The importance of developing multilingual listening skills

Did it ever happen to you that people would ask you to repeat what you just said, not because they couldn’t hear you, but because they were incapable of understanding your way of speaking the language?

Or maybe you have asked someone to repeat because you didn’t understand what the other person was saying – because of how they were speaking, the intonation they used, the pitch, the accent?

What happens when someone doesn’t understand what we say, although we use the right words, word order etc.?


Accent, pitch and intonation

Usually people blame the accent, but there is a series of suprasegmental elements, part of what is called prosody, that play a role. Prosody refers to all the properties of syllables and larger units of speech, such as intonationtonestress and rhythm. 

Prosody reflects the emotional state of the speaker, the form of the utterance – statement, question, command –, the presence of irony or sarcasm, emphasis, contrast, focus. 

Intonation, in linguistics, is the variation in spoken pitch, when used, not for distinguishing words as sememes (see this concept in relation with tone*), but for a range of other functions such as indicating the attitudes and emotions of the speaker.

In speech a pitch “is the relative highness or lowness of a tone as perceived by the ear, which depends on the number of vibrations per second produced by the vocal cords”. 

With the intonation we signal the difference between a statement and a question, and between different types of questions. Through our intonation we focus our attention on important elements of a spoken message and it helps us to regulate conversational interaction.

Here is an example. In a sentence like “I sent you the email yesterday”, by simply putting more emphasis on one word of the sentence, we can change the meaning the speech act (Searle) or illocutionary act (Austin) of it:

I sent you the email yesterday  – not John!

I sent you the email yesterday – I am 100% sure!

I sent you the email yesterday – not to Mary! 

I sent you the email yesterday – I didn’t call you! 

I sent you the email yesterday – not 10 minutes ago!


Accents can be a distinctive way of pronouncing a language, especially one associated with a particular country, area, or social class, or a distinct emphasis given to a syllable or word in speech by stress or pitch.

* Tone and Intonation are two types of pitch variation, which are used by speakers of all languages in order to give shape to utterances. More specifically, tone encodes segments and morphemes, and intonation gives utterances a further discoursal meaning that is independent of the meanings of the words themselves. (read more here)


We are aware of accents from a very early stage on. Babies can distinguish languages, infants can distinguish accents – they would for example change regional variants depending on who is speaking with them – and around age three or four, children can develop opinions about the languages, dialects, accents they hear.

We can also understand basics of intonations: babies can recognize if the voice is angry, aggressive, demanding, kind, “neutral” etc., and they respond to pitches.

The associations we make between voices and accents, intonations, pitches, the speech of parents, family, friends, our broader community, are what forms what I like to call the multilingual ear, or multilingual hearing or the way we react to a great variety of accents.

We may understand the words of a language, the different meanings – but if the intonation, the pitch, the accent is unexpected, we can struggle with understanding. The perlocutionary act, the intention we had when saying what we said (persuading, convincing, scaring, enlightening etc.) is disturbed. ~ Ute


Growing up with multiple languages means to grow up with a variety of linguistic input that involves not only different words, sentence structures, but also intonations and accents.

Accents, intonations and pitches play a considerable role in the formation of our identities because people will try to categorize us depending on them.

Accents tell people where we (might) come from, what our native language or languages (!) might be, what social groups we might belong to etc.

Accents can mark us as insiders or as outsiders. This is why we make great efforts to adjust the way we speak to sound as good as possible, i.e. to blend in with the group. We try to copy the accent, so that we are not recognized as a non-native, or a non-nearly-native speaker, because knowing a language “properly”, considering oneself bi– or multilingual means for all too many still being able to articulate sounds in the target language like a native speaker. – This can lead to frustration when we can not manage to lose our accent! Speech trainers and experts in sound articulation can help with this, should it really be a problem. – In my personal experience, singing in the target language can help to loosen the articulation of not so familiar sounds in the target language. 


Should we (really) work on our accents? 

I personally find accents important because they are like our finger prints. But if they get in the way of being understood, if our accent is “too strong” and distracts the listener from what we are saying, we may need to work on them.
The clearer we articulate, the more effort we put into an effective and clear communication, the more we will avoid judgments and misunderstandings. The more our speech is clear, the better others will understand us.

Speech clarity is determined by how fast we speak, the pitch of our voice, the accent… but also by the background noise, the distance from the speaker, our word choice and… the multilingual listening skill of the other person.

If we are unable to understand what someone is saying in our language or the target language, it is due to our own selective understanding.

With selective understanding I mean that we unconsciously or consciously (!) don’t understand what the other person is saying. Some may call it tunnel listening in analogy to tunnel view, referring with tunnel listening to the limited auditory perception of the receiver. 

With selective understanding I mean the process of people literally selecting what or who they want to understand. Due to the trigger of the different pronunciation, they immediately judge and refuse (or accept). When refusing what they hear they refuse to be flexible in their language perception and understanding and build a wall between them and the other person. They show clear resistance towards what could be a two way conversation, communication and connection. – There are many factors that lead to this kind of reaction, which all have their common denominator in not meeting the expectation.

