If you are learning English, or even if you already speak English fluently, you have probably heard some English accents that you find easier or more difficult to understand. This can be true even for native English speakers when they travel to different countries—most famously Ireland or Scotland, two countries with very distinct accents! In fact, according to Wikipedia, there are literally hundreds of known English accents and/or dialects that exist in the world.
This brings up some questions: Why do people that speak the same language have so many different accents? Is there a true “correct” accent? And why do people learning a language retain the accent of their native language?
Well, to answer the first question, we must first consider the difference between an accent and a dialect, as these words are often confused. An accent is simply the pronunciation of a word that changes, usually depending on a geographical location, or even cultural and social influences. A dialect, however, goes further than that, in that there is different vocabulary and expressions, as well as pronunciation. For an example of dialect, the differences between British and American English come to mind—words like truck and lorry, pants and trousers, bathroom and loo, lift and elevator…the list of different vocabulary between the continents is quite long!
Maybe you have heard the famous quote by George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”
The reason for this difference is complex, but not difficult to understand. When people settle in different geographical locations, they tend to create their own cultural codes in language. Think of language as a living thing, something that evolves and changes over time; speakers adapt it to their needs and naturally mimic each other’s speech. But geography is only part of the equation. According to Marc Ettlinger PhD., a Linguistics professor at UC Berkeley, there are also cultural, social and historical influences that create accents. This is interesting to see in the United States, for example, as the pattern of immigration at the turn of the century had a major influence on the different regional accents and dialects that exist today . And even within a single city, most famously London, there are different accents based on neighborhoods, but also social class. Many people naturally switch their accent depending on the people around them, or the image they would like to put forward.
So is there one English accent that is truly the most correct one?
This is a much debated topic, and a popular question for people who are learning English. And depending on who you talk you, the answer to that question may vary! Stereotypically, British people tend to insist that “the Queen’s English” or “Oxford English” is the only truly correct form of English. However, with billions of people speaking so many different dialects of English all over the world, the definition of “correct” is truly a relative term. You can read more about it in our article here.
Finally, if you are learning English, you are probably aware of your own accent from your own native language. This is frustrating for so many people learning English, because most people never lose their native accent, no matter what language they learn, even fluently! Why is that?
Well, the answer may surprise you. The muscles you use in your face and in your mouth to speak are muscles that are formed from your early infancy. Babies mimic the language sounds they hear around them, even beginning as early as “baby talk.” So it’s not just habit, but the muscles themselves built up over time allow us to make the specific language sounds—or prevent us from making new ones that we didn’t learn as a baby. You may have seen native English speakers struggle with the Spanish rolling “R” or the French guttural “R”, or Asians struggling with the “L” sound…these are perfect examples of this phenomenon. Conquering your native accent takes a concerted effort and lots of practice, listening and repeating.
But is it really necessary to lose your native accent?
Different accents of English all over the world are part of what makes it such an interesting language. Different cultures and dialects make for a rich cultural backdrop to this widely-spoken language, which can make for some pretty amazing literature, music or poetry, for example. So no matter what kind of English accent you have learned, or what kind of native accent you retain, relax and be proud of your accent, because it is uniquely yours!
For an example of some of the different English accents in the UK, US, and around the world, check out this fun video of a very talented British teen!
Do you struggle with your native accent when speaking English?
Do you feel that there is one correct English accent that should be taught in school?
Do you have any funny stories about misunderstanding different English accents?
We love to hear your experiences and comments!