed to use it to make points in essay-style writing. Perhaps someone else can better explain this from an Asian-speaker's point of view. I only can say what worked from my view as a college writing tutor while helping mostly math and engineering majors learn to construct proper sentences and graduate with Univ. of Calif. bachelors' degrees.
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Well, I think part of the issue is cultural context, but a couple of the other issues additionally boil down to pronounciation as well along with the fact that many English speakers originate from European countries where they’re familiar with the accents of people from more Germanic and Latin-based linguistic backgrounds. With English being a Germanic language in origin with a large vocabulary of Latin-based loanwords, it makes sense that people from these similar types of cultural/linguistic backgrounds would have an easier time communicating while using the same language.
Furthermore, I’ve heard of a similar phenomenon occurring between readers of Japanese Kanji and Chinese Genji where a certain level of meaning can be shared/understood from similar characters used between both cultural groups. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think it is possible that a similar type of phenomenon is occurring in that instance as well.
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I see it a lot in politics as candidates come from different backgrounds even from IN the States. Pres Trump coming off as very awkward comes to mind, but even the context he speaks in comes from an old way of talking I used to hear a lot of in the 90's.
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I was surprised to read your posting since I feel it is so accurately identify the nuances of languages. I feel as if I am looking into a rear view mirror. I came from Korea to the US in my early 30’s. For the first part of my new life, I struggled speaking in English immensely. I know that this is not an exaggeration.
I feel the same to date although it is to a much lesser degree. I find it difficult to mimic comprehensive words and expressions at times. I sometimes get drown in the sea of grandiloquence during a meeting at work or a political talk on telly. So it was natural that I blame my accent.
I am enlightened; it is all about context. I know that I no longer have a thick Asian accent. I have no problem going about my day. But I am still struggling to express my opinions and convince the audience during a meeting. It is because of the context you are speaking of! Becoming familiar with the context in spoken language is definitely harder than its written counterpart. I think that my writing can be passible. Whereas native speakers would easily identify me as an “alien” on the phone. This proves your point.
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I hesitate to offer an opinion on this because I'm a white native English speaker, but my wife is from Japan and I've been studying Japanese for long time so I feel I have at least a little perspective outside the one I was born with.
First, if were true that Asian accents are definitively harder to understand than European accents all else being equal, I'd just have to put it down to racism, though not necessarily the malicious kind, more the ignorant kind.
But I'm not willing to accept that as true, at least not as a rule. For one thing, while Japanese and Korean have a lot of linguistic similarities, Mandarin Chinese is extremely different in syntax, phonemes, and pretty much everything else besides Chinese characters, which don't matter in speech. And then there are many other Asian languages which have their own unique points, so it's unfair to lump them all together as though Asian accents all sounded the same.
The one thing I would say is that in general, European school systems equip their youth to speak English at a much higher standard than do Japanese schools. The result is that many Europeans who travel to North America are better able to form grammatical sentences than Japanese people, even if their accents are far from native. Part of that may be due to the fact that Japanese and English are much farther apart than are, say, French and English. Scandinavians often sound nearly native in English, and it's no wonder because their languages are so closely related to English, as I learned from studying Norwegian. But part of it may be because the Japanese school system just isn't very good at teaching English. (I say this from observation. I have no opinion of the school systems in other Asian countries.)
Anyway, this is a very difficult problem to quantify, if it exists at all. The original poster, Dyske, didn't even say whether he himself had a hard time being understood or if he was just talking about other Asian people. Since there are many people of Asian descent where I live who were born here and sound like any other native English speakers, and have no difficulties being understood, I'm not sure if this is a real phenomenon (all else being equal) or not.
As to Indian subcontinent accents being hard to understand. I'm sure it's not contextual information. There are many accents within the English language that are hard for North Americans to understand without exposure, and the South Asian accent is just one of them. Others include Scottish, Caribbean, and New Zealand accents. Even British movies needed subtitles or dubbing in the early days of talkies because North American ears had not yet been familiarized with that way of speaking English.
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What is said in this article is true, particularly Chinese even those born in the US, they do not sound clearly in their English pronunciations even if they speak fluently. They sounded like pronouncing English words haphazardly as if they are in a hurry. I think it has something to do with the influence of their Chinese native tongue. Most of them even if born in the US have Chinese parents who still speak Chinese at home and they probably communicate using Chinese at home.
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Right, we don't some random American cosplaying to be the Japs to teach us anything about them.
The "all European cultures are the same" remark is enough of a quick pointer that you're so ignorant. You probably think that "Asia" is only "the Far East" or East Asia and not including India/South Asia and other regions too. So typical of an ignorant American. Happy cosplaying.
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