Trouble comprehending foreign accents

This being my first post, I’d like to complement everyone involved on creating such an incredibly useful website and forum. Thanks!!!

I’m a 70 year old social system researcher, working at home, collaborating virtually via email, phone, and Skype. I noticed my hearing loss was beginning to cause small problems, so got my first test last year at Costco. The audiogram showed moderate loss from 3K and up. I tried an in-store demo aid (cannot recall which model) for an hour and detected no benefit. (Now after reading this forum I see it takes weeks or months to retrain the brain to process the superior sound provided by a good HA. Plus adjustments to the HA are required.) So I didn’t get a HA.

In early November of 2019 I attended an international (English speaking) conference in Oaxaca, Mexico. I was astonished at how hard it was for me to understand anyone with a foreign accent, especially through a microphone when they were presenting. The most common accents were Spanish, German, English (as opposed to American), Australian, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, etc.

The problem was so bad it caused cognitive overload. By the time I had partially “translated” one sentence, the speaker was on to the next. I was unable to dedicate brain power to processing what they were saying as a whole. I’d estimate I was able to translate 60% to 80% of words correctly, depending on the accent, the quality of the person’s English, the quality of the mic system, and room acoustics. The net result was I was unable to follow anyone but an American/Australian/English English speaker at the talks, which was most of the speakers. (Despite that it was a successful conference and our two papers were well received and understood.)

In one-on-one conversations I did much better, usually just fine, unless the person had poor English skills.

At noisy restaurants I had lots of problems. This is true back home in the states.

I have an appointment with Costco for December 7. I will get a new hearing test and expect to try the Kirkland Signature 9s. As I recall they used REM last time for HA adjustment.


  1. How can I tell how much of this problem is due to my unfamiliarity with foreign accents and how much is due to hearing loss?

  2. How can I measure how much a HA helps, once I get past the brain retraining phase? (The next similar conference is a year away.)

  3. Does anyone have experience in how much a good HA helps with understanding foreign accents?

  4. In addition to HAs, should I be spending time training myself on understanding foreign accents?


I have the KS8 model that you may have trialed. We live in an area of Canada that has a lot of ESL people. You probably have noticed in the past that when people of different languages try to communicate with each other, the very first thing they do is talk louder. If I yell at them in a language they do not understand, I’m sure that will help!

This may disappoint you, but my experience is that hearing aids help very little in understanding people that are ESL if they have a strong “accent”. If you were not understanding them because you simply did not hear them, then it will help. If it was because their accent is so strong you can’t understand it, then aids are not going to help.

I think only time hearing a certain accent is going to help. Kind of like someone from Washington state trying to understand someone from the deep South in the US.

I think the bottom line is that hearing aids can only help you hear, not help you translate what you do hear.


I have been wearing hearing aids for over 20 years. The hearing aids do not help when it comes to people with an accent. Sorry but you just have to live with it. When I have someone that has an accent I state I have profound hearing loss and ask them if they can get someone with less of an accent or that speaks English better. Most people get offended and say they speakee English very good. Right!!! But you do get people that understand because of your hearing loss and get someone else. It is just something you have to live with. The land line phones, I have given up on. Almost everything is bad so I just let the wife answer it. If a call does not go through my cell phone (blue tooth) I do not talk.


Well before being aware of any particular hearing loss or impairment, I remember watching Monty Python re-runs and having to crank up the volume to get it all. Then hurriedly turn it down at the intermission points. (PBS)
I think even able-hearing folks struggle with unfamiliar accents.

Have you been to rural Newfoundland? One would think they are speaking a totally different language other than English… Most of them know you can’t understand them and switch to “townie” English for the tourists!

1 Like

Thanks, Sierra. I noticed that my one-on-one conversations in a quiet space with ESL speakers went much better. I had little trouble. That leads me to believe that in unquiet spaces, or with bad mics or bad room acoustics, or all three, my problem is caused by inability to hear the k, f, s, and th consonants, due to my audiogram drop off above 2K. These consonants appear on my printed copy of the Costco audiogram, shown below.

If so, then a well fitted high quality HA may be able to correct some of that problem. It can selectively boost the frequencies I’m now not hearing well. This falls into your observation that: “If you were not understanding them because you simply did not hear them, then it will help.”

Your loss is not real bad, so I would expect a significant improvement with KS9 aids. Your loss is not that much different than my right ear loss. The KS8 aids work real well for my right ear, and not so much with my left, which is much worse. It will take time to get used to hearing sounds you are currently missing, and will be better as time goes by. Be patient in getting used to them.

