Don’t you know this feeling when you’re quite proud of yourself having studied a new language for quite a long time? You travel abroad to this particular country, you’re surrounded by native speakers and when you finally have the opportunity to practice - the terror! You can’t understand a word. People talk so differently from what you’ve been hearing for the past few months. It might be scary, it might be disheartening, it might be annoying - but there’s nothing to worry about! Today, we’ll show you how to deal with various accents and dialects!
But first of all, there’s one important thing to remember: there is not a single language that would be equally spoken by everyone, or that wouldn’t change with the passage of time. The way we speak is not static - it changes throughout our life, it varies between generations, where each generation finds different words or grammatical structures (in)appropriate. Every group has its own slang, every group can borrow different words or language features from its neighbours. There is not just one English but many Englishes. And this applies to other languages as well! What is taught in the coursebooks or in school is usually a literary language - a variety which is supposed to be spoken across various groups and dialects, a universal means of communication. You learn it in order to be understood by as many speakers as possible - and in turn, to understand as many speakers as possible. Not everyone, that cannot be guaranteed, but a fairly big group for sure.
With that in mind, we can now focus on several strategies on how to be better prepared for different accents and dialects.
Look for media portraying different accents
What’s a better way to start understanding a different accent than practicing in a safe environment - at home? You can use various media, such as movies, songs, podcasts, radio, or video games to get accustomed to different accents. Listening to radio stations popular in Glasgow can prepare you for the trip to Scotland, since you’ll know what to expect - more or less. Watching that film about the Wild West might give you a glimpse into Southern American accents (even if not all cowboys were from Texas, obviously), especially if you turn the subtitles on! Movies and films might be the best way to practice accent comprehension, because:
- you can very often check the subtitles or the script for clues on what’s being spoken;
- you can very often rewind the scene as many times as you wish;
- you can manipulate the video and slow it down a little bit, so that it’s easier to distinguish separate words.
And don’t worry even if you don’t understand everything straight away! It’s simply important to familiarise yourself with different manners of speech. After that, your brain will automatically adjust, as you will start noticing patterns. Which leads us to the next tip...
Look for patterns in pronunciation
Have you noticed that some people from London tend to not say the ‘h’ sound? Or that Bostoners don’t like the ‘r’ sound and very often skip it, unlike the majority of Americans, so that ‘my car’ sounds more like ‘my cah?’ Every person has their own way of speaking, which includes not only grammar or vocabulary, but pronunciation as well! Generally speaking, people within the same area tend to share some similarities, which allows us to distinguish patterns. Canadians often say ‘about’ in such a way that it sounds more like ‘aboot’, but it’s not to say that ALL Canadians pronounce it that way - there is simply a high chance that you might hear it from someone from the region. You can try to notice certain patterns in pronunciation when talking to people who use other accents or dialects. You don’t have to be a linguist, you don’t have to be knowledgeable about phonetics - you just need to be observant and try to break down the patterns. With time it might get easier! There are also various aids on YouTube - you can easily search for ‘How to speak with X accent’ videos that can give you some insight into accents.
Make new friends from different parts of the world
Apart from media, you can also practice your accent comprehension with some real people! There are plenty of apps and websites where you can meet new people from all around the world. You can discover new accents AND make new friends - it’s a win-win situation! Think of language exchange groups, where you can offer to teach someone your language in exchange for conversation. One of such websites is Interpals, where you can state on your profile which languages you speak and which languages you want to learn. That way you can find people to write to. Of course, writing is different than speaking, so this won’t really help you with understanding someone’s speech. But after finding new pals on the website, you can always change the channel and use Skype or WhatsApp, for example. As far as mobile apps are concerned, you can try out HelloTalk, which has a very cool feature - you can send someone a recording of your pronunciation. Why simply learn to recognise another accent when you can start using it in conversation?
Remember - you are not alone!
Perhaps you’ll find it comforting that you are probably not the only person struggling with various accents. In fact, even native speakers can have difficulties with understanding their own accents and dialects! For example, the Italian TV series Gomorrah is set in the south of the country - in Naples - and as a result features many characters speaking with Neapolitan accent or in Neapolitan dialect. Not so many people are familiar with the way Neapolitans speak, so even Italian speakers from other parts of the country can find it difficult to follow! Need another example? The Geordie accent is often named as one of the most confusing accents, even for the native english speakers from the UK! See? You are not alone! In fact, it might be even possible that your interlocutor is to blame, as native speakers tend to have difficulties with adapting to the others.
Focus on the bigger picture
Another reason why you’re stressing out while hearing another accent might be because you’re trying way too hard to understand every single word. That’s a huge mistake that learners often make! By focusing on individual forms and elements you’re missing out the bigger picture. Perhaps this particular word is not necessary to understand the meaning behind the sentence. Or perhaps you can guess its meaning from the context. Remember that we are not walking dictionaries - it’s impossible to know everything! Some words fall out of use and are now considered obsolete, new words can be coined but will remain unknown to the majority of speakers. Moreover, some people can be (overly) formal and use academic, sophisticated vocabulary, while others will use slang only. It takes some time to get used to different registers, so don’t worry! It can be difficult sometimes to distinguish words you already know due to an unfamiliar accent, but there’s no need to panic - just simply...
Don’t be afraid to ask!
It’s okay to not know things and it’s definitely okay to admit that! It doesn’t make you look stupid - in fact, it shows the other person that you want to understand them, which is very important! We communicate with other people in order to be understood, so most people will be happy to repeat the sentence or to explain unknown words. If you let someone know that you don’t understand them, they will try to find a common ground. Who knows - maybe if you just tell them that you can’t follow, they will slow down or loosen their accent. In the end, both of you will be happy, because you’ve managed to communicate successfully. And this is what matters the most!