Can people who speak other languages perceive English dialects?

I’ve heard that people from southern Japan speak a different dialect from those in northern Japan. I was watching an anime the other day where one of the characters spoke with a southern Japanese accent. It sound just like regular Japanese to me. So I was wondering of people who spoke other languages could perceive the difference between a say a New England accent and a Texas drawl?

When it is pronounced, I suspect they can recognize that there is a difference. Or at least, recognize that they are having trouble understanding one or the other.

My French is pretty lousy but I can recognize Parisian speech patterns as distinct from those of Gascony.

My Japanese is pretty non-existent but I can sometimes recognize a Kansai dialect speaker from someone from the Edo area (this corresponds to the South-North distinction you note, though even those who don’t speak a separate dialect per se (as is I think true around Hiroshima) sound a bit different to me).

The more pronounced the differences are (as perceived by native speakers), the more (I would imagine) outsiders can recognize it. I’m pretty confident a Tokyoite who’d been scantily trained in Received Pronunciation of English would realize something odd was going on when he got to Inverness.

Unintended ambiguity, when speaking about speech. Should read “when the accent is strong/distinct . . . .”

I can tell between a Western and Tokyo accent. But admittedly I’ve listened to a lot of Japanese.

I’ve even had a chance to rap in Osaka-ben. :cool:

I can’t imagine why someone who speaks a language wouldn’t be able to detect many regional differences. Portuguese is a second language to me, but I can clearly distinguish between a Rio de Janeiro accent and a São Paulo accent (not to mention the great difference between Brazilian and Continental Portuguese).
In fact, I could probably point out a few key differences between the two and any non-Portuguese speaker would also be able to distinguish them.

Of course, there are hundreds of other variations, and when I hear someone speaking different from the standard Rio accent I’m used to I ask my wife and she tells me the region of Brazil where the person is from. If I had more interaction with folks from that region, it would be trivial to recognize it.

I think the key is to be familiar with the words; once you are familiar with “normal” speech, differences stand out. It’s hard to hear differences in a stream of babble.

For example, there is a bossa nova song I have where the singer pronounces the first syllable of the word “melhor” (“better” or “best”) like “milyor” instead of the more standard “melyor”. My wife told me that this is characteristic of a particular region, which I immediately forgot. It still stands out, however.

As an English speaker with slight fluency in Spanish, I can detect very clearly the difference between “theist”* Castilian, Mexican, what I’d have to term as “Standard Latin American,” and Conosurese. But I doubt I’d be able to tell a Colombian from a Costa Rican. My hunch is that it would be fairly easy for a ESL person to tell Maggie Thatcher, Nancy Reagan, and Ann Richards apart from their speech patterns, but perhaps not to distinguish between two senators from two different Midwest or Mountain states, or, say the Brooklyn and Joisey** accents.

  • A dialectal characteristic in this use, not a religious classification.
    ** I.e., from that part of New Jersey that adopted the er>/oi/ sound shift and related dialectal characteristics.

Slight fluency is a very unique condition! :slight_smile:

As to the OP, it’s obviously a continuum. The more exposed you are to the language, the more nuances you’ll be able to detect. And keep in mind that many native English speakers struggle with detecting accent differences in Enlgish. I’m not so amazed anymore when my Californian friends speak of an “east coast accent” because they can’t distinguish a Bostonian from a New Yorker, but it still boggles my mind that so many Americans can’t distinquish an Australian from a Brit.

Although Spanish is my second language, I generally can. Castilian Spanish and that of the Cono Sur, as you note, is quite easy to pick out. “Caribbean” dialects, including Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Panamanian, and coastal Colombian are also pretty different from, say, Altiplano Spanish. While I may not be able to pinpoint where someone is from as precisely as a native speaker, I can usually tell when the accent is different.

Sure they can. It’s harder for people whose language doesn’t have many sounds in it, which is why the inclusion of Japanese is actually pretty apt, but someone with a decent ear can start picking out accents pretty quickly, even if they aren’t really that fluent in the language.

I live pretty close to Tokyo, which is the standard for Japanese, so I don’t get exposed to many odd accents. Even in my area, though, there are some funny little word choices and pronunciations that can sometimes narrow down the speaker’s area to a specific town or village if you pay attention.

