Sunday, June 29, 2008

accent deafness

In addition to celebrating her half-birthday, Grover started (BrE) crèche/(AmE) daycare last week. It's the campus crèche, and it's really great, for many reasons. For one, it has a very gentle acclimation process--after three sessions, Grover is only up to 40-minute stays. For another, each baby is assigned a primary carer. We were assigned to E, and since the parent doesn't leave at all for the first session, E and I spent a lot of time discussing Grover's habits and her likes and dislikes.

When I got home that night, I told Better Half all about our day, and he was particularly amused by one part of the story: E and I had been talking for about an hour before she and I reali{s/z}ed that we were both American. BH is constantly bemused by my accent-deafness and will quiz me after any brief conversations with strangers who have an accent of the British Isles that's not the local accent. I've usually been paying no attention to the accent and have to take a wild guess. Now he's started saying "What was {his/her} accent?" after we pass people in the street who are American. (Even if I haven't been listening, I guess 'American' because that's all he's asking me about now. He never expects anything more specific than 'American', happily.)

My excuse for missing E's accent is that she's from New York State too, and when I am talking to someone with the same accent as me, I tend not to cotton on to the fact that they have an accent. It's that old "I don't have an accent, everyone else does" syndrome, that's so faulty, but so easily slipped into. (The only problem with this theory is that she's not from the same part of the state as me, and so once I knew where she was from, I started to notice some differences in our vowels. I suppose I could use the excuse "I was too worried about the fate of my firstborn to pay attention to accents.")

I do notice American accents that aren't as similar to mine--particularly midwestern and southern ones spoken by tourists. Or loud exchange students from any part of the country--and most of them are loud (and plenty of tourists are too). They haven't learn{ed/t} to lower their volume when outside the States, and they seem to think of their conversations on trains and in restaurants as performances that anyone should be able to have a seat for. I think this has a lot to do with different senses of 'privacy' in the different countries--loud-talking Americans may be hoping that you'll join them in the conversation. But you know what? That's fodder for a separate blog post.

So, I often miss accents. I rarely pay any attention to the sounds of others' speech--I skip straight to the words and meaning. Is it any surprise that I became a lexical semanticist rather than a phonetician?

Of course, it's possible that it's not just me--maybe accent deafness is an American condition. We're fairly sensitive to some differences within America--e.g. north v(s). south--but the British are very sensitive to ways of speaking due in part to the connection between accent and social class. Some evidence in favo(u)r of American Accent Deafness: sometimes American tourists don't seem to reali{s/z}e that I'm American--for instance when they stop me on the street for directions or start up a conversation in a (chiefly BrE) queue. And I've also had the experience of Americans in the US thinking I'm British just because I have an address in England. While my accent has changed a bit since moving here, it's still very definitely American. (Maybe they just don't know a lot about British accents--but I don't have that excuse.)

I should be clear here, the 'deafness' is more like inattention. I can hear the difference between accent A and accent B--I just have to think fairly consciously about them to do so.

So, are there more tales out there like that of E and me? And is it an American thing?

52 comments:

Jonathan Shaw said...

My experience chimes with yours. I'm Australian, and have a number of times noticed that people from the US who have been living here for some time can't recognise accents. Most recently, I was on a plane to the US sitting next to a young man, actually Canadian now I think of it. I said I was travelling for a conference. He asked me how it had been, clearly assuming I was going home to the US after the conference. When I laughed and explained I was Australian going to the US, he said that after a year in Sydney in a fairly mixed student environment, he simply could no longer tell where anyone was from by their accents.

Koala Bala said...

On the contrary, I'm glad to know that it's not just me. A few months in Australia were enough to make me a tad deaf to dialectal differences in my native tongue. Of course I can spot my fellow countrymen (they'll be the ones speaking Portuguese here), but sometimes I think they're from my state when they're from another with a very marked accent.

Jo said...