I presume you went to Oaxaca City? Nice place to visit. We have done a number of trips to Huatulco in Oaxaca. Perfect weather for a good vacation if you go during our winter.

I think I mentioned this problem with my Phonak Ambra HAs soon after I started using them. Now, 7 years later it has gotten considerably worse and my hearing is much worse with serious hearing loss on the right ear and profound loss with the left. I am from Ontario Canada where there is a huge Asian population and I find that it is a real struggle to understand them, although they do not have the same problem with me. This is especially so in banks and other financial institutions where Asians seem to be in the majority. If they try and explain anything to me, they always get a blank look from me and I continually have to ask them to repeat and speak more slowly. It is painful and getting steadily worse.

Thanks again, Sierra, that gives me some rational hope. It was really hard not being able to follow all those conference presentations.

And yes, it was Oaxaca City. The perfect place for an international sustainability conference. It was a 4 day conference that I turned into a 12 day vacation, so I got to see plenty of the city and a few nearby sights, thanks to traveling with a family I knew in Mexico. What I loved most was the handmade crafts: textiles, wood carvings, pottery. And then there was the awesome local food. Made me realize I’d never had authentic Mexican before, not to mention local Zapotec food, like corn topped with crickets! I arrived on the first day of the incredible Day of the Dead festival. Wow. Stayed at a great hostel, Iguana. Also, the Oaxaca people were soooo friendly and happy.

I do have more questions for all.

Is it possible to get the software to run word recognition and speech in noise tests? Then I could calibrate my hearing before trialing the KS9s. I might also be able to use foreign accents with noise, if the two are separate. If the KS9s don’t please, then I want to try the current king of the mountain (?) for speech in noise, the Phonak Marvels. With calibration, I can more accurately compare the two HAs. However, I’d have to go somewhere else beside Costco for this. I’d shudder at the thought of finding a truly good audiologist, after reading all the stories about variations in quality.

I’ve noticed the KS9s are unlocked and some folks are doing their own adjustments. I suspect I want to hold off on doing this, since I’m a bit of a newbie to the complex world of HAs and I should focus on mentally adjusting to them. But are there worthwhile advantages to investing the time to setup doing your own tweaks?

The KS9’s are essentially Phonak Marvel M90 aids. They just have a 312 battery, no tinnitus masking, and no telcoil. Most are fine with that. Costco should do a comprehensive speech in noise test, or at least they did for me. I considered getting the NOAHLink wireless device to program my KS8 aids, but since I live within walking distance of Costco and they are quite willing to do anything reasonable for free, I have resisted.

If you get a chance to go to Oaxaca City again, consider taking a few days in Huatulco. It is a long brutal trip by road, but TAR airlines flies there and back three times a week in 40 minutes or so, at a pretty reasonable cost. We have met a couple from Canada in Huatulco a couple of times now. They fly to Huatulco and do a week in an AI, then take TAR to Oaxaca City for the winter, and then stop again for a few days in Huatulco before going back to Canada. I’ve tried a few chapulines, but it would take a lot of mezcal to get me to make a meal of them!

Well, I clicked on chapulines! I wish I hadn’t! Gaak!

1 Like

It’s easier for anyone to hear voices that are more familiar, but right now all the soft ends of sounds are being clipped off for you. That’s a significant hearing loss across the board, not just 3 kHz and up. Hearing aids will definitely help.

1 Like

I have a similar hearing loss, better low frequency hearing but mine drops to high-frequency deafness. So I’m already struggling to hear consonants and decode them successfully in my native language. The twists and turns consonants take in accented speech make that very difficult. Hearing aids help, but they don’t solve the problem. Sometimes a speech-to-text program, such as Live Transcribe, understands accents better than I do when I am speaking one on one. I wish I could be more helpful to you but this is as far as I have come with understanding accents.

My own 2-pesos’ worth here for JackHarich - GLAD you loved Oaxaca! Being vegan, I’d have asked for the cricket’s grass on my corn, LOL!

So. I can TOTALLY empathize with your situation, which appears to be age-related mild/moderate hearing loss you are now finding annoying. I have worn aids for about 35 years, and have seen a huge improvement in quality, program features and accessory devices in the last maybe 5-8 years. Take heart!

I currently wear Phonak Marvel aids, and I’m sure Costco has something along the same lines. What may help you in public forums (conferences, maybe even dinner gatherings) is the remote Roger pen device, which can not only be pointed at the speaker, but actually stream their audio right into your ears. WORLD of difference to hear audio right in the ear as opposed to across a noisy conference hall or restaurant.

