How to Handle Comments About Your Accent in English | Why Do We Care About Accents Anyway?

As a non-native English speaker, you’ve probably been in a conversation with someone who made an observation about your accent, whether positive or negative.

Even though accents are a fact of life – we all have them, even in our native language – the topic can make us feel sensitive, defensive, frustrated, or discouraged.

For most of us, talking about accents is a loaded topic, which means it can cause a lot of different emotions.

Recently, a member of this community asked how to handle comments about their accent:

How should I respond to people who keep making the remark, “Oh, you have a little accent”?

There are two issues we need to address when people make observations about your accent.

First, we need to talk about why you feel sensitive when hearing feedback about your accent.

Second, we need to talk about other people’s perceptions of your accent.


Why You Feel Sensitive When People Comment On Your Accent

The truth is we can all quickly identify when someone has an accent, including regional accents or dialects.

This means when someone comments on your accent, they’re identifying you as different.

This can feel really personal, even deeply unsettling.

As human beings, we’re biologically programmed to panic if we feel like we’re outside of the group. We need each other for safety.

Back in the day, being in the group was how we survived attacks from big animal predators as well as attacks from other outside groups.

In other words, we want to feel like we belong.

Personally, when someone comments on my accent in Spanish, or worse, imitates it, I can get really frustrated, to say the least.

Unless I can catch myself, I might say something that’s not as polite or patient as I usually am, especially if they’re not the first person to make this comment.

As it turns out, researchers have done a number of studies that prove these points.

Let’s look at a few excerpts from an article called “Language Attitudes in the Americas,” an excellent summary of the extensive research on the topic:

When lacking visible cues to distinguish ingroup from outgroup members, we use language and accent to detect the distinction.

Even when visible cues are present, we nevertheless turn to language, not appearance, to categorize people as either belonging to our group or not.

Research shows that in fact we are extremely sensitive to cues of foreignness detecting non-native speech in milliseconds and in speech played backwards.

Fascinating, right? Our ears are able to detect even the most minor, tiny clues that the person is a non-native speaker.

As we can see, accent and identity are complex.

That’s why most of the non-native speakers I work with tell me that they want to reduce their accent because they want to fit in better, blend in better, not stand out quite so much.

If this is why you care about your accent in English, please know that this is completely normal.


Why People Care About Your Accent in English

Now, let’s talk about how people perceive an accent.

As I mentioned a moment ago, we can immediately detect a foreign or regional accent.

If the person you’re speaking with is more comfortable with non-native speakers, this may not be such a big deal.

It may be an interesting fact or a conversation starter. They might bring it up just like they would talk about the sky being blue or cloudy.

You’re going to have to read the situation in order to know how best to respond.

Unfortunately, we also need to talk about negative perceptions of non-native accents.

As mentioned in “Language Attitudes in the Americas”:

The sensitivity to others’ linguistic backgrounds has real consequences for speakers and listeners alike.

People’s attitudes to those who speak differently tend to be negative and result in stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination in all aspects of everyday life, including education, employment, and the media.

In fact, a recent study asked, “Why Don’t We Believe Non-Native Speakers?” Here’s what they discovered:

While participants rated statements with a mild accent as just as truthful as native speakers, they rated heavily accented statements as less truthful.

The accent makes it harder for people to understand what the non-native speaker is saying. They misattribute the difficulty in understanding the speech to the truthfulness of the statement.

The good news is that having a mild accent is seen as just as trustworthy as someone with a native accent.

This is why I often encourage you to focus on being more easily understood, focus on clear communication rather than having a perfect accent.

It’s not necessary to completely eliminate your accent, but to focus on making sure it’s easy for people to understand you.

Please understand that I’m not sharing this information to discourage you.

You probably already feel this way when considering non-native speakers of your native language.

I just want you to understand what may be happening in the person’s head, whether they like it or not.

Consciously, as sensitive human beings, we all know that accents shouldn’t matter; but unconsciously, they do.


How to Handle Comments About Your Accent in English

So how should you handle comments about your accent?

Your job in this situation is to handle the comments by reassuring the person that yes, you are a non native speaker, but you speak well.

Remember, they may be asking themselves, “Do I understand this person?”

Like I mention in Five Reasons Why Native Speakers Don’t Understand You, they may simply decide that they don’t understand you, even if they actually could, if they tried.

Not everyone has their ear trained to understand non-native accents, or they may be more familiar with certain accents than others.

For this reason, it helps to be prepared to respond when someone mentions your accent.

You can try a number of approaches.

First, you can make a joke about it. You can say, “Oh, I didn’t notice,” and wink and give them a big smile.

Or you can use a common idiom to show insider cultural knowledge: “You can take the girl out of France, but you can’t take the French out of my accent.”

Or you can make a joke like, “I wish someone had told me how hard it was to get an American accent when I started learning English.”

Humor helps everyone in the interaction feel more relaxed.