Ooh, I don't know. I'm a US midwesterner, and I'm fairly attuned to accents, I think. Particularly US ones (I can tell Texas from Florida), but some UK variations as well. In a number of cases, I can identify the British accent and even replicate it (badly) but don't have a label to tack onto it. I'm can point to the half-swallowed Liverpudlian sound, the BBC Received Oxfordian sound, and at least one or two variations on Londonese -- I think.

I get identified as American within a few words here in Oxford. My equally American spouse tends to pass as "not from the UK but learned his English in a British system" much more easily. I blame his Colonial British grandmother for that.

CatBookMom said...

Somewhat OT, but is it common for AE visitors to England or Canada, or vice versa, to begin to unintentionally mimic some of the accents?

I recently spent about 12 days in Vancouver, BC, and fairly quickly heard myself saying 'owt' as the Canadians do, and even using 'eh?'. I've lived all over the Mid- and Western US, and I've noticed that when I go back to visit family in the Midwest, I shortly begin to sound like them, too.

I have to say that I can't distinguish between most of the accents here in the US - I can't tell Texan from Georgian, for instance - but perhaps I just haven't been exposed to both at once so as to tell the differences.

MikeH said...

I notice this, as well. My Brit wife is always pointing out Americans to me and I can never tell by listening to them. I have heard other American expats tell of the same thing. I think it's because, having been here so long, the British accent sounds 'normal' to me but so does an American accent. So when I hear either a local British accent or an American accent, I don't notice anything unusual. Granted, a southern American accent or radically different UK accent (e.g. Geordie) will catch my attention.

jhm said...

How long would the speaker of any English variant need before his dialect could be guessed at strictly by his diction? I mean, say, via the written world. I wonder how much of one's identification process uses the accent as a secondary, reinforcing feature.

As for my abilities, such as they are: I can usually ID an Australian (to no further level of refinement [and I've heard South African correspondents which made me wonder whether they were from Australia or if these features were indigenous]), Scottish from more Queen's English from Cockney (other areas of the UK sound different, but I couldn't ID Wales from East Anglia from Kent from...). It occurs to me that what little exposure I have to different UK accents come from dramas where the accents might be similar to those US accents affected by actors in the US who sound nothing like what they should.

Sarra said...

I think I'd say a crèche is a place, but nursery is more analogous to "daycare" in your sentence -

*started crèche
started nursery
started daycare
I dropped my daughter off at the crèche
?I dropped my daughter off at nursery

I have to stop at this point as I need a cup of tea - I'm having dialect blindness and forgetting what sounds "right" to me!

(BrE comment in case you hadn't already guessed!)

lynneguist said...

Sarra--thanks for that. BH (BrE speaker) is saying 'started creche' too (he checked this entry before I posted it)--but this probably has more to do with newness to parenting than dialect!

Jo & JHM, what dialects you can tell apart is a different issue than whether you always notice when someone is speaking in those dialects, though. You'll only know if you're not noticing if there is someone there to point out to you that you've not noticed it, so it's a difficult thing to self-report about.

bill said...

A similar thought to this occurred to me through reading this blog, watching BBC America and re-reading "The Secret Garden" fairly recently.
I don't know about accent deafness per se, especially when it referrs to hearing your accent in an out of context place, but it really seems that accents mean a whole lot more in the UK than they do here. Especially when it comes to self awareness of an accent.
In the Secret Garden, there are a few scenes where those speaking with a Yorkshire accent are very aware of their accent and know to modify things for Mary. (of course, this being a work of fiction, I don't know how accurate it is.)
Whereas in the US, that sort of thing is much rarer...as evidenced by the "Two Yutes" scene in "My Cousin Vinny" Sure that scene is a hightened example, but I have seen that sort of thing happen more than once in real life, especially being from New England. (My second grade teacher was not from Mass. and yelled at all of us for saying "Rulah" Of course we all had no idea what she was talking about, as we all began saying "Ruler" to ourselves with no hint of accent.)

Of course, the readers of this blog are a bit more attuned to accents than the average person, so you may not have it happen personally, but I am sure you have come across this sort of thing.

So maybe Accent deafness is much more prevalent for an American in general?