When we don’t expect that a person speaks in a given way, we react by taking a step back; we analyze, judge, don’t trust and refuse (!) to understand! ~Ute

Many people when confronted with someones’ strong accent, instead of paying attention to what the person says focus on how she says it: is she asking something, making a statement, being angry, upset…? What follows is disconnection from the other person and the flow of the communication stops.

A person with multilingual listening skills would not do that.



What is a multilingual listening skill?

Multilinguals are known to be able to zoom out the not-necessary information and focus on the important one (Ellen Bialystok), they are known for their capacity of focusing on what is essential! They are able to focus on non-verbal clues, as much as on the message. They can ignore the form of it, should the form – intonation, pitch, accent etc. – be hindering the comprehension.

What I mean with Multilingual listening skills are skills that are closely related with this skill to focus on the essential and the skills that multilinguals acquire naturally like code-switching and code-mixing.

When we speak with people with whom we share multiple languages, we mix words from all these languages into the conversation. We can also switch from one language to the other, depending on the person we speak with. This flexibility allows us to quickly adjust our comprehension to changing accents of our interlocutors.

In monolingual settings, where the majority are native speakers, people would simply cease listening when what the other person is saying is not understandable for them, i.e. doesn’t meet their expectations. Monolingual speakers seem not to be able to make the switch from a monolingual listening skill to a multilingual listening skill. They select what they hear – hence selective listening – and focus only on the quality of speech they deem necessary for the conversation to flow.

Not so in multilingual settings. When multilinguals have a conversation in a chosen language, they seem to adapt easier to the different accents, intonations, pitches.

I have observed that multilinguals who speak several languages up to a great level of fluency (not beginners level!), struggle much less with a variety of accents. In multilingual conversations people with very diverse accents manage to communicate with a considerable flow. Something that in a monolingual group would not easily happen.


How can we train our multilingual listening skills? 

1) Embrace the variety of accents in your own language(s)

We can start by training our understanding of several variants of the same language, for example, for Italian speakers, train our understanding of Italian varieties from diverse regions like Lombardy, Piemonte, Liguria, Veneto, Abruzzo, Puglia, Campania, Sicilia etc.




Or, for English speakers, train their ear for the Standard British English, as well as the Cockney, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, some US variants – like accents from Texas, South Carolina, Brooklyn etc. – or Australian, New Zealand ones etc. like in this video by Amy Walker:

It is not only about understanding what one says using another accent, but also about learning to avoid being negatively triggered by it!

For many this requires hard work, as some are wired to criticize other ways of speaking, i.e. are influenced from early on to consider a certain accent as “funny” or “weird”. – Just think about how accents are used in movies to emphasize the social status, the “otherness”, the credibility of the characters…


2) Embrace the variety of foreign accents in your language

Once we have trained our auditory perception with accents from native variants of our language(s), we can expand to foreign accents in that language: how French pronounce Italian, how Italians pronounce German, how Russians pronounce Spanish etc. and become familiar with a greater variety of accents. Depending on what languages our friends, colleagues, the community we live in speak (if it is an international community), we can train our perception and acceptance towards that variety of ways to speak a given language or a variety of languages. 

We all can understand accents, we only need to train our auditory perception to recognize and understand deviations from what we usually expect in conversations. ~ Ute

Those in the following video have a great level of fluency in English, but it gives you an idea what a conversation can sound should you sit at a table with people from these countries and with their linguistic backgrounds. 



3) Observe the shift…

We usually enjoy conversations where we understand the language, the body language and gestures, the messages in between the lines. For a conversation to be effective we need other people to use the same words as we do, the same anecdotes and metaphors etc.. If we have these conversations in one of our most dominant languages, we can experience them as relaxed, familiar and easy. They can also be very effective – as long as we share the same opinions, values and beliefs.

When we have trained our multilingual listening skills, conversations in our dominant languages with native speakers will still be very pleasant, but there will come a moment where we miss the variety of inputs. 
We might perceive them as boring and tiring because we don’t pay that much attention on what and how things are said because we intrinsically assume that “we get it”. – It is important to acknowledge the shift that takes place in our listening skills as to develop ways to stay tuned in whatever conversation we are, to maintain the connection and to actively listen

Adapting to different communication styles in multilingual conversations, or in conversations in one target language which is not the native language of all participants, can be tiring at the beginning, but it can also become the new normal and incredibly enriching!

I know by my own experience and by what I observe among other multilinguals like myself: we thrive in the variety of languages, accents and cultures!


What about you?
I would like to know what you think about this topic, what kind of listener you are, if you would like to know how to switch from selective listener to all-embracing listener, what kind of conversations you enjoy the most, you find most enriching and why…

Is there a particular accent that bothers you?





Read more about:

– If you want to know more about illocutionary acts and speech acts, have a look at publications by J.L. Austin and John L. Searle.

Code Switching, what to do, when should I worry? 

Find more related articles in the sections Multilingual Families and Intercultural Communication .

Posted in Bilingualism, Blog, Language Development, Language learning, Maintaining Multiple Languages, Multilingual, Multilingual Families, Terminology and tagged , , , , , .


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