English is a complicated language, with a huge vocabulary, countless grammatical rules, and a number of confusing verb tenses. And yet, for many learners, the most difficult thing about the language are the many different English accents.
With an estimated 360 million+ native speakers, English is the world’s third-largest language. From North America to Europe, Africa, and Australia, English speakers abound across the planet. Unlike certain widely-spoken languages, such as Chinese, English’s many dialects are all mutually intelligible. This means any two English speakers should have no problem communicating with one another, regardless of where they call home.
As an language learner, you’ll likely encounter a number of different English accents in your studies. You certainly don’t have to be able to recognise all of the different accents out there, but it is helpful to have a basic understanding of why people pronounce words a certain way.
The American Accent
Perhaps the most frequently heard English accent in the world, American English is spoken natively by over 225 million people. While the language originally hails from the United Kingdom, the United States has the most native English speakers in the world, by far. Surprisingly, some historians believe American English is closer to the original Olde English than the language spoken in the United Kingdom today! Interesting, no?
One of the most common differences between American English and other variants of the language is a phenomenon known as rhoticity. This refers to the pronunciation of the letter “R.” For example, while an American says the word car with an emphasis on the “R” sound, a British speaker will pronounce the word as if it ends in an “H.”
Of course, there are lots of different accents within the United States, but many young Americans speak a standardized form of English, making it difficult to guess where someone is from based on their accent.
The English Accent
If you’ve ever studied English at school, you likely were taught to speak with an English accent. One of the unique characteristics of English in England is that accents vary greatly across the different regions of the nation, in spite of the country’s relatively small size. Accents are a source of pride for many British people.
English people of different social classes also often speak with different accents in Britain.
The Scottish Accent
In another part of the United Kingdom, Scotland, the locals have a number of diverse accents.
Unlike in American English where "pull" has a slightly different pronunciation than "pool", in a Scottish accent, both words sound like "pool". When trying a Scottish accent, think of "u" sounds as "oo" sounds. If there are two short words together, pronounce the two as one.
Scottish speakers also borrow many words from the Scots language, which further complicates this dialect. Some Scotsmen even blend the two languages together, making for a peculiar hodgepodge of language fun.
The Canadian Accent
Jumping back across the pond, the Canadian English accent shares a lot in common with the American accent. In fact, if you can’t hear the differences between the two, don’t despair. Many Americans have trouble recognising the Canadian accent, particularly because it sounds very similar to the accent of those who live in northern parts of the United States.
You can often hear the difference in vowel sounds, such as the in the word sorry. Many Canadians say, “sore-y,” whereas an American would say, “sah-rey.” You can also often hear a difference in the “ou” vowel sound. Canadians may say “hoo-se,” for example, while an American would say, “how-se.”
The Welsh Accent
Wales is another small country in the United Kingdom, but its accent varies quite a lot from British English.
The Cardiff accent, also known as Cardiff English, is the regional accent of English, and a variety of Welsh English, as spoken in and around the city of Cardiff, and is somewhat distinctive in Wales, compared with other Welsh accents.
The Australian Accent
Australian English shares a lot in common with British English, in that it’s also a non-rhotic accent (words that end in “R” are pronounced with a soft “H”). The chief differences between Australian English and British English are the vowel sounds and the cadence of the language itself.
Australian English is also very standardised—in other words, you can’t hear much of a difference between someone who lives in Perth and someone who lives in Sydney, even though the two cities are over 4,000 kilometres from one another.
The New Zealand Accent
Australia’s southeastern neighbour, New Zealand is a small island nation that speaks one of the newest variants of English in the world, having been developed chiefly over the last 150 years. Although Australian and “Kiwi” accents sound somewhat similar to other English speakers, it is rather easy for native speakers from these two nations to spot the differences in one another’s speech.
You may notice that some New Zealanders speak with a rising intonation, meaning general statements can sound somewhat like a question. This is by no means a rule of New Zealand English, but it’s one of the key differences some people can pick out.
The South African Accent
In fact, many Americans struggle with foreign accents. It’s not uncommon for television hosts from abroad to attempt to soften their accent to make it easier for an American audience to understand.
The South African accent is again, non-rhotic, like so many other variants of English. Vowel pronunciation is quite different, however. don’t worry if you can’t hear any nuances, South African accents can be notoriously difficult to identify.
The Irish Accent
Our final accent is the Irish accent. Much like the Scottish dialect has borrowed many words from the Scots language, Irish English speakers also speak a rich variant of English that is often peppered with Gaelic words.
In addition to differences in how the words are spoken, Irish people often use different sentence construction, further contributing to the uniqueness of this dialect.
Which English Accents Should I Use?
So, if you’re learning English, which accent should you try to use? In most cases, it makes the most sense to either practice American or British English. There are numerous spelling differences between the two and the vocabulary varies greatly across the two dialects. From “toilet” and “restroom” to “lorry” and “truck”, there are countless discrepancies.
By choosing one accent to focus on, you’ll be better able to improve your pronunciation and start speaking English like a native speaker. That said, you shouldn’t spend too much time worried about which accent to study. At the end of the day, even with the small differences, English is English.