How to Understand Truckers Who Speak With a Thick Accent

by Peter Carter and Teona Baetu

TORONTO- One of Canadian trucking’s most masterful salesmen, Bob Magloughlen, who passed away this past March, knew how to bridge the language gap.  

In his later years, Magloughlen worked as a consultant to Dan Einwechter, president and CEO of Challenger Motor Freight, disposing of trucks that reached the end of their first life in the fleet.

He used his communications savoir faire to sell trucks in places as far away as Libya and Russia, where his name “Mr. Magloughlen” could be more than a mouthful. Ditto for his customers here, many of whom were new Canadians.

So, on his business card, he was simply “Mr. Bob.”

No sense making things more confusing than necessary.

It’s no secret that Canada is a multicultural hub and that truck driving-perhaps more than any other industry-is a popular choice for many immigrants.

Drivers born in Russia have to take orders from Punjabi dispatchers and Jamaican-born diesel techs are supposed to understand parts-sales reps from Mexico. They all speak English, but none of them talk the same way. 

The misunderstandings lead to frustration and inefficiency. Money as well as tempers get lost. Sometimes, it’s amazing any information gets passed along whatsoever, never mind that most of it ends up being accurate.

So because we know everybody would benefit if we all understood each other better, we’ve come up with the following tips to make communicating with foreign clients or immigrant drivers easier. Some are dead obvious but, like exercise, not easy to get around to. Others-the high-tech ones-might have simply never occurred to you before.

1. Ask. “People who have accents, know it. But they get tired of being asked to repeat themselves,” says  Paul Gruber, a speech language pathologist and founder of Pronunciation Workshop, a service that helps people with their English pronunciation. (Gruber’s  video courses go for about $229 and he offers live training, too).
Gruber says: “A nice, diplomatic way to ask for the information again is to restate what they said and ask them if that was correct. If it was not, ask them to say it in a different way or spell it out. Chances are, if you didn’t get a word or cluster of words the first time, you won’t the second time either, so they need to use different words.”

2. Try to recognize major problem areas. ‘R’s, ‘W’s, ‘V’s and ‘Th’s are four major accent issue areas. “Someone from India would say: ‘I prowide serwices.’ They don’t pronounce the ‘V’s the same way as a North American speaker,” Gruber says. Be patient. The human ear automatically catches and adjusts to differences in sound to help us understand accented speech. “If you’re aware that Indian speakers, for example, won’t pronounce ‘V’s like you’re accustomed to hearing, then you could fill in the blanks and figure out what they’re saying when you’re not hearing those ‘V’s,” he says.

3. Google. Google Translate can be your best friend. Its list of translation services grows by the day and so does the quality of the translation. With most smartphones, you can type what you want to say in any language and the other person can hear it spoken. They can type back to you, too.

4. Speak slowly. Use simple sentences. And try to avoid phrases that mean something to you but nothing to a new English speaker.  To you, “Just givin’ her” might mean going as fast as you can, but to a new English speaker?? Who knows? 

5. Manage expectations and know what you’re listening for. Human communication depends on the ability to navigate the difference between the words spoken and what you’re expecting to hear, say University of Toronto researchers Marieke van Heugten and Elizabeth K. Johnson. For example, the word ‘ball’ produced by an Australian English speaker might sound more like ‘bowl’ than ‘ball’ to an American English speaker’s ears, and the Canadian pronunciation of the word ‘about’ may sound more like ‘a boot’ to an American listener,” van Heugten and Johnson say.

Gruber adds: “In essence, to understand one another, we need more than to just speak the same language; listeners need to know enough about the other person’s speaking style to accurately interpret what is being said.

6. Practise listening and trust yourself. Think about how many different kinds of voices and in how many conditions you can already understand English. NASCAR fans can recognize what the announcer’s saying over the roar of the racers and they can also tell whether they hear a baby crying or laughing. I, for one, have no trouble understanding even thick Eastern European accents because so many of my family and friends speak that way, but I find other accents more challenging.

“Listeners are not only able to recognize words in noisy speech, but they do so despite variations in talker, speaking rate, and dialect. Human listeners can also quickly adapt their perceptual categories to accommodate variation among speakers [accents, in other words],” say researchers Jessica Mayea, Richard Aslinb and Michael Tanenhaus.

If you work with, say, a lot of Eastern Europeans, scientists say some of the adaptation happens naturally.

What they found in their audio trials was that at first, people struggled to understand the modified or “accented” version. But when they listened to the “accented” version a second time, they recognized and understood far more of the words.

So if you work with many Punjabi or Eastern European truck drivers or customers, you could listen to tapes or watch movies to train your ears to better understand that accent.

7.  Assume nothing. Don’t misinterpret silence for arrogance or ineptness. Non-native speakers are probably shy and they will also appear to agree with you just go get a conversation over with. But mostly they’ll just stay quiet. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you.

8. Use technology. Hi-tech trucks mean fewer misunderstandings.

Companies such as PeopleNet and Shaw Tracking both produce software and hardware that, frankly, remove the need for person-to-person conversations from your ops.  Truck builders are outfitting fleets with onboard maintenance systems that report problems digitally, which means you won’t have a driver with a thick Polish accent trying to describe the noise his brakes are making to a service guy from the Barbados.

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