• Question: Why can I easily pick out different accents from the UK - e.g. Birmingham/Liverpool/Scottish, etc - but not for foreign languages? I know different regions of France have different accents too!

    Asked by tyrrellt to Matt D, Joe, Anna on 10 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: Joseph Devlin

      Joseph Devlin answered on 10 Apr 2015:

      The real answer is “I don’t know” but I’m happy to speculate because I’m in the same situation. I grew up in the US and can tell different US accents apart (mostly) but am poor at UK accents and useless at other English groups. I suspect it has to do with age-of-acquisition and familiarity.

      Your early language acquisition days have a profound influence on the way your auditory system hears speech sounds. As babies we not only produce the full range of speech sounds that humans can make, we can also hear those differences. So Japanese babies produce different R’s and L’s and can hear the difference and UK babies can distinguish the American D and T sounds (where Americans are heard to say “It’s like *hurting cats (it’s like herding cats)”. Around 6-9 months, though, babies get better at recognising the sounds used in their own language and start to learn that some of the distinctions that they hear are not meaningful so they learn to classify them differently. As a result, as they become better speakers and listeners to their own language(s), they lose the ability to hear some of the subtleties of other languages. So you’re always going to be better at hearing accent differences in your native language than in other languages, even when it’s the same language (English) but a different form (British vs. American).

      It’s slightly more complicated, though, because you can get better at hearing these differences with training/practice. So if you move to France and live there long enough, you’ll get progressively better at recognising regional accents. For most people, even with tons of practice you’ll never be as good as someone born to the language though. Personally, I think I have a tin-ear because after almost 20 years in the UK, I still can’t even fake a British accent well enough to avoid ridicule…

    • Photo: Anna Simmonds

      Anna Simmonds answered on 13 Apr 2015:

      I agree with Joe’s suggestion of age-of-acquisition and familiarity, with the latter probably having more of an impact. As a native speaker of British English you can detect subtle differences in the regional accents you mentioned, because you’re used to hearing them and also the geographical origin is often reinforced to you. You know what friends or celebrities from Scotland sound like, and you also know they’re from Scotland, which strengthens the link and makes the accent readily associated with the place.

      With a foreign language, you might be familiar with it enough to recognise it as that language, but not be able to detect the subtle differences in regional accents. As Joe said, becoming better at your own language means you lose the ability to hear subtle differences in other languages. You might not even be able to hear the differences, let alone identify them as coming from a particular region. But this could improve through exposure to the sounds.

      This youtube video is a great example of how we can identify specific languages on their sound alone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybcvlxivscw