LanguageLine Blog

An Interpreter View: Barriers to Effective Communication


Our interpreters are our biggest asset. As part of our commitment to excellence, LanguageLine offers our interpreters training, plus guidance and information to improve their skills so they can facilitate the highest quality interpretation sessions possible. One of the communication avenues is our Interpreter Newsletter. Recently appearing in the latest edition, this entry light-heartedly reminds us how to respond to the differences and similarities in speech.

Accents: do you love them or hate them? I LOVE them!

Accents add a musicality to our language and help us identify a person’s place of origin. So, why it is that accents can impact how well we understand each other? As any English speaker will tell you, there is no such thing as a single English accent.

In the United States, where English is the predominant language, different accents are everywhere. Take these two for example: the Southern drawl (think Dolly Parton) where expressions like “ya’ll” and “fixin’ to” are heard every day. The Philly accent (think Sylvester Stallone as “Rocky”) where “youse guys” and “Yo, Paulie” are commonplace.
We tend to believe that we don’t have an accent, but truth be told, we all have an accent; we simply don’t hear it ourselves. We are accustomed to hearing and saying things a certain way and when we hear someone that sounds different, we think, “Oh, this person has an accent.” This may cause us to focus on how the person is saying things, instead of listening and trying to understand what the person is saying.

“What did they say?!?”

So, how can we overcome situations during interpreting when we encounter accents that cause us to scratch our heads and think, “What did they say?!?”

Be positive: face this challenge as an opportunity to grow. Take a deep breath and strive to quiet the anxiety you might be feeling. Be confident and professional. Most importantly, SMILE; it comes through in your voice.

Don’t be embarrassed or pretend to understand what the person is saying, as that will only make things worse. Ask for a repetition and listen attentively for key words to help you understand. If you are still not able to understand, be polite and respectfully explain that you are having trouble “hearing” them. Blame it on the connection, the static on the line, or your headset. Ask them to please speak a little louder, and perhaps a little slower, so that you can “hear” them better. Try speaking slower and lowering your voice an octave or two. Most people respond by doing the same thing. Above all, be respectful; after all, we may sound funny to them, too!

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