Remember, most people who comment on your accent probably haven’t learned another language to fluency themselves, so they don’t understand how complicated it can be.

Or if they do understand, they’re trying to make themselves feel better than you, and that’s a whole other problem that’s not your responsibility to fix.


Help People Feel More Confident They’ll Understand You

Other times you want to consider the context: Are they worried they won’t understand you? Are they worried they can’t trust you?

As we discussed, people don’t feel this way because they consciously want to, and they probably wouldn’t want to admit how they feel to themselves.

In this case, be proactive.

Invite them to let you know if anything you say is hard for them to understand.

Ask them to help you if you stumble over tricky technical words.

You’re inviting them to be part of the solution, so they’ll feel more invested in the conversation.

Don’t forget, native speakers also say, “How do you say that?” and admit when they don’t know how to pronounce a word.

Another thing you can do is make an effort to repeat yourself in other words for clarity.

If the other person is pointing out your accent because they feel mean-spirited, you can choose to simply exit the conversation, or just acknowledge it with, “Yes, I do.”


How to Describe Non-Native Accents in English

Last but not least, I want to clarify the language that we often use when talking about accents.

If you have a minor or mild accent, the person might say that you have a slight accent or a little accent.

If your accent is more obviously non-native, they may say that you have a strong accent or a heavy accent.

These are polite, if uncomfortable, ways of acknowledging your accent.

And sometimes they may be indirect ways for the other person to signal that they’re having trouble understanding you.

If someone wants to be rude, they may say you have a bad or a terrible accent, and I hope you never hear anyone say that.

If you do, it’s probably not worth your time trying to change the other person’s mind.


You Don’t Have to Completely Eliminate Your Accent to Be Understood

In the end, whether or not you choose to work on your accent is up to you.

After all, accent is a marker of your identity, and you should feel proud of where you come from.

You don’t have to hide the fact that you’re a non-native speaker.

You should feel proud that you speak another language so well.

You’ll notice that my accent advice focuses on how to communicate clearly so that you’ll be easy to understand.

I want to help you sound more natural because I want you to feel like you fit in better, and that you’re able to express your meaning, the same thing I want for myself when I speak Spanish.

I have an obvious American accent when I speak Spanish, and I understand that it may not be that possible to completely eliminate my accent at this stage in my life.

I don’t believe that complete accent elimination is necessary, so that’s why I focus on the aspects of accent reduction that are most necessary for communication.

From my experience working with non-native speakers living in the US and Canada, I know that improving your stress and intonation will help you fit in better at work and also in your personal life.

You don’t have to have a perfect accent to see that people understand and even treat you better when you speak with natural-sounding stress and intonation.


Your Turn

I would love to have a conversation about this topic in the comments:

  • What have people said about your accent?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • How did you react?
  • Do you feel better prepared to handle these situations now?

I can’t wait to hear your perspective!

Want to learn my top tips to help you sound more natural in English? Get started with my free email course right here.

17 thoughts on “How to Handle Comments About Your Accent in English | Why Do We Care About Accents Anyway?”

  1. Wow Kim these are such great explanations as to why we get so bothered about the accent question. I really just want to blend in and I hate having to make small talk about where I’m from, even though it would probably come up at some point in the conversation anyway!

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Cara! The research helps us interpret our own reactions to these inevitable comments, and be prepared to not react so strongly (in my case). I completely relate – I don’t want the story of where I’m from and why I speak Spanish to be the very first thing we talk about. I always appreciate when people hold off and ask later in the conversation, even when you know they’re curious as soon as they detect your accent. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Living in Australia, people here will ask you first how long have you been living here, and if you say more than a year, bang, straight ahead how come your accent is so strong! Blablabla gibberish hatred non sense.
    This really frustrated me, and I don’t want to talk to people anymore, I really feel dimunish as a human being, racially abused, and totally discriminate. I DO NOT WANT TO HEAR THIS EVER AGAIN!!!!!
    I think telling someone about their accents is extremely rude, and should be punished by the law, same as when you discriminate a gay person.

    Reply
    • I’m sorry to hear you’re having that experience! I completely agree that people should not comment on accents, especially when the other person can communicate well. I’ve found that people who have learned another language are much less likely to make that kind of comment – it’s only people who speak their native language and nothing else that think accents are easy to erase. I’ve had a lot of frustrating experiences like yours as a non-native Spanish speaker, including someone who told me he would sound much better than me in English if he’d lived in the US for as long as I had lived in his country. I hope that some of these tips help you feel more confident next time someone says something about your accent!

      Reply
  3. I decided never to talk to Australians and never go to the place where all Aussies gather. I mix and feel at ease only with immigrants. The moment I relax and slip my guards, an Australian comment bluntly how come your accent is so thick/ huge/etc? I stopped going to the church, physically afraid to open my mouse in the public. Deep inside I hate this country and the majority of Anglo-Saxon people for treating immigrants like this and planning to move back to where I came from.

