English Accents and Dialects: Introduction
What is an accent?
An accent is the way words are pronounced in a particular social or geographical group. It involves variations in pronunciation, intonation and rhythm. Every country has a ‘standard accent’, which is the most common or prestigious accent in that culture, it is the accent that is used in dictionary pronunciation guides for that country. We talk about Standard British accent (which is called RP), Standard American etc.
Accents are different from dialects. A dialect involves differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and syntax in the language of a particular group. Standard English is the dialect taught in schools and described in grammars and dictionaries, but you might hear variations from native English speakers – these are not wrong, just different. Standard English can be spoken with any accent.
In the standard British accent the word ‘dance’ is pronounced /dɑːns/
In the standard American accent the word ‘dance’ is pronounced /dæns/
In standard British English the word for the piece of clothing that covers your legs is ‘trousers’
In standard American English the word is ‘pants’.
What challenges do accents and dialects pose?
It can be confusing and upsetting after you have learned English for years to visit an English-speaking country and be surrounded by people speaking in accents you’ve never heard and can’t easily understand. If your first experience of the UK is visiting Scotland, Liverpool, Newcastle or Northern Ireland, you might feel your English classes have taught you little.
Even if you’re not planning on visiting an English-speaking country, you’re likely to meet people with very different accents – native and non-native English speakers – in any international business or academic context. EFL/ESL exams like IELTS, the OET and Cambridge also use a range of accents in their speaking papers.
Accents & dialects signify belonging to particular social and/or geographical groups. So, there are certain stereotypes connected with particular accents and dialects. Which accents/dialects in your first language are thought of as more or less intelligent, or more or less friendly? This is one of the reasons why EFL/ESL learners are taught Standard English, which is more neutral, with fewer potentially negative connotations. However, no one accent or dialect is better than another.
Each accent reflects a unique cultural and linguistic heritage which enriches language and cultures. It’s important to recognise and appreciate the diversity of accents which contribute to English as a language of global communication, no one country or area owns English or can define which accents are acceptable. Understanding different accents will improve both your communication skills and your cultural understanding.
It’s not important for non-native speakers to speak in a native-English accent, but it is important to speak clearly in a way that others can understand. If you do want to speak in a native-English accent, it is probably possible, but not usually taught in general EFL/ESL classes. It’s more useful to practise clear pronunciation and seek feedback from others (and by recording yourself) on your speech.
Accents in EFL/ESL Exams
Cambridge exams, IELTS, TOEFL, and the OET all use a variety of accents in their listening papers. They do this in order to prepare you for real-world communication with a diversity of English speakers. However, the accents chosen for exams are clear and neutral, not very different from standard varieties. So, you might hear a standard American accent, but not a ‘Southern drawl’ from the deep south of the US; you might hear a standard British accent, but you’re unlikely to hear a strong Northern Irish or Glaswegian accent. All speakers in the exams will speak the standard dialect.
How can you understand different accents?
In order to understand, you need to practise listening to different accents (especially if you’re studying for an exam).
YouGlish to compare UK, Irish, USA, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand accents.
The Cambridge English Learner’s Dictionary to hear standard British and American pronunciation of individual words.