Do foreign accents sound different in different English speaking countries?
November 10, 2012 4:03 PM   Subscribe

Do foreign accents sound different in different English speaking countries?

Does, for example, a French person who speaks English in Australia have a different accent than a French person who speaks English in the U.S.? (Assuming of course that they each learned English in either Australia or the U.S.)

So I'm assuming when people who don't speak English come to the U.S., they try to imitate an American accent with their speech. In other words, when people from France come to the U.S., they try to speak English with an American accent, but of course it comes out with their native French accent.

So then when French people go to another English speaking country, like Australia, I'm assuming they try to sound like the English they hear, with an Australian accent. But again, of course it comes out with their native French accent.

So does an Australian-English speaking Frenchperson sound different from a U.S.-English speaking Frenchperson?

This is just out of curiosity about accents and learning new languages.
posted by McPuppington the Third to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. Ime with bilingual students, they pick up the accent of wherever they learnt English. There is no neutral accent- so it's impossible for this not to be so!
posted by jojobobo at 4:05 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes, definitely. I have a Spanish friend who learnt English in Sweden as a teenager, and she sounds about 90% Swedish and 10% Spanish. When she speaks Swedish she sounds almost-native, with just a hint of Spanish accent.
posted by Talkie Toaster at 4:09 PM on November 10, 2012

Yes. I have friends from former British colonies (Kenya and India) who learned British English in school. The one from India in particular sounds very British at times. They also say things like "lift" and "lorry," which always befuddles me for a few moments. (We are in the US.)
posted by baby beluga at 4:09 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes. I've heard Chinese-English bilinguals (who learned English as a second language) speak English with British accents in London, vs. North American accents in Canada/US.

Their native language may tint whatever English they produce, but that English is generally going to be modelled after whatever they hear in their environment (e.g., Aussie English, British English, Texan English, etc.)
posted by miss_kitty_fantastico at 4:12 PM on November 10, 2012

I have a colleague from East Germany who learned French there, then learned English in Canada from Quebecois. His accent is one of a kind.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:13 PM on November 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes, people use the accent that they learned and/or lived with the longest.

Most French people in France who learned English in public school speak it with a Queen's English accent and UK vocabulary.

French people in France who learned Business English usually speak it with an American accent and vocabulary.

As an aside, I learned French from an American teacher who had lived in southeastern France and taught us with tapes that used Provençal (part of the southeast) accents. So I actually have a "natural" Provençal accent when I speak French that gets me mistaken for one here. People from Paris especially get belly laughs when they finally find out I'm American. "L'Américaineuh qui parleuh commeuh uneuh niçoiseuh, heeheehee!" ahem :o)

So yes. This is a thing.
posted by fraula at 4:14 PM on November 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Everyone picks up the accent of whomever taught them their languages.
posted by elizardbits at 4:14 PM on November 10, 2012

Yes. My mother is Spanish and learnt English in the UK. She sounds English (and, of course, Spanish) to my American relatives.
posted by ob at 4:16 PM on November 10, 2012

Another example of this is learning Spanish. I grew up in California and learned Spanish from a woman who spoke with an Argentinian accent, which means I pronounce my y and ll with a slight j sound compared to Mexican Spanish (the norm for learning Spanish in California Public Schools). My brother who learned Spanish in high school lived in Spain for a year and picked up a Spanish accent and speaks with a slight lisp. Neither of us are native speakers and thusly, learned our accent from our teachers/location.
posted by ruhroh at 4:20 PM on November 10, 2012

Yes, people have different accents in other languages...but usually this happens only after they have achieved an intermediate level (or else are just really good at imitating accents). At the beginning level it's hard to detect an accent from a particular country because you haven't grasped pronunciation yet. I've also heard people speak English with a mix of a British and American accent.

This works the opposite way too of course- I live china and can pick out foreign speakers' accents: Beijing, Taiwan, etc. This is usually true only if their Chinese is really good, though.
posted by bearette at 4:24 PM on November 10, 2012

I noticed in Italy that some Italians pronounced some words in a much more British way (rather than American). But in particular, I remember one tour guide who almost sounded Irish!
posted by stopgap at 4:25 PM on November 10, 2012

Yes, it's far more specific than you would think. I was an exchange student in Sweden in high school, and I got put into a class of returning exchange students (because most students stay together through high school, this was a sort of adaptive plan for these 20 students who were now a year behind their classes). Most of my classmates had been students in the US or UK, plus one South America and one Australian, and I could absolutely tell. The best one was a girl who'd just done a year in fairly rural Tennessee, and had the hickest American accent I'd ever heard, including my own Texan peers. Pretty much everyone else in school had a pretty standard UK TV + Received Pronunciation accent as taught in Swedish schools, but you could tell who had done summers in various parts of the UK.

