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.