Can non-English speakers tell the difference between different English-speaker accents?

I’m watching my way through the excellent Netflix series Narcos at the moment, which has apparently drawn some bemusement in Latin America because the actor playing Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) is Brazilian and speaks Spanish with an accent that sounds nothing like that of a Colombian.

As someone who can’t speak Spanish, I have no idea what the accent should sound like - I just hear “People speaking Spanish” and read the subtitles.

But that got me thinking: Can non-English speakers tell the difference between the accents of someone from England and someone from the USA (for example), or between an Australian and a South African?

I know it’s something native English speakers can’t always pinpoint (a lot of Americans can’t differentiate between English and Australian accents, for example, and American and Canadian accents sound very similar to a lot of people’s ears), but they can generally say “You’re not from around here” - even if they can’t precisely identify where the speaker is from.

But how does it work for people who can’t speak English at all? Does it all sound the same to them - is it effectively the audio equivalent of [Speaks English] while they read the subtitles?

I can’t answer for people who can’t speak English* at all*, but in my experience, people I know in South Africa who speak it as a third or fourth language can still tell the difference between American and English accents, and can easily tell the 5 main South African English accents apart (It always amuses me that people seem to think there’s only 1 or two South African English accents, and choose the thick accent of Afrikaans speakers as the definitive one for Whites, and the Xhosa one seems the de facto Black English one).

I know we had a similar question recently, but the search function is being pouty.

To a point and of course it depends on the person: generally you need to be both pretty decent at the foreign language and someone who pays attention to accents. Also, being able to tell that two people have different accents is easier than being able to express how they are different, or than being able to identify which is the accent in question.

From the viewpoint of someone who’s currently learning a, to me, completely alien language (Japanese), it depends entirely on what exactly makes the accent characteristic. There are characteristics of accents that are independently apparent to even the untrained ear, such as the strong rhoticism of Northern English and Scottish accents, and there are characteristics of accents which require foreknowledge of the “standard” language to identify - such as Australians commonly saying “mate”, Scots saying “aye”, etc.

To clarify: it would be relatively easy for me, despite being a complete novice at the language, to point out a Kansai-ben speaker in a crowd of Tokyo natives because the pitch accent of the Kansai dialect is completely different from that of the Tokyo dialect - and I would have been able to do this with no real issues before reading up on the differences between the two. However, I would never be able to tell you that the little old lady who uses the first-person singular “ore” is likely from the Tohoku region without first knowing that “atashi” is the standard form.

I once had to translate some words** from English to English :confused:** between a Scotsman and a ‘Geordie’ (from the Newcastle area.)
They were both educated, but had strong (charming) accents.

It’s a matter of experience and exposure to different sounds. I can tell Plattdeutsch from standard Hochdeutsch, but that’s in part because the intonation is very similar to an English Geordie; I’d have difficulty distinguishing a Bavarian from an Austrian. There are some markers in French that I recognise for a Belgian or someone from the far south of France, and I do remember noticing some differences between Flemings and more northerly Dutch-speakers: but it would probably take a week or so to get my ear in, in any one language, so to speak.

An Australian friend teaching English in Japan said that he sometimes lost students after the first lesson because they preferred to learn English with an American accent. This was also partly seen as an economic issue - many had intentions of travelling to the US or working with American companies.

I recently had dinner with a Swedish colleague and his daughters were able to identify that my accent (New Zealander) was different to other English speaking people they have met (Brits).

I saw an interesting video the other day by a German woman who spoke English. She observed that while the German school system teaches the English language with an English accent, most Germans who speak English outside the school system do so with an American accent.

IME, most Germans speak English with a strong German accent :slight_smile:

More than that - something apopos to the OP, one can sometimes tell which part of Germany they are from - when they are speaking English.

One nice example of this is to hear Arnold Schwarzenegger speak German. It’s his native language but he has the same accent in German that he has in English. Hard to explain but I feel like it’s a neat video.

I’m English and I live in France.

Slightly off to one side:
I can identify the nationality of some non-native French-speakers (for example English/Irish/Scots/American/German/Spanish/Italian) but for others I have to lump together in an overly-broad mass (Eastern European/African/Asian) for example. I think this more or less corresponds to my capacity to identify the nationality of non-native English-speakers.

As for identifying regional French accents of native-French speakers: I’m not good at all (I can identify Parisien-ish/South-ish/North-ish and WTFIsHeBelgium-ish).

Sometimes all I know is that the speaker doesn’t speak with the local accent.

I’ve been told I couldn’t be from Spain because I don’t sound like Antonio Banderas; opposite ends of the country, so while I definitely have a Spanish accent, specially when tired, it’s different from his. And Argentinians definitely sound Argentinian in English.

In fact, I often find that people who can suppress their regional accent into “business whatever” in their native language have it come back with a vengeance when speaking another one. I’ve had coworkers who sounded more Basque when our meetings were in English than when they were in Spanish, for example.

Former non speaker here: it all sounded like noise to me and I absolutely could not tell the difference…

I’m reading James Hilton’s Lost Horizon from the 1930s. In it a French missionary nun in China meets an Englishman who has lost his memory. She says that he speaks English with “a cultured accent” in spite of not knowing English herself. She tells an English doctor who laughs at her and questions her ability to distinguish a “cultured” accent in an unknown language later but when he meets the man himself confirms that the nun was right.

When I was 17 I spent a summer in France. At the time I only had one year of high school French and virtually no conversation. Most of the time I was in Strasbourg, and I very quickly could recognize the difference between the heavily German Alsatian accent and standard Parisian.

I had to convince a non-native intern that there was indeed, such thing, as a Philadelphia accent. She thought that was hilarious.

I only know a couple words in Spanish, but I can pick out an Argentinian speaker almost immediately.

I think I originally learned this here: when subtitling the comedy Airplane for a German audience, “I speak jive,” was translated to, “I speak Bavarian.”

Another former-non speaker there. I could distinguish English and Murrican, but that was it.

Later, doing academic English test, I had to listen half a hour of some Kiwi speaking something about kelp. Thanks to Sid Meyer’s Alpha Centauri I at least knew what the kelp is. More than half flunked.

Since I live in the country from where Trump’s last trophy wife comes, I’d guess I have similar accent, but definitely not that obvious.

A year or so ago, I was walking down a crowded street and, at a distance of about 15 feet, I heard a woman speaking very loudly what I initially heard as British English. When I got closer, maybe about 10 feet, I realized she was actually speaking French–with British phonemes. I barely speak French incidentally.

In answer to Barett Bonden, I have twice been unable to convince someone that I grew up in Philly. Both had spent years living in Philly and refused to believe me. It is not that I speak differently from when I grew up, but that there are a lot of Philly accents. Strongest is the South Philly accent, which my father had. Then there is a North Philly accent which isn’t as strong. But I grew up in West Philly, a block from where my mother did and that is the lightest of all. But there are tells. E.g., the fact that “sad” and “mad” don’t rhyme.