Cathy said...

This happened to me once while visiting Israel. There's such a huge variation in accents and English speaking ability and I end up concentrating so hard on understanding the words. I once spent a good 10 minutes with someone who had moved to Tel-Aviv after being raised in Michigan before I figured out that she was actually American and I wasn't struggling to understand her.

I am hopeless with accents English accents from outside the U.S. Aussie, New Zealand, South Africa, England ... they do sound different when I hear them, but I cannot identify which is which.

I do know I cannot understand a word the Queen says. She sounds like she's got a mouth full of marbles, and Prince Charles is almost as bad. I admit I have also occasionally turned on the closed captioning when watching British TV shows. I have no problem with the BBC radio broadcasters though.

Isabelle said...

I think a lot of the problem determining an American accent might be what I've heard called the "paralanguage"--that is, tone, word choice, etc. I have a friend who lived in London for about 10-15 years, and now lives in Lexington, KY. Her accent is American midwest, or at this point, even a bit southern, but it's her manner of speaking that makes her sound British still--she enunciates her words in a more pronounced, clipped manner; she asks more questions with the tone going down at the end, rather than going up; etc.

I've lived in England and visited Australia and New Zealand a couple of times, which has completely confused me--I often mistake certain English accents for 'Strine.

Graham said...

Hi, not commented before but love your blog! Oh and I speak BrE by the way (that said, I sometimes think half the fun of reading the comments is working out where the commenters are from!)

On the creche/nursery/daycare thing, I would only say 'creche' if it was attached to a specific organisation and meant to be used by the organisation's employees / students / customers etc. In this case you mention it's the campus creche. Otherwise, it's a nursery.

Rickard said...

Hi, first comment to a very thought provoking blog.
I'm wondering if there is an inclusive-exclusive difference between the US and UK, in that the US will be more inclusive, so don't notice accents, whilst the UK will be more exclusive so do notice accents more. In the UK there is a strong desire to pigeon-hole people, and accents is a great way of doing this - ah! a Yorkshireman, that means.... (for example).

BrEng

Anonymous said...

Another place that shows the difference in how much accents matter is in something I once read about the show Coupling. Apparently, part of the "joke" of Jeff's character was that he is Welsh.

Not sure where I read that, but it is something that I doubt most American's get.

mamunipsaq said...

I had a similar experience recently, although with a completely different outcome. Let me first say that I currently live in Latin America, and don't hear much English unless it's with a thick Chilean accent, and I try to avoid that by just continuing to speak in Spanish whenever that happens, but about a month ago I ran into two girls from London traveling through Santiago. I'm from New England originally, so I'm not too familiar with British accents (and I usually turn on the subtitles when I'm watching British shows on TV), but I actually didn't even realize they were speaking English at first. Their accent seemed so far removed from what my idea of English is, that I didn't recognize it. I thought it was German or Dutch or something like that for awhile. Does that make me language deaf?

Also, I find it really interesting that I can hear a huge differences between, say, someone from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, someone from Downeast Maine, or someone from Boston, yet I can't tell the difference between someone from England or New Zealand confidently. All I hear in their speech is that they're decidedly not from North America.

Love your blog. It's really entertaining to read about all the differences across the sea.

Conchita said...

In my American experience, a creche is a Christmas decoration, the Bethlehem manger scene, with animals, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, etc. "The baby started creche" makes no sense at all. Your blog is the first I've seen the word creche in this context. Strange. LOVE this blog.

bill said...

There is actually a post on Creches already:

http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2007/12/creches-cribs-and-cots.html

lynneguist said...

...and you can get to that post about crèches by clicking on the link that I put on the first occurrence of the word 'créche' in this post.

[Thanks, bill!]

Michael said...

I'm an American who's been living in Holland for a year and a half. My main friends here in Holland are all from the various English-speaking nations. When I first got here everyone's accent was very pronounced and I could tell who was English, who was Irish, etc. Now I hardly hear any accents at all. Does it maybe have something to do with simply being happy to hear native English rather than dutch English?