I took French III the year I was in Sweden, and my French accent was dramatically different from my classmates'. Also, most of the other exchange students in my group in my area were from Canada, New Zealand, NY State, and Australia, and while some of this can be traced back to the socioeconomic class and origin of our host families, we all had different accents in Swedish.

Accents are fucking amazing.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:37 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Europeans I have known who spoke English as a second language typically sounded British because that's what they have easiest access to.

I am from the Deep South. If I am trying to speak French while really tired, I start sounding kind of Cajun.


And never mind that I normally have little to no Southern drawl when speaking English (though, when tired, my Southern background sometimes shows in online discussions: I sometimes type "a" instead of "I", which is closer to what ah hear in mah head).
posted by Michele in California at 4:42 PM on November 10, 2012

My wife is from Brazil and speaks fluent English. She also used to teach ESL, and in order to do so, she needed to take a special "accent reduction" class. She taught in a very neutral American accent.
People are really surprised to find out she isn't from the US when they meet her, even though they can't quite place her accent.

A neighbor of mine is also an ESL teacher, and points out "neutral American accent" in his advertising.
posted by jozxyqk at 4:46 PM on November 10, 2012

A Northern Irish guy in my colloquial Arabic class said after he spoke for a bit to his (native Arabic-speaking) neighbor, she said, "You sound like a Palestinian Christian woman." He had indeed learned the language from someone of just that description. In class, it was easy to hear who was talking mostly to Lebanese or to Palestinian people by the way they used the language.
posted by lauranesson at 4:57 PM on November 10, 2012

I think it depends who we're really talking about.

If we're talking about bilingual people who have grown up in/spent a very long time in Anglophone Country X, yes, of course their accent is going to be the accent of the Anglophone country they have spent years living in.

If we're talking about a French exchange student who studied "British English" in school but is not bilingual, there's little difference. They might say "lift" instead of "elevator", but that's like me saying "aguacate" vs. "palta" in Spanish for "avocado". It's not like I grew up in Mexico saying "aguacate". I just happened to get that one as opposed to "palta" in a set of flash cards. The French exchange student is going to do more things that mark her as a Francophone non-English speaker than she will do things that mark her as a speaker of British vs. American vs. Scottish English.

Bringing up Indians' use of English is a massive can of worms, since a lot of Indians learn English as a first language at home, nowadays, and English is used much more widely in India than almost any comparable situation I can think of. Indian English is its own very specific thing, not just "Indians learning British English in school".
posted by Sara C. at 5:01 PM on November 10, 2012

Absolutely. A Québecois woman I know learned most of her English in Australia, so her accent in English is a charming mixture of Montreal and Sydney.

On the other hand, I learned my French variously from Moroccan, Swiss, French and Quebecois native speakers. I have had every possible reaction from, "Oh, I thought you were a native speaker," to, "Wait, that was French? I thought you were speaking Romanian or something."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:09 PM on November 10, 2012

More anecdata:

I grew up in Indian learning English from parents who themselves learnt from British English speaking teachers (quite literally Irish nuns in my mom's case). I also spent a couple years in the US between the ages of 7 and 8. I was constantly told that I had an American accent when I returned to India. Over the years it faded somewhat and became more British sounding. When I came to the US for grad school my accent changed yet again, becoming more American sounding. Now when I ask people what my accent sounds like, they can't quite place it. The last American I asked said it sounded mid-Atlantic, which is a mix of English and American sounding accents.
posted by peacheater at 5:28 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

So different. Even in England, the English accent sounds different depending on where you live. I live in Dudley, the capital of the Black Country and known for its colloquial dialect. Here are some links and the yam-yam can be impressive, but it's nothing when you get to know it. but Brummie and Black Country are different accents. So get some sucke, enjoy yourself, and go where the wild things are. True story: when I went to France, a girl said to me, "I never met an American who spoke French with a German accent."
posted by parmanparman at 5:32 PM on November 10, 2012