My Spanish has seriously deteriorated from non-use, but from recent exposure on a vacation last year, I can tell a Madrid from a Barcelona accent, Cuban is way easy to spot, and a Uruguayan roommate provided enough input for me to pick out someone from that general area, though I probably couldn’t tell his accent from an Argentinean’s very easily.

Hell, I don’t speak any German worth mentioning, but knowing that people in the north use a uvular /r/ and that those in the south are more likely to use an alveolar /r/, I can hazard a guess as to what part of Germany someone comes from. (Not quite the same thing, but I met a guy whose accent in English was germanic but not quite right for standard German. Turned out that he was from Switzerland.) If I actually studied German I’m pretty sure I’d be able to pick up a lot of differences pretty quickly.

I have a friend who is a Hindi speaker in India. He is eager to learn English. He told me he would like to move to Nebraska because he likes their accents. He doesn’t like my family’s California accent. Honestly, he seems better attuned to American accents than I am.

The difference between Japanese dialects is primarily of verb forms and vocabulary rather than pronunciation, so there’d be nothing to notice if you didn’t understand the language.

German dialects can be so different as to be almost separate, albeit closely related, related languages. Everyone through the German speaking countries does speak High German, the sort of German foreigners might study in school, but most regions also have their own dialects. Up north and westward you have “Low German”, a reference not to style or class, but to the fact that the terrain is low and flat unlike the mountainous regions further south. Over to the west these dialects become very much like Standard Dutch, and if you keep going, you wind up in the Netherlands, Belgium, or Luxembourg. To the south you have Bavarian, Austrian, and Swiss dialects. I would think that even someone totally ignorant of German could perceive at least some of the differences among the dialects, based on the fact that some of them lack very basic features of High German. For instance, the Standard German past-participle prefix is ge-, which has a definite impact on the rhythm of the spoken language. Some dialects, however, do not use ge- in forming past participles, and I can’t imagine that anyone would be unable to discern the difference, even if they don’t know a word of the language.

Native US English speaker here, and I can easily tell an Australian from a Brit. However, while studying abroad, I couldn’t tell an Aussie from a New Zealander, to the amazement of my flatmates. They could do so easily.

I spent the final semester of my undergraduate career in Rome, and, naturally, did a lot of shopping in the tourist-trap stores. Very often, when I would get a shopkeeper’s attention, he would say “Inglese?” “Si”, I’d say, “Inglese.” Then a split second later, he would say again, “Inglese?”. “Si, Inglese.” I would reply. This happened more times that I can count.

For some time I wondered why they would say “Inglese” twice. I finally figured out (after about a month) that the first “Inglese” was an inquiry as to which language I spoke, and the second pertained to my nationality. At the time it struck me as odd that they evidently had a difficult time determining whether I was English or American. Granted, that was after only a few words had been exchanged, but I was still surprised when I realized they couldn’t tell the difference immediately. Of course I’m older and wiser now.

As to Spanish, I spent 20 years surrounded by Tex-Mex border Spanish (Spanglish). I don’t understand it very well, and can’t speak it, but I know when the Spanish I’m listening to is from someplace else. One of my former co-workers was from Chile, and even when I couldn’t understand a word he said, the difference between his accent and that of the locals was like night and day. I have noted the same with other folks I have encountered from Central and South America.

Based on my personal experience (English as a second language) and my wifes’s (recent immigrant with limited knowledge of English), yes. At least for Spanish speakers, in ESL classes, when told, in a US setting, that “this is the proper English pronunciation” and you have rudimentary grasp of it, yes, you can tell differences between contrasting accents such as US Southern, British, etc. Regional difference in accents such as between, let’s say, New Jersey, NY, and Delaware, are not easily recognizable. But. Again. When I was learning English, I could start telling the difference between US and British accent. My wife is still trying to decipher the British when they speak. :smiley:

Boy howdy! All those fondly recalled high school years admiring Frau W____'s gams did nothing to prepare me for Wiener Dialekt or Tirol phlegm hacking.

Austrians thought I was German, and Germans thoght I was bavarian (They speak slower and roll thier r’s with the tounge rather than in the throat which I could never manage)

I was lived most of my life in upstate New York. When I worked in New Zealand the native Kiwis would imitate my accent by talking in a western accent, think John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence . They didn’t believe I didn’t sound like that.