Students of English who have only heard their teacher speak English are often amazed that other speakers of English can be so hard to understand.
Why is that?
It’s because of two reasons:
– They speak fast.
– They have an accent.
The accent is something that goes together with speaking a dialect of English. In the past there were even more dialects than there are today. Not long ago, in the time of your grandparents, you could travel to a neighbouring village, and find that the people there speak your language, but they can have different words for the same thing, or they pronounce them differently.
Nowadays, regional dialects are disappearing fast. This goes for English as well as for other languages. Of course, the reason for this is globalization. People are travelling and meeting each other, they watch TV and surf the internet. After all this mingling, a standard language will emerge. For English, this means that only one dialect of English is going to be the dominant one. Many people say that American English is going to be the standard English of the future. We’ll talk about that some other time; it’s very interesting.
Anyhow, let’s go back to our subject. Why are there so many accents of English? The answer must be looked for in history. It’s because people used to live in their own village or town, and they didn’t travel that much during their lifetime, or they didn’t travel at all. Usually, they spoke the same language that they learned as a child when they were older, and they taught this language to their children. They tended to speak the same language as the other people in their town, with few influences from outside.
The only exceptions happened when big migrations were made. For instance, in the beginning of the 17th century, small groups of English settlers came to live in the US. They spoke English like the English people they left behind in England. But it was only a matter of time before the English people in America developed their own way of speaking and writing English. Some words were different; some words were spelled differently, and a different pronunciation developed, too. And in this way, American English was born.
Similar processes occurred with Australian and South-African English.
Lastly, the funny thing is that we’re never the only ones struggling with English accents. English native speakers can have the same problems. Many Americans will tell you, if you ask them, that they really don’t understand British English… but they do think it unbelievably sexy. (-:
Where are they from?
To give you an idea of how different English can be, check out this website:
In this website you will find small reading excerpts (pieces) read by speakers of different languages.
(Some are native English speakers, others are not.):
If you listen to a few of them, you will hear immediately how many differences there are, even if the speakers come from the same region.
By the way, if you’d like to contribute your own accent to the site, contact the site managers.