Absolutely. I'm a native (American) English speaker. What little German I speak is almost unaccented, for reasons unknown to me. But the even less Spanish I speak has a German accent. Confused the heck out of my Spanish-speaking friends, I tell you what.
posted by valkyryn at 5:50 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, it's not like there's just one inherently "Indian" way to speak the English language that wipes out the accent of whoever taught the speaker. People who live in India are more likely to learn English from British teachers than American teachers. If you're learning a foreign language from a native speaker, you're naturally going to copy that person's pronunciation. You probably won't consciously think "I'm learning a British accent" — you'll just think "I'm learning how to speak English" — but you're still learning a British rather than American, Irish, or Australian accent.

Look at this transcript of a PBS show on Indian call centers:
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Accent neutralization class is very popular in Bangalore today, you know, because you have all ... a whole less sort of sophisticated side of this phenomenon are the call centers. Young men and women basically selling credit cards, tracing your lost luggage on Delta Airlines, and also providing tech support for big American computer companies from IBM to Microsoft and whatnot.

Well, these are all put together in these call centers and when you pick up the phone and dial that tech number, a young Indian answers. But they want to make sure that you're going to understand their accent so they teach them or put them through accent neutralization courses where they learn to roll their R's and to soften their T's.

TERENCE SMITH: We have, in fact, a tape which you've brought back, shot by New York Times television, for a documentary you're working on what will appear on the Discovery Channel with a little clip of what goes on in an accent neutralization class. So let's take a look at it.

INSTRUCTOR: All right, class. I want you to take out your books and I'm going to give you a passage. Remember, the first day I told you that the Americans flat the "tuh" sound. You know, it sounds like an almost "duh" sound, not keep it crisp and clear like the British. So I would not say "Betsy bought a bit of better butter" or "insert a quarter in a meter." But they would say "insert a quarder in the meder," or "'Beddy bought a bit of bedder budder." . . .

TERENCE SMITH: That looks like fun, for one thing, and yet the teacher had ... really had the accent down.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: She had it down. She also does British accents, American accents. That was actually for a Canadian call center. They were actually working on a sort of flat North American Canadian accent.
posted by John Cohen at 6:01 PM on November 10, 2012

(I actually saw that documentary when it aired on TV, and it was very amusing to see the British instructor say "Betty bought a bit of better butter" with her natural British accent — which to my American ears sounds like you've simply forgotten about the letter "t" — and then with exaggerated "t" sounds to fake an American accent, and to watch the room full of Indian student/employees suddenly realize how there are two such different versions of English.)
posted by John Cohen at 6:06 PM on November 10, 2012

My best friend (we are Americans) married a man from Norway who had learned British English in school. When I first met him a decade ago, he spoke British English with a fairly heavy Norwegian accent, except when he said "cool" when he sounded like he was in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Now that he's been in the U.S. full-time for a decade, he speaks with a Chicago accent with just the barest hint of foreign origin except when he's very excited (when he sounds more Scandinavian than usual). He still sounds like Keanu Reeves when he says "cool."

It was funny because he has a brother a few years younger (whom I met at about the same time), and the school they had attended had consciously switched to teaching American English (as being more useful for students intending to work internationally), so the older brother spoke British English and the younger spoke American English, both with heavy Norwegian accents!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:34 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who is French and grew up there and learned English in school, but then moved to South Africa as a young adult. Now been living in the US for a decade. He does not speak English with a French accent, and you'd almost never know English wasn't his first language. He has an accent I can't quite describe, it's not really South African, vaguely British, definitely not French. It's especially funny when he tries to put on a fake French accent, sounds like Monty Python or something. I gather his French relatives (still living in France) think he has a British accent when speaking French to them, which bends my mind a little.
posted by upatree at 7:05 PM on November 10, 2012

I loved hearing my mom's Hungarian-who-immigrated-to-Australia friend talk. That was an accent.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:54 PM on November 10, 2012

Your accent definitely has something to do with where you learn/who you learn the language from and, more interestingly, from whom you hear the language, if that makes sense. When I was a child (birth until almost 9), we had a neighbour we saw frequently who was born in Rome and lived there for much of her life. She and my mother would speak Italian together (my mom took lessons at some point in her life) and I was fascinated by the language and would sit there listening to our neighbour constantly.