    Reply
    • I’m sorry to hear you’re feeling so frustrated about the comments about your accent. Unfortunately, some people simply don’t understand or don’t care how upsetting it can be to remind you of how strong your accent is. As I mentioned in the video, I have definitely reacted negatively to observations about my accent in Spanish. Although one option is to avoid interacting with native English speakers, I feel that you may be missing out on the possibility to connect with people who don’t care about your accent and truly want to get to know you and hear your story. I hope that hearing more reasons why people care about accents helps you understand that most people react to accents without thinking about it. If you can move past that initial reaction, interactions get a lot easier and a lot more interesting and inclusive. Take care.

      Reply
    • Totally relate to you,
      Australia is so rude with people with accents…
      I have been living here for 12 years now, my accent is really tiny now, and I still have those comments how strong my accent is, when you try to engage in a conversation with people they make you repeat the words, seriously like you are a retarded so humiliating, no respect at all.
      So now I just engage at all with Australians, most of my friends are Asians, Indians, migrants.
      They really make you feel you don’t belong.
      They truly understand you very well, believe me, this is just call pur racism!
      And they should be punish for that, same like you said saying to a gay he’s getting a duck sound!

      Reply
      • Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sorry to hear that people still feel the need to comment on your accent even though you have worked so hard. It must be frustrating to be asked to repeat yourself even when you know that you’re speaking clearly. I find that people who make these types of comments have not learned another language themselves. I wish English speaking countries put more emphasis on foreign language education.

        Reply
      • Hi guys,
        For being in Australia for a year now, it’s like being on a rednecks planet to be honest, unbelievable racist country.
        I come from France, where everyone there has an accent, even french depending part of France. The difference we are smart enough to recognise straight away where the accent is from, we get the country straight in our head without never asking… how rude is saying to someone first of all where they are from, pur stupidity. We found people speaking more than one language as smart, and we love to know about their cultures, it makes our life richer, attractive. We love diversity in France, we love mixing with different races, beautiful babies get born from those marriages. Respect my brother wherever you are from, you live on the same planet as all of us, God makes us, humans same blood…
        The anglosaxon culture ignorance needs to die, even in England it’s all diverse now, about time for Australia to stop that non sense.
        Next time someone ask me my accent is super strong, why I don’t have an Australian accent, I will said this: Churchill said himself, the Australians accent is an abomination of the English language, coming from a bunch of drunks chasing flies! Bonsoir.

        Reply
  4. I just came here to say to all the people suffering the abuse from Australian racists, I hear you and this is not right. It is wrong and evil. And I’m not going to justify those actions with, they don’t know another language or the school system is not doing enough. I’m really sorry you are in the situation you are in. I’m a foreigner but here in the US. People here are rude but not blatantly racist. So, now I know I have it easy. Don’t give up! Chances are we’re never going to sound native, but maybe we can learn how to communicate some wisdom to our new neighbors, and be a light in a dark place.

    Reply
    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I’m sorry to hear that people in the US have been rude to you about your accent, but I am glad that you have decided to view it as an opportunity to connect and shine some light. I would like to be clear that I am not justifying blatantly racist or rude behavior by mentioning that many native English speakers do not learn foreign languages or learn about other cultures in the education system. I mention this because it is important to consider where and why the other person may have developed these xenophobic beliefs and to realize why they do not understand your experience. From there, you can decide if it is worth your time to try to connect with these people and help them understand where you are coming from. As many wise people have said, it is hard to hate up close.

      Reply
  5. I’ve visited Brisbane & Atherton, Australia. One of the things that I enjoyed the most was the welcoming spirit of the Australians. Not even one person ever asked me about my accent or where was I from. Actually I felt inviting to articulate and enunciate my consonants even clearer thanks to the British inflection of their accent.

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, Oscar. I’m happy to hear you had a positive experience traveling in Australia and felt comfortable interacting with Australians.

      Reply
  6. I work in a call centre in Canada and people keep telling me I have a strong accent, some will be rude and will say can you speak proper English, where did you learn English. I would get mad and upset. Sometimes I would reply back saying I am speaking English. It’s really upsetting when you’re an immigrant, working hard to have a better future for yourself and your kids and at work clients insult you because you have an accent.

    Reply
    • I’m sorry to hear you keep getting rude feedback on your accent. I also find it frustrating that people feel they have to comment on how you sound, even though you’re communicating clearly. Working at a call center is a really tough job, and I respect and admire your efforts to create a better a future for you and your kids. If you’re interested, this video is designed specifically for people who work in a call center, and perhaps it will help: https://englishwithkim.com/communicate-clearly-customer-service/

      Reply
  7. Thanks for your article. This is great advice Kim.

    I have been personally trying to improve my accent for years. I have a thick one and comments made me regularly feel bad.

    Reply

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