Anonymous said...

Some of the commenters have mentioned that they couldn't understand people from a different English speaking country to begin with, but I don't think it's limited to just that. When I hear someone speak in an accent that I'm not used to not matter which country they're from I can very easily struggle to understand them. Today I heard someone from London speaking and it took me a few seconds before I could actually understand a word of it, but I'm from only about 100 miles North in Leicestershire.

Felix the Cassowary said...

I'm an Australian but (from my accent) so many people reckon I'm English it's not funny! Apparently I speak more carefully or something (but I definitely use Australian pronunciations of words, like "dance" with a flat a or "auction" with a short o, or flapping and dropping t's in various places like Americans do).

Anyway, when I hear real Australian accents on American tv shows it sounds odd but it takes a while to realise it's actually an Australian. On the other hand when travelling through London and Scotland I was able to identify Australians almost straight away, and usually they identified me too. I doubt I missed any. More Englishfolk mistook me for English when I was in England than Australians.

I once had reason to immitate an American accent around Americans, much to their myrth. Since then I've even been able to tell Australians and English actors on TV using fake American accents --- we can never to the "r" right, it sounds harsher --- the Americans reckon it sounds Canadian, but maybe by "Canadian" they just mean "foreign". I certainly use "English" to mean "foreign".

KPO'M said...

I lived in London for 2 years and think I know what you are talking about. Though I could always tell AmE from BrE when I was engaging someone in conversation, I did get to the point where background chatter or passive listening to the TV became indistinguishable. I think it's because both sounded "normal" after I had acclimated to hearing various British accents. At the same time, I always amazed by colleagues by picking out Canadian accents. Apparently, Canadian and American sound the same to many British ears, while I actually found it easier to distinguish them over there then back home (perhaps because Canadians in the UK were less likely to "Americanize" their speech).

Janet said...

I'm afraid my own experience is completely different. I feel like my "accent" recognition has become even more sensitive since moving here 5-1/2 years ago.

When I overhear an American accent here in Oxfordshire (or in London), I'm often right on the nose about where in the US it has come from. And I'm rarely wrong when I guess somebody is Canadian - although I have to admit that sometimes, if not sure, I'll say, "Where in North America are you from?". (I personally believe it's worse to think a Canadian is an American than vice-versa!)

In our household, I'm the one who quickly spots an American accent. John (British) will eventually notice, but it takes him longer to do so.

Janet

Ginger Yellow said...

A post about accents and creches? Seems like the perfect opportunity to wheel out the old gag:

A creche is a car accident in Surrey.

Siubhan said...

I'm an American who has been living in England for 3 years. I feel that I've gotten better at recognising where people are from based on their accents. I think that many Americans just aren't exposed to the wide variety of accents heard around the UK. I don't think I've become deaf to American accents, but I have to be paying attention to how they say things rather than what they're saying.

Just the other day, though, my husband said that a Canadian that he works with told him she was surprised at how quickly he lost his American accent (which he hasn't).

bill said...

I think that the small exposure to accents in general, plus them "meaning" less in the US also explains why Americans don't have issues usually with actors putting on an Americna accent...because really, it doesn't matter that much.
But the opposite is very true in the UK (from what I am led to believe.) If an American actor is playing a character from North London, yet his accent is more South London...it is noticed immediately.

the_sybil said...

I think Isabelle has a good point, talking about paralanguage. I've noticed that (five years later) far fewer people comment on my British accent than they did when I first moved to the US. I still have a British accent, so am forced to conclude that it is things like vocabulary and tone that have changed.
Another interesting thing is my four year old daughter's accent. Americans think she sounds British, British people think she sounds American.
Andd Lynne - you are certainly not alone in your accent deafness. Mine is only lifting these days because I make a more active effort to try and notice people's accents.

Emily said...

