Understanding non-American native English accent

My middle and high school English classes had a British bent. Post high school, it’s almost all American, good or bad. I’ve been living in the US for close to 15 years now, I’ve taught technical courses in many American cities, I read widely and have an eclectic taste. So when it comes to North American English, I am fairly confident with my speaking and listening abilities. I did notice that it is hard for me to “pick up” a conversation, by which I mean listening inattentively to a conversation happening nearby where I am not an active participant, but can decide to join when I think I can provide value. A native speaker can pick it up much easier.

So for the most part, I can handle Southern, mid-west, New England, New York, Californian, and Canadian accents fairly well, but I am less confidant with accents from native English speakers outside of North America. For me, here is the list in the order from easiest to the most difficult, based on my very limited experience: New Zealand/Australian, South African, British, and Irish (Irish accent here is a guess, because I don’t think I’ve ever had a real face to face conversation with a native Irish, only through movies. No offense, when I encountered Southern and Irish accents the first time, I was telling myself: man, I never realized English can be spoken like that!). Interestingly, sometimes I feel I understand a non-native speaker better than people from the regions mentioned earlier.

That was made embarrassingly clear during a live video meeting I attended with an American and a British colleague: there were several times when the Brit (a nice and knowledgeable soul) posed a question to me, and I had no idea what he was talking about. I had to ask him to repeat it and offered to rephrase it back so we were on the same page. I get it that not all Brits speak the same and there is great variation within the British Isles, and I can understand people better when they speak slowly and more distinctly.

My running theory is, I am used to listening to cues commonly exist in North American English, somewhat subconsciously by now. Whereas compared to Americans and Canadians, the Brit speaks in a flatter tone. When a Brit speaks quickly, a sentence is over and I am still waiting for my cue!

For now, I want to get better at handling the Brits. Dear reader, what tips do you have in overcoming this handicap? What to look for when the Brits speak? I’ve watched and enjoyed all the following classic British sitcoms: Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, ‘Allo ‘Allo (that probably didn’t help much: a bunch of Brits making fun of the French and the Germans by faking their accents, for Christ’s sake! In Fawlty Towers, it’s the poor Manuel from Barcelona!), and the more contemporary the Vicar of Dibley. Are there any other nice shows that you can recommend? Perhaps I should watch the aforementioned shows again.

5 responses to “Understanding non-American native English accent”

  1. I was wondering if the body language was different. You said you were still waiting for cues. Can you identify the cues you wait for with american speakers? That may help you watch British speakers with a higher level of awareness of body language.
    Also be alert to slightly different syntax or vocab / expressions. i have noticed sometimes American friends not fully understanding British friends because they use expressions not common in America.

    Just some thoughts to watch for.


  2. You mentioned programmes by people with generally more educated, “higher-end” southern accents. You might want to try mixing in some lower class and northern accents, like Cockney, Mancunian, Scouse, or Geordie for example. A bit of southern Wales, that odd lilt of the Valleys, certainly wouldn’t do any harm. Then, perhaps, branch out into the likes of Scots and Irish.

  3. Thanks Les and Chris.

    Les, I guess I have used the wrong word here. I used “cues” but I really meant patterns and typical features of an accent. By virtue of living and breathing North American English, I have internalized some of its patterns, something I don’t have or just have very little, when listening to, say, British English (a terrible generalization).

    Chris, thanks mate for that information. I read through Wikipedia entries for all the terms you mentioned above. It was especially interesting reading about Cockney, and the phonetic symbols used in that entry. I mentioned that my middle and high school English has a British bent, one aspect of it is the usage of International Phonetic Alphabet, which is something I got used to before I came to the United States. Imagine my disappointment when I realized American English dictionaries do not use that. I’d imagine that majority of learners of English as a second language started with the IPA, so that disappointment may be shared by a lot of people.

  4. From what I can tell, Southerners clean up their speech when they leave the South. If you go down there they can be completely gibberish. You seen Boomhaeur on “King of the Hill?” I am told the dude is speaking authentic . . .

    I have heard of a “working class” British show on PBS called “The EastEnders” and of course if you enjoy silly Science Fiction you shuold check out Dr. Who.


  5. Thanks Danny.

    Never watched “King of the Hill”. Just went to Youtube to check out Boomhauer. Man, that was dang ol’ hard to understand.

    I’ve heard so much of “Dr. Who” that I should check it out to see what the fuss is all about. Never watched “The EastEnders”, looks promising.

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