If you’re learning English, chances are you’re studying one of two popular dialects: Received Pronunciation (RP) of England, or Standard American English of the United States. However, there’s a lot more to English than its British and American varieties. Did you know that English has official language status in at least one country in every continent (except Antarctica, of course)? Today, we’ll take a global tour of some of the countries where English is most widely spoken, and take a look at the differences in how they use the language.
EUROPE: British and Irish English
Image via Diliff / Wikipedia
We’ll start our tour in Europe, the birthplace of modern English as we know it. Received Pronunciation, spoken in Britain, is widely taught to English learners all across the world. Interestingly, though, very few people — only about 3% of Brits — actually have it as their native accent. Still, it is regarded as a “standard” English dialect, which is useful for pedagogical purposes. So, what are some of its features?
For starters, British English has a complicated relationship with the letter “R”. Indeed, the letter “R” is pronounced only if it’s followed by a vowel (e.g., moral) or if it’s at the beginning of a word (e.g., royal). If it’s followed by a consonant or is at the end of a word, it’s reduced to a neutral vowel sound (e.g., first, poor).
British English is also associated with some interesting grammatical features. For example, collective nouns like group or band use plural verb conjugations, even though they are not marked as plural. So rather than saying “The band is giving a concert on Friday,” a speaker of British English will say “The band are giving a concert on Friday.”
At first glance, Irish English might seem pretty similar to British English. However, there are two good ways to detect an Irish accent. First, when words begin with “D” and are followed by an “oo” sound (e.g., “dew”, “duty”), they sound like “J” — so “due” sounds like “joo” and “duty” sounds like “juty”. Similarly, “Ts” turn into “CHs”; for example, “tube” is “choob”.
Another feature of Irish English that non-native speakers often like is the fact that they seldom pronounce their “TH” sounds. Instead, it is usually replaced by an easier-to-pronounce alternative like “T” or “D”. So words like “three” and “there” will sound like “tree” and “dere”, respectively.
THE AMERICAS: American and Canadian English
Image via William Warby / Wikipedia
If you’re not learning Received Pronunciation, you’re probably learning American English. This makes sense, as almost two-thirds of all native English speakers worldwide speak American English. Like British English, American English varies widely depending on where you are in the United States. Still, it has several common features that distinguish it from British English.
Whereas Brits are ambivalent about their “R”s, Americans love them: “R”s are fully pronounced in any word that contains one, whether it be “moral”, “royal”, “first”, or “poor”. This can certainly be frustrating for non-native speakers, for whom the “R” sound can be a real challenge to pronounce!
American English also differentiates itself from British English in its spelling and vocabulary. Words that end in -our in British English, such as “colour” and “flavour”, are spelled with -or in American English (“color” and “flavor”). Similarly, words that end in -ise in British English, like “colonise” and “practise”, end in -ize or -ice in American English (“colonize” and “practice”).
In terms of vocabulary, American English uses different words to describe many things, especially food and cars. Some examples include eggplants, which are “aubergines” in British English; cookies, which are “biscuits” in British English; windshields, which are “windscreens” in British English, and trucks, which are “lorries” in British English.
Canada is the United States’ frigid northern neighbor, and its variety of English is quite similar to that of the United States. The best-known feature of the Canadian accent is their pronunciation of “ow” sounds — such as those in “about” or “couch” — as “owe”. Therefore, “about” sounds like “a boat”, and “couch” sounds like “coach”.
If you really want to sound like a Canadian, occasionally end your sentences with the word “Eh?”. This word means the same thing as “Don’t you think?”, and is used abundantly in Canadian English. It’s a pretty neat accent, eh?
AFRICA: South African English
Image via Werner Bayer / flickr
We’ll now switch from the Northern to Southern hemisphere, and visit South Africa. South Africa is a melting pot of cultures and languages, and its English accent reflects that. It’s influenced by British English, as well as by Afrikaans; in fact, most English speakers in South Africa are bilingual in Afrikaans. A peculiar trait of the South African accent is that they soften their “A” sounds so that they end up sounding more like “E”s. For instance, the phrase “South African accent” would be pronounced like “South Efrican Eccent”.
South Africa also has its own unique class of vocabulary and slang. Curiously, they use the phrases “just now” and “now now” to mean “in a little while” or “sometime in the future” (though “right now” means “immediately”). They also call traffic lights “robots”, and say “It’s a vibe!” to describe something as good or cool. South African English — it’s a vibe!
OCEANIA: Australian English
Image via Rosino / Wikipedia
Let’s now head west to Australia, commonly referred to as the “Land Down Under”. Australia is famous for using the word “mate”, which is a slang term for “friend”. However, there’s more to the Australian accent than just that. Most notably, hard “I” sounds in words like “mine” and “blind” are pronounced like “OI” — similar to “boy” in American English. Therefore, “mine” sounds like “moine” and “blind” sounds like “bloind”.
Australian English, like other English accents, differs based on the speaker’s social class and level of education. Wealthier, upper-class Australians speak with an accent very similar to Received Pronunciation in British. The classic Australian accent spoken by famous Australians like Steve Erwin known as the “broad” accent, and it’s used more commonly among those with a lower education level or socioeconomic status.
New Zealand English
To the untrained ear, the New Zealand accent may sound identical to the Australian accent. However, they pronounce their “I” sounds differently in words like “bit” and “sit”. Whereas these sound like “beat” and “seat” in Australian English, they sound more like “but” and “sut” in New Zealand English. This subtle difference can you help you discern whether a speaker is from Australia or New Zealand.
Test your skills!
Now that you’ve taken a global tour of English accents all over the world, it’s time to put your skills to the test. Try your hand at this free English accent game to see how good you are at distinguishing between English accents all over the world!
Indeed, English is spoken by hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and as a result, it can be quite different depending on where you are in the world. What variety of English are you learning? What’s your favorite English accent? Let us know in a comment!
The following post is from Paul, an English teacher who is based in New York. He writes for Language Trainers, which offers tailor-made English courses all over the world and online. Check out their website for free English level tests and other language-learning resources.
If you have any other questions for Paul, check out Language Trainers’ Facebook page, or shoot Paul an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.