I grew up in the Seattle area and then moved to Rochester for college (an accent which I've been careful not to pick up), and people in the States always mistake me for British. I'm 22 and it's only recently that someone's been able to explain why they think that to me. Apparently it has something to do with me over enunciating my words slightly, and the fact that I use a large educated sounding vocabulary and give off an impression of being a bit snobby. This seems like it supports the theory that Americans are looking more for behavior cues rather than accent per se.
And then there's the summer i spent in Israel last year where all the Israelis I met thought I was French or Venezuelan. (In both Hebrew and English.) That one still baffles me.

Anonymous said...

My first job out of college was in a small town in northern Georgia. One day I (recently from California) realized I couldn't hear the Southern accent anymore. I turned in my resignation the following week and moved back to the West Coast.

xcalibr39 said...

There's more to this than meets the ear, or the anecdote. It calls for a scientific study. There are so many variables.

Often I am told, when e.g. I distinguish a NZ accent from an OZ one, here in Florida, that I "must have musical ear." But my own (anecdotal) experience is that musical and linguistic parts of the brain are quite separate. (qv that Brit musicians may speak Cockney or Liverpudlian but sing American.)

Many years ago a (classical) musician on the BBC got PO'd at people who claim that only Italians can truly enunciate Italian. He presented six arias, of which only one was Italian, challenging anyone to tell the difference. I spotted the true Italian immediately. And I don't speak Italian!

So, there are musicians who are deaf to accents, and linguists who are deaf to music. (I think)

Reverting to anecdote,I was born in 1939 and spent my first 4 years in places as dissimilar as Frome, Doncaster, and Clacton. So, I learned three accents in my first 4years of life.

What did this do to my brain? (No Essex or Encino jokes, please.)

All I know is that I now have what I call the brain of a parrot. I speak French and German with impeccable accent, but not much understanding

And at this point I'm having trouble coming to a conclusion. So help me.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to agree about paralanguage too. My accent has not disappeared (SoCal, but 18 years now in England), but in order to be understood I have had to enunciate slightly more and use words and phrases that I would not have used in California. What is interesting is how many people say, when I go back, that I have an English accent; no British person would ever agree and I am often still asked where I am from.
And I too have met a few Americans/Canadians who still have an obvious accent but who believe they do not. I met a Canadian the other day who was entirely surprised that I knew he wasn't British. However, the first time I encountered an American who had lived here for some time, I was convinced she was British. After I spoke to her and she realized I was American, she suddenly changed to an American accent, in mid-sentence. She said she had consciously changed her accent because she was tired of being the odd one out in her social group. I still am amazed, because I can't imitate the accent for the life of me, and make my children laugh when I try.

lynneguist said...

What people are calling 'enunciating', I'd probably call 'losing part of one's accent'. E.g., it's not natural to pronounce /t/ as [t] between vowels in AmE, it's AmE to use a flap there. I'd say that 'enunciating' the /t/ = accommodating BrE, i.e. giving up one's accent a little bit, rather than just 'paralanguage'.

When I first moved away from home, and ever since, I've been accused of mumbling. When I go back home, the accusations die down. Then I read in some linguistic text (can anyone tell me which? I want to find it again) that a 'mumbling' quality is part of the Rochester accent/dialect. So now I see lack-of-mumbling as part of my accent accommodation in the UK (though many people who know me probably think I'm doing a rotten job of not-mumbling!).

Krista said...

Accent deafness might be an American condition, but if you're from Long Island like I am (with parents born and raised in Brooklyn), well, you don't have to say too much before someone asks you if you're from New York!

My accent is better now, but pronouncing D-A-W-N still gets me every time!

Judith said...

I am an American married to a Brit, living in the US. It took our daughters about 10 years to realize that Daddy has an accent. They knew that other Brits (including my in-laws) spoke with accents, but Daddy was just Daddy.

Anonymous said...

I'm English, but have lived in the US since 1989 (i.e since I was 22).
I have also found that I don't notice whether someone has an accent as readily as I used to, however if I do notice (or, more usually, if it's pointed out to me!), then I can generally identify the accent. I have definitely improved in my ability to identify North American accents, compared to when I lived in England, but am probably a little weaker in pin-pointing English ones.
For people listening to me, Americans say I sound English, but in the UK I'm told I sound American. I believe (and have been told) that the vocabulary, sentence structures and emphases that I use are generally American, but the pronunciation (vowel sounds, chiefly) is generally English.
Oh, and when I first moved to the US (Texas), I was frequently told that I sounded like I came from New York!

