I am looking for an alternative to the word nonstandard (if necessary). I used the word in my answer to a question at Academia SE.
Let me first lay out the context. The question I was offering an answer to was
I just had a lecture from someone who has been a senior scientist (and has completed a PhD, post-doc) at a hospital for already 15 years. So I’m assuming this person is experienced in giving talks in English. However, almost one out of three words was completely unintelligible because of a very strong Spanish accent where every word gets morphed into a Spanish-English hybrid word.
I spoke to two people after the lecture and they both said they couldn’t follow along because of the strong accent. The questions after the talk were also not about the lecture but about the speaker’s field. My impression is that the talk was a waste of time for the two dozen people present.
Now I wonder if the speaker is aware of this problem, my guess is no and as such I feel the need to bring this to the speaker’s attention. If it was me I’d very much like to know that I have a problem communicating because I feel like a lack of communication skills can be a very serious barrier to being a good scientist but I don’t know if she feels the same way.
My plan is to use an anonymous email address to send this feedback, sandwiched between two compliments to avoid coming off as a negative person.
The answer I offered was
This might be productive in a direct conversation, if you are able
to establish rapport, and if you can steer the conversation in a
productive direction. You could start by asking her to clarify some
key point you were interested in. Stop her as soon as there’s
something you don’t understand, and if necessary ask her to spell the
word you don’t understand. The goal at this point is to succeed in
communicating with each other.
If you are able to accomplish that, then you could say
"Thanks for clarifying that point. That is really interesting for me. I didn’t understand what you said on that point during the lecture —
to tell you the truth, I was only able to get the meaning of some of
what you said, and that made it hard for me to follow the arc of the
presentation. I’m not very good at understanding nonstandard accents.
So I have to rely heavily on the visual with a lot of speakers. Your
slides about (topic B) helped me a lot, because they had a lot of
That is a conclusion that helps the speaker move forward in a positive
Often one needs to crank up the belief in oneself in order to get
through the PhD and other hurdles in academia. This sometimes leads
one to a slightly Aspergeresque attitude of "I can find the words I
need to express myself; mission accomplished; I’m not interested in
how well other people are understanding me." Step one is to establish
Sometimes this rapport can result in the stronger English speaker
having some influence over the other. Sometimes it results in the
stronger English speaker getting tuned into the other’s speech
patterns better, and perhaps also developing empathy for what has led
the other to his or her current state of mediocre English. This
happened to me with respect to my advisor. For the most part I’m one
of those people who finds horrible English, or horrible French, or
horrible Spanish, excruciating, like chalk going the wrong way on a
blackboard; and it continues to torment me later like a stuck song
(ear worm). Once my empathy with my advisor was established, certain
patterns, such as his tendency to omit words, got a lot less on my
In this comment, an Academia SE participant wrote
I had the same reaction against "nonstandard." It’s not really a big deal, but I think it has a very slight moralizing overtone, since it associates "English I can understand" as "standard" and "English I can’t understand" as "nonstandard." The trouble isn’t whether it’s normal/standard/acceptable/correct/whatever, the trouble is that you, and perhaps some other listeners, can’t understand it. NBD, but I’d personally choose another word, especially when it’s a touchy subject already as OP notes.
My question here:
In this context, does the word "nonstandard" bump up the potential offensiveness of the approach I suggested in my answer? If so, please propose an emotionally neutral alternative.
For reference, Random House defines nonstandard as follows:
not conforming in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, etc., to the usage characteristic of and considered acceptable by most educated
(In my Academia answer, I was not using the term in a specialized linguistics sense, and if anyone wants to discuss that, it would be much appreciated if they would do it in a separate question.)
Use of “nonstandard accents” implies there is a “standard accent”.
Is there? Which is it? Does most everybody agree on it being the standard?
If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, and if you care about not offending other people (however irrelevant the offending point might seem), then I agree that alternatives like “certain accents” or maybe “unfamiliar accents” are more neutral, and so would serve a better purpose in establishing that rapport you very appropriately talked about in your answer.
Just for the record: today, saying that there is such a thing as a “Spanish standard accent” would be fairly offensive to 90% of native Spanish speakers (and there’s half a billion of us).
Sure, some accents are understood better by some people, some accents are seen as more “intellectual” etc. — but to put one above the other would be disrespectful. There is a fair agreement over all Spanish academies, that every Spanish variant is as Spanish as any other.
I’m sure any Mexican would be as mad if I told them their accent was “nonstandard” as I would if they told me the same.
I can only guess that the same applies to English speakers.