Second, you can set up your aids to stream audio from your cell phone. Again, the audio goes right into your aids inside the ear. You’d be amazed what an improvement that is for understanding accents on the phone. Seriously, you can toss someone with a very thick Asian, Indian, even jive-talkin’ Islander my way and I will bat the answers back with a home run every time. I do the call center calls for my hubs or mom, cuz I can understand what the reps are saying even in a DIN of ambient noise on their end. (Think Amazon or Anthem or any other long customer service call you may have.)

Third, you can get a TV Connector to hook up to your TV at home and stream audio right into your aids with either NO ambient noise (optimal) or perhaps minimal ambient noise - if you want to hear others in the room at the same time. Again, WORLD of difference listening to Monty Python, Top Gear, Grand Tour, Indian standup comics, you-name-it, when the audio goes right into the ear. I sometimes have to translate what’s been said to my hubs sitting next to me - and he has normal hearing.

Fourth, I know that with the Phonak Marvel aids, you can set up an “Acoustic Phone” program (which I just learned about here a couple weeks ago) to mimic streaming calls on ANY landline phone. That program appears to somehow transmit the volume going to your dominant ear over to the other ear, so it’s as good as streaming. I tested that out with a long call to my health insurance company, and again - NO prob hearing the rep who spoke with a hispanic accent. Totally stress-free experiene.

My own experience is that wearing aids and having the right accessories has given me a ton of confidence and independence. I feel safe/capable of traveling on my own, socializing without a translator and just feeling normal! Hope you will be convinced to give HAs another try.

You raise a most excellent point: how to tell the exact (or even ballpark!) level of improvement with aids? Incredibly, no audi has ever run the tone test or the word comprehension test with me AFTER fitting me with new aids. I think they also know that it could lead to a disappointed customer, HOURS of fine-tuning and follow-on visits. Even so, I’d give it a try. Then sign up for the next Int’l conference with the accessories in-hand and conquer the world! :smile:

1 Like

Hey Jack, Most of the people I work with speak English as a second language. Some have near perfect English, others have accents that are so thick that I always have to ask them to repeat themselves or slow down—even after working with them for a few years. This is not something that hearing aids alone can fix! I find that it just takes time to learn new speech patterns. That said, it is easier to comprehend what some are saying when we are in the same room together and speaking one on one. I will say my Oticon OPNs made it possible for me to follow and participate in conversations with people in noisy restaurants, regardless of whether they have accents. I love the speech-in-noise program!

Be patient with yourself and the people you are speaking with. It just takes practice and a little extra concentration in most cases!

1 Like

Of interest perhaps, the same situation occurs with a cochlear implant. I have had my implant in one ear for nearly 2 years now and practice listening with it with podcasts etc. However I was talking to the partner of a friend the other day that was born and raised in Hungary. He is fluent in English but with a Hungarian accent. I can’t understand a word he says. I have to have my wife with me to translate. Yet my CI is modern and of current technology. To me the issue is in the brain once your hearing is severely affected. We can understand what we are used to best. I even notice this with my children and grand kids. My kids I understand pretty well - they are now in their 50’s. But the 2 grand kids are much more difficult to understand and we don’t see them very often. So I am not used to their voices. It’s a grin and bear it situation I guess. I will keep practicing with the kids.

The kids may have voices with higher frequencies…

No - the one I have some difficulty with has just started university and has a fairly deep voice. I guess I need to spend more time with him - kinda late now - and get used to his speech
But I agree with little kids voices. They are quite difficult.

Oh I also want to mention that the CI gives you quite a bit of your high frequency hearing back. I double checked using an on-line tone generator that goes up to 8000 Hz plus. With my CI side I can pick up the tone to about 8000 Hz - on the HA side I am fading out at 6000. Similar with low frequency. Can catch the 125 Hz tone with the CI as well. Much better word recognition with the CI but speech in noise is still an issue. I use Roger equipment sending to a receiver on each hearing device. Quite helpful.
But on a sports TV broadcast where the audio includes crowd noise? Maybe get 50% word recognition.

Perhaps it is just me, but it seems that Millennials tend to slur their words much more than people born in the 20th Century. This is especially so for those born and raised in North America (whereas those born in Great Britain seem to be more careful in their speech delivery). Also people born in NA seem to hurry their speech and get as many words per second as they can into a sentence. It makes for difficult listening for old timers with a hearing impairment such as me. This is even seems to hold true for trained broadcasters reading the news and there is no way to request that they repeat themselves :slightly_smiling_face: