If you’re someone who has learned English by watching popular TV series such as “Downton Abbey,” or “Friends,” or “The Big Bang Theory,” then you might well believe that most English speakers conform to just a handful of accents.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, even the tiny island nation of the UK has something like 40 distinct accents and dialects, with other English-speaking countries such as the US, Canada, and Australia offering up even more.
In today’s article, we’re offering up what we think are the 12 most difficult English accents to understand as a non-native speaker.
Opinions and experiences will always differ, of course, but we think the following accents present a very particular challenge to learners.
UK English Accents
More “standard” accents like received pronunciation and the Queen’s English are ones that learners tend to both enjoy and find easy to follow. Among the many other regional tongues, however, there are learners who come away feeling rather confused:
Birmingham (Brummie) English Accent
The first accent that can be tricky is known as the Brummie accent from England’s second-largest city, Birmingham.
The city attracts thousands of international students every year, many of whom come to understand the accent over time.
They may not consider trying to imitate it, however, since the Brummie accent has connotations of slowness and stupidity in the eyes of many, especially within the UK.
It’s not exactly an accent of dynamism, and its nasal qualities (caused by early industrialization and air pollution, people theorize) make it a bit hard on the ears.
Liverpool (Scouse) English Accent
People from Liverpool speak with a sharp, fast and nasal accent that not only changes many of the vowel sounds that non-native speakers will have learned before coming to the UK, but also many of the hard sounds.
Most notably, the Scouse accent tears into hard “c” and “k” sounds, creating an almost guttural quality that can be difficult to understand when spoken at speed.
Yorkshire and Lancashire English Accent
These accents are noticeably different to native speakers, but non-English speakers might find them difficult for the same reason.
They typically feature deeper, closer vowel sounds compared to the way people in southern England and London talk, especially the ‘o’ and the ‘u’.
TV shows like Game of Thrones made extensive use of these accents for characters from The North on the fictional continent of Westeros. Actors like Sheffield native Sean Bean (who played Eddard Stark in the series) helped to make these accents a little more mainstream in the globally successful show.
However, if learners encounter older natives of these regions, they might get stuck with their more extreme dialect, which changes vowel sounds and even omits entire words from sentences.
Newcastle (Geordie) English Accent
Widely considered to be the friendliest accent in England, the Geordie voice of Newcastle is nonetheless a difficult one for non-native speakers to understand.
Even Americans and Canadians do struggle with it, as was shown when UK pop star Cheryl Cole (arguably the most famous Geordie accent in the world) had to be fired from the US version of The X Factor after a single episode because the American audience simply couldn’t understand a thing she was saying.
And to be clear i am actually from Newcastle, and her accent is no where near as strong as some in my family!
Scottish (especially Glasgow) English Accent
Scottish accents are always among the trickiest for English learners. Even other people in the UK struggle with the thick accents of places such as Glasgow, especially if the speaker in question has either never been out of Scotland, or never interacted with people from outside Scotland.
Many Scots have made their voices easier to understand through years of interacting with English, American, and European people who would otherwise struggle.
Others, however, have not done so, and the result is a voice that’s machine-gun fast and with pronunciation that’s impossible to decipher.
Ulster (Northern Ireland) English Accent
Finally in the UK list, we have the dulcet tones of the Ulster Irish, that is those who dwell in Belfast and the surrounding counties that make up part of the UK.
Some learners underestimate the difference between the Ulster and Dublin accents, believing their previous interactions with people from Dublin to be sufficient experience.
In fact, the Belfast/Ulster accent is very different, and typically more harsh in its delivery of nouns and consonants compared with the softer tones of the Republic of Ireland and Dublin.
English learners tend not to struggle too much with American accents in general, mainly because American culture and media is so dominant all around the world.
Even people living in the more remote parts of the world have likely heard an American voice through movies, music, or TV. There remain a few, however, that can still stump people who are unfamiliar with the country:
Italian American English Accent
While the Italian-American accents found in New York and New Jersey are quite well represented in film and on TV, they can still prove tricky for those who are not native speakers.
Italian-Americans tend to speak quite quickly, and use a very unique inflection on their words that can make them more difficult to follow.
On top of that, they may well throw in Italian terms, or their own slang words that English learners won’t have learned at any point.
Georgia & South Carolina (Savannah) English Accent
The Savannah accent is mostly found in Georgia and South Carolina. It has been somewhat popularized by Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of fictional US President Frank Underwood in the series House of Cards.
Outside of that, however, and for those who haven’t seen that show, it can be a difficult one to understand, with its interesting drawl and extended vowel sounds.
In the media, it has been compared to sweet molasses pouring out of one’s mouth, both dulcet and soothing, but at the same time very different from any other American accent.
Texan (Southern) English Accent
The Savannah accent is part of a larger family of southern accents, perhaps most typified by the “Texas cowboy” ideal with phrases like “yee-haw!” and “tarnation!”
Southerners are known for their use of interesting metaphor and simile — “Well look here! Why, you’re like ankle socks on a dune bug!” (meaning, “Gosh, you’re quite short, aren’t you?).
Many Americans find this charming, but for English learners, it’s very confusing!
Australia and New Zealand English Accent
Frequently grouped together as if they are one country, these two places actually have quite distinct accents, but are usually only recognized by people from those regions or those who know them well.
Both the Australian and New Zealand accent feature a totally unique and different way of pronouncing vowel sounds that further can confuse non-native speakers.
The main good news here is that Australians and New Zealanders invariably speak a little slower than their American or English cousins, which can help with comprehension.
South African English Accent
Finally, we have the ever-tricky accents of South Africa. The main issue with South African voices is the sheer volume and variety of them.
The nation is one of many languages and cultures, which means when they speak English (as many do as either a first or second language), the variation can be quite extreme.
There’s a lot less standardization than you’ll find in countries like the US and Canada, which leads to it being harder to understand for some.
Historical and Cultural Influences
Understanding accents goes beyond phonetics; it’s deeply rooted in history and culture. For instance, the distinctive features of the Australian and Southern American accents are a testament to their unique colonial histories and immigrant influences.
Similarly, the blending of indigenous languages and colonial English shaped the diverse accents of South Africa. These historical and cultural contexts play a crucial role in the evolution of regional accents, reflecting the socio-economic and geographical landscapes that have shaped societies.
People often adapt their accents consciously or unconsciously depending on their audience, a phenomenon known as ‘code-switching.’
Accent adaptation can range from slight adjustments in pronunciation to a significant change in vocabulary and speech tempo.
This adaptability highlights the fluid nature of language and accents, reflecting an individual’s ability to navigate different social and linguistic environments.
Understanding this aspect is crucial for ESL learners as it demonstrates the versatility of language use and the importance of context in communication.
Impact of Accent on Identity
Accents are more than just a way of speaking; they are an integral part of personal and regional identity. They carry with them perceptions and stereotypes that can influence how speakers are viewed by others.
Understanding the impact of accents on identity is crucial for appreciating the full scope of linguistic diversity and its significance in the social fabric.
In wrapping up our look at the world’s diverse English accents, it’s important to remember that each accent is more than just a pattern of speech – it’s a reflection of history, culture, and community.
For ESL learners, tackling these accents might seem daunting at first, but it’s a crucial part of understanding the full richness of the English language.
Each accent, whether it’s the quick cadence of Liverpool’s Scouse or the drawn-out vowels of the Texan drawl, offers a unique learning opportunity. It’s about more than just pronunciation; it’s about connecting with different parts of the world.
So, as you encounter these varied accents, see them as a chance to broaden your understanding and appreciation of English.
Remember, every accent has its own charm and character. By embracing this diversity, you’re not just improving your language skills – you’re also opening yourself up to a world of new experiences and perspectives.
Keep an open mind, and enjoy the journey of discovering the many voices of the English-speaking world.