KPO'M said...

Janet said "I personally believe it's worse to think a Canadian is an American than vice-versa!"

That's certainly what most British people I met thought. I can't tell you how many people asked me if I was Canadian, or assumed I was. For the record, I don't sound Canadian at all.

Cameron said...

Can I just point out here, although I am amazed it should be necessary at this blog, that EVERYONE has an accent as long as they can speak. Your accent refers to how you speak, the stresses and the sounds of your words. However you speak is your accent, regardless of where you come from or where you are or anything else.

Sorry, but it's a pet peeve of mine.

Chuck said...

I'm an American (NJ, then CA) but have been living in England (Cambrideshire) for 14 years. I have become much more sensitive to accents since I have been in the UK. I can distinguish accents here in the UK quite well now (although I cannot always actually identify them by region), and I am now also much more sensitive to various American accents than I was before I came to the UK. My wife, however, is quite accent deaf. She is a native speaker of Chinese (Mandarin and Taiwanese) and learned English in California. For her there are only two English accents--those she can understand and those she can't. Interestingly, she has the same problem in Chinese, and is equally insensitive to accents in either of her Chinese languages. I am fairly fluent in Mandarin and notice Chinese accents as easily as I notice those in English. I suspect that the ability to identify accent is independent of whether one is speaking one's native language or a language learned later. Last comment--my English-accented children, like those of anonymous, burst into laughter whenever I attempt to mimic a British accent. However, I can mimic various Chinese accents fairly easily. That is, I can sound like an American who learned Chinese in, say, Taipei, or like an American who learned Chinese in Beijing. I have no idea why I can do this in a foreign language but not in my native language.

Anne T. said...

I just got off the phone with a friend of my husband's who is getting married next month and wanted to ask about a gift for my husband who will be in the wedding party. He, the groom to be, is from Washington State and as I was talking to him, something about his voice, the accent or inflections, reminded me of a childhood friend of mine whose parents are English, who grew up in Connecticut and who went to college in Oregon and has been living in Hawaii for the past decade or so. This friend and I have only talked on the phone at length, not seen each other in person for the past decade. I thought maybe that Oregon/Washington State might be the connection.

I've also been surprised to hear and recognize a Connecticut accent while I was in Santa Fe. I was in a bookstore and I heard someone at the register that sounded like a friend of mine back in Connecticut. I had to get up to look to make sure it wasn't the friend it sounded like. It was someone else I knew from Connecticut. (We'd driven back to Connecticut together for winter vacation.) I surprised myself though in recognizing the Connecticut accent, I realized that Connecticut HAD an accent apparently.

I've also noticed my cousins' upstate New York accent. I'm not sure how narrow the regions are with distinguishable accents.

Both of these first two instances are just with audio clues, which may be easier. I know I only heard faint remainders of my father's Indiana/Kentucky accent when talking on the phone with him long distance.

Speaking of my first generation American friend, when he said "anything" it was the giveaway that I've heard in other first generation Americans with British parents. It was pronounced more like "enehthing" instead of "eneething".

I moved about a bit growing up, and was traveling when I was 18 and impressionable, traveling for a year immersed in a slew of different English-speaking accents. I apparently acquired a lilt- the English thought I was English but couldn't figure out where I was from and when I returned home, people definitely thought that I talked strangely. I couldn't hear it, though, but was self-conscious about it and overcompensated back to American.

I know I used to be able to mimic accents very well when I was in highschool before traveling. But since being exposed to a mash of accents, I can't maintain mimicry of one accent for long - it begins to come apart quickly, though it amuses me greatly when my husband goofs off and puts on all sorts of accents. My family plays an interminable but fun game of dominoes called Mexican train. When we get delirious as the game goes on and on, it's become a rule that we have to speak with some accent. It gets very silly.