Almost twenty years after we moved away (and didn't see the neighbour very often any more), when I decided to take Italian at university, teachers thought my accent was AMAZING and I was asked constantly if my family was Italian. When I explained about our neighbour they would nod and go "well, that's it, then, you picked up her accent". It's not flawless, obviously, since I'm not a native Italian speaker, but my cadence and rhythm has a very Roman feel to it rather than the more Florentine accent, which is the sort of "textbook" Italian. At least this is what I'm told. :)
posted by juliebug at 11:06 PM on November 10, 2012

On a recent episode of Slate's Hang Up And Listen podcast, they had an interview with Ove Johannson, who kicked a 69 yard field goal (the longest ever) in 1976. He's been living in Texas ever since, and two seconds of his incredibly delightful Swedish/Texan accent should answer this question for good.

The interview is on the October 22nd podcast. The story starts around 55:30, Ove comes in at 57:25. Seriously, it's the greatest accent ever, even better than the woman I once met who spoke fluent Mandarin with her thick Irish lilt.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 11:17 PM on November 10, 2012

As an American I was fascinated to hear Asian immigrants speaking English with Australian accents when I went to Australia the first time. Of course it makes sense that that's the case, I was just very American-centric in how I figured people in other countries learned English.

Also, I apparently speak Spanish with a German accent.
posted by olinerd at 12:15 AM on November 11, 2012

I learned French from a teacher from the mid-west, and so my French has an embarrassingly think Minnesota/Quebecois accent that is completely undetectable in my English.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:24 AM on November 11, 2012

I live in the UK & have a friend who is Italian & has been married to a Scotsman for 20 years. She speaks pretty much perfect English with a definite lovely Italian/Scottish accent.
posted by cantthinkofagoodname at 12:31 AM on November 11, 2012

Yes. South-Swedish immigrants usually talk with a heavy south-Swedish accent, and otherwise just as well as they've learned the language.

But it goes the other way too. Both your start accent and your target accent make a difference. I suppose if you want to express this scientifically it's simply because brain-wise, there is no distinction between "language" and "accent".

(I vividly remember (...a school trip through Michigan in the 70s) a dude from a German club near Dearborn who gave a speech in English, not with just some German accent, but specifically a heavy Saxonian one.)
posted by Namlit at 1:13 AM on November 11, 2012

To my great horror, it appears that ToddlerTaff and LittleTaff both speak Tibetan with broad Australian accents.

(Their accent in English is not broad at all. Phew. )
posted by taff at 2:53 AM on November 11, 2012

Danish footballer Jan Mølby played for Liverpool in the 1980s and 1990s. When he first came to the UK he spoke English perfectly, but with a very strong Danish accent. A few years later, and he had a perfect Scouse (Liverpool) accent.
posted by essexjan at 5:02 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm Indian, grew up hearing English accents from a mix of sources- Indian English from my family and friends, RP English from the BBC, and generic neutral American from various TV shows. I usually wind up speaking in a hodgepodge accent, or with one influence stronger than the other depending on who I'm speaking to.
posted by Tamanna at 5:14 AM on November 11, 2012

A friend from the UK who relocated to Texas ended up having an accent that sounded kind of Australian.
posted by kamikazegopher at 9:28 AM on November 11, 2012

Definitely yes. I had a couple of friends who were married to each other in Japan, she Filipina, he German. They both spoke English that tended toward an American accent. Then they moved to Australia, and naturally tended toward an Australian accent after a couple years.

Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, speaks excellent English, but with a French accent that tends toward British (but with a lot of Americanisms thrown in). You can hear her on news programs from time to time. The British influence on her accent is unmistakeable.
posted by adamrice at 9:51 AM on November 11, 2012

I speak Lithuanian with a ( apparently ) French accent because I was born and raised in Quebec. Same for my German - I learned it in Montreal as well.
I speak English with a Scandinavian accent because I became fluent in the language while working in Sweden.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:59 PM on November 11, 2012

According to my friends in China, I speak Mandarin Chinese with both a Cantonese AND a Southern Californian accent, reflecting my upbringing as a Hong Konger with LA characteristics.
posted by so much modern time at 5:59 PM on November 12, 2012

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