JaxCA said...

Maybe it's because I'm from accentless California, but I notice every little difference in American accents even though I always hated phonetics when I was getting my B.A. in linguistics.

But what struck me about your post ws your use of the phrase "cotton on to" -- I've always heard that phrase as "cotton to" (no "on"), but either way, no Californian would ever use that. Is it a regional American thing?

lynneguist said...

You do know that Californians have accents, don't you JaxCA?

Cotton to and cotton on to mean different things (according to the OED and me). Cotton to = "to become drawn or attached to". Cotton on to = "a) to become attached to; to form a liking for; (b) to understand; to get to know about; also to cotton on, to ‘catch on’."

Since I was using sense (b), only cotton on to works for me.

Jax CA said...

Yes, but if you think people can't hear the difference when someone from the east coast pronounces "Mary," "merry," and "marry," they really can't hear an accent from a Californian! Other than surfers and valley girls, that is.

So are the "cotton" phrases regional? I don't think I've ever heard them anywhere other than on t.v. They still sound southern to me.

lynneguist said...

Probably more old-fashioned than regional. The first example of 'cotton on to' in the OED is Australian from 1907, the next one is from D.H. Lawrence. Cotton to goes back another century still, with Dickens using it. So, no particular link to the American south, as far as the OED is concerned.

papamac said...

Coming to this discussion fairly late, so apologies.

Two separate observations: I think here in Australia, we grow up exposed to a large variety of English accents because we source so much of our television content from the UK and North America, and also have substantial South African and New Zealander immigrants. So, we understand and spot languages pretty well, I'd say. What's surprising though is that when you are watching an American TV show, you hardly take any notice of the accent. It all seems quite normal. You know it's American, but you're not taking any notice, and you're certainly not having any difficulty understanding. But, the next minute, you might watch a programme where an American is among Brits, and the American accent is noticeable to the point of distraction.

Second observation: I'm pretty good at French. There are vast differences in accent in French too, and it is easy to pick up the most marked differences (Quebec, the accent from the South of France). But I find it very difficult to distinguish minor variations. Reading your post, it made a lot of sense that you are so focussed on getting the meaning of what is being said, and to be able to converse, that you don't/can't focus on the subtleties of the phonetics.

Lindenwood said...

We lived in the USA for 4 years, and as Australians were often asked if we were English.

Whilst living in the USA, we also noticed that a lot of heavy regional accents (especially from the UK) would be subtitled on television documentaries. This used to make us chuckle, since we could understand them perfectly.

And the other thing we noticed is that a lot of UK childrens' shows are dubbed with American voices in the USA, whereas in Australia, we just get the original voices. It was very odd not having Neil Morrisey as Bob the Builder, or Ringo Starr in Thomas the Tank Engine.

Robbie said...

I'm fairly accent-deaf. But my husband -- who is literally 80% deaf -- is a whiz at accents. He can mimic any English accent from anywhere in the world, except Geordie which he says is impossible for anyone.

He was brought up in both England and Australia, and thinks of himself as mostly Australian, although he is actually British. His normal accent is vaguely Londonish, but as soon as he's exposed to anything Aussie -- just watching a wildlife programme will do -- the Australian accent comes surging up. Completely involuntary on his part, and he never realises he's doing it. Hilarious to hear.

As for me, I was brought up in the USA in a completely American Midwestern family. When I was small, I was teased by my sister because I didn't pronounce vowels like the rest of the family -- but I don't know in what way. When I was a teenager the family moved to Texas, which I hated, and my main preoccupation was to avoid picking up any trace of local accent. I then became a raging Anglophile and trained my ear to English accents, although I avoided changing my own for "fitting in" reasons. I moved to the UK about 20 years ago.

I don't think I've ever had a particularly strong American accent. My present accent must be mid-Atlantic, because I've passed for English in the US, but am instantly spotted as North American here -- again, often pegged as Canadian because "your accent is very mild".

Antillean said...

Interesting blog. I see that this post was made about half a year ago, but you linked to this post in your most recent one so I figure you won't have a problem with me commenting on this one.

I don't think that you'd easily find accent deafness among native English speakers from the Caribbean. We're very well-connected to America through TV and music, to Britain through TV and radio, and to places like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India through cricket (both radio and TV), and we can easily tell that we sound quite different from all of them (well most of us do...maybe not the Bahamians so much), so I think I can safely say that we can generally recognise when someone has a non-Caribbean accent and, usually, roughly place that accent. Though we can tell some American accents apart, we generally don't find the Canadian accent(s?) distinct from American one(s?). We can usually guess English and Irish accents, but Australian, New Zealandic and South African accents sound alike. (And they sometimes sound British.) India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are, of course, distinct from the others, but I find it hard to tell among them. It's generally the same for the African accents.

Now that I'm studying at the University of the West Indies it's a matter of pride for me that I can distinguish most of the West Indian accents. Before I came here, however, the only ones I could tell distinctly were the Jamaican, Trinidadian and Barbadian accents (apart from my own Vincentian accent, of course). I would be able to tell when someone who was talking wasn't from any of those three islands, but I simply couldn't figure out which island (or if Guyana or Belize) it was.

Having said all that, I have a question that's marginally related to all of this. When I'm watching American or British TV it's usually the easiest thing in the world to understand what they're saying. But put the same American or Briton in front of me and I find it much more difficult to understand them. This is more the case for someone from, say, New York city than California. Do you have any idea of why that would be?

lynneguist said...

TV speech probably differs from 'live' speech in a number of ways. The speech is often scripted, which means that the speaker is mentally processing it in a different way and more prepared for what's coming next. They're aware of the need to communicate clearly to a large audience, and they don't have feedback from that audience in order to gauge their receptiveness to what they're saying. You also have volume control on a television!

firecrasher said...

I'm from Baltimore (btw the "Bawlmer" accent is a bit of a myth, especially among younger people) and was an exchange student in the UK a few years ago and have been back a few times since. I was travelling solo in Yorkshire last year and it often took people a while to recognize I'm American. I'm softspoken but I was wearing jeans rather than trousers or skirts most of the time, which can be a pretty big clue as to my nationality ;) Perhaps I was a bit of a curiosity? I tended to get peppered with friendly questions as to why I was travelling alone so far from home.

Also, a few years ago at a party in London I ran into an American girl who's spent almost all of her life in the UK... and she would unconsciously switch her accent from UK to US when addressing me even in a group.

lammyl said...

I think I am very sensitive to accents, although obviously being English I am better at distinguishing between English accents.

Nevertheless, accents are something I always notice.

Growing up in one of the mill towns of the North-West, there is such variation in accent that I can easily distinguish and place the accents of all the local towns, even my own village from the local town, even though these places are only 3-5 miles apart. To a local, the accents really are that distinct. I can remember watching a film that was supposed to be set in Derbyshire, and the actors were a mix of people from all over the North-West and from around Manchester. To me, it really jarred, because I could pinpoint where they were from and it kept interfering with my interpretation of the storyline.

I don't know if all areas of the UK have noticeable differences in accent over a small geographic area. I recently did a course abroad with people from across the UK. A girl from the South Coast claimed that there wasn't much variation in accent where she was from, while a man from Yorkshire also claimed that there was huge local accent variation where he was from (the area outlying Leeds).

Kacie said...

Add me to the list of accent-deaf Americans. I can tell American vs. non-American. If the speaker says something completely obvious like 'y'all' or 'warsh the cah' I can guess northern vs. southern American. But that's it. Australian, English, Irish, Scottish, New Zealand, Welsh, all end up in the "not American but quite sexy" category.

Jeniakai said...

I had the same problem. After living in England for a study abroad for 4 months, I was so used to hearing British accents that I no longer recognized them as "foreign"--they sounded normal to me, along with American accents. I had to concentrate sometimes to figure out if they were American or British, which seems ridiculous, but that's the truth of it.