Thick American accents and foreign language

Are there American accents that prevent you from understanding someone speaking your native language?

For example I’ve run into a few Indians(South Asians) that are hard to understand when speaking English.

Are you asking if anyone has trouble understanding certain types of American accents or if people with those accents find it hard to understand other English speakers?

Certain English as a second language speakers are hard to understand because of their accents. I’m asking if this is common with other languages like an African immigrant who speaks French to native speakers.

I think the intent of the OP was to ask, for example, if someone speaking French with a heavy New York City accent is difficult to understand for a native speaker of French.

Accents that are unlike your own, and are unfamiliar to you, can be hard to understand. There is really not much more that can usefully be said about it. Intelligibility depends on what the hearer is used to. It will be different for other people with different accents of their own, and different experience with other accents.

Please take this as the amused observation it is intended as and in no way as a jibe, but I kid you not, as I read this, I heard Apu’s voice.

The word “accent” is used in English (except among language specialists) to mean two completely different things.

One is regional accent: the pronunciation and speech patterns of native speakers (in this case, native speakers of English) which is particular to the place where they grew up – e.g., “New York”, or “Deep South”, or “Australia”, or “Malaysia” (yes, there are English-as-first-language speakers in Malaysia).

The other is what language specialists prefer to call interference. This is what happens when the sounds and intonations of one’s first (native) language affect the way they pronounce a second language – that is, a language learned later in life.

If the OP is asking if certain English regional accents make it more difficult for an English-as-second-language learner to speak English with reduced interference – for example, if a Chinese speaker learns English in Brooklyn as opposed to learning it in Alabama – then the answer is generally “no”. I suppose a few sounds here and there might work this way, though…for example, a native Chinese speaker might find rhotic American or Irish regional accents (that is, where the “r” is fully pronounced in all contexts) a bit easier to “perfect” than a native Japanese speaker would, simply because Mandarin Chinese includes a sound much like the (Northern American) English “r”, while Japanese does not.

If the OP is instead asking if native speakers who speak with certain regional accents have more difficulty reducing interference when they learn a second language than others, then again, the answer is generally “no” – although, just as in the previous example, there could be a few sounds here and there which might be a bit harder for some than for others, like a northern American or Irish person having a slightly easier time nailing down the Mandarin Chinese “r”-like sound, because their regional accent of English happens to be rhotic, while a standard British or Australian or southern US English speaker might have a little more trouble with that particular sound in that particular language.

I’m not certain I understand your question so forgive me if this is irrelevant, but English is a very common language in India. It’s an official language and is used a lot in business. My theory is that is why it’s often especially hard to understand Indians speaking English - some combination of it being a second language to them while being used enough between Indians that they don’t learn to speak English with a British or American accent.

Anyway, the point is that maybe Indians aren’t a good example for your question since English isn’t exactly a foreign language in India in the same way that Hindi is a foreign language in the US.

To clarify, my second example should read “If the OP is instead asking if native English speakers who speak with certain regional accents have more difficulty reducing interference when they learn a second language than others…”

Also, with regards to Indian (South Asian) Englishes, it’s sometimes hard to tell where to draw the line between interference and regional accent. Because English has been spoken as a second language by so many people there for so long, it has developed its own pronunciations and speech patterns, so that there is a “correct” way to speak “Indian English” (several correct ways, actually, depending on things like social class, and which part of India), just like any other regional accent (Brooklyn, etc.), even if you might have trouble understanding it.

Interference in second language speakers is one important way that languages change over time. Scholars debate, for example, the degree to which native proto-Danish speakers who moved to the British Isles in the 8th century or so (IIRC) influenced the grammar and pronunciation of English as the language evolved – their children spoke English as a first language, but spoke to their parents with a Danish “accent” (interference).

I speak Spanish and Japanese. The answer to your question may be that it depends on the language.

For example, I know a few people with very pronounced Southern American accents who, when they attempt to speak Spanish, do so with their Southern American accent. It is very disconcerting. On the other hand, I know a guy with a heavy Southern accent when he speaks English, but who speaks Japanese beautifully.

It would be interesting to see if native Spanish speakers found their accents equally disconcerting. Perhaps you are unable to notice how *your *regional accent is also affecting the kind of interference with which you speak Spanish – I probably do this, unthinkingly.

Or, perhaps you don’t speak much Spanish yourself, you just notice the Southern US English effects on the speakers of Spanish you mentioned. In that case, it’s not so much the Southern-ness of their accent (even though that’s what you notice), but the fact that they just haven’t learned the language well enough to reduce their English interference overall.

I speak Spanish quite well and quite often. My wife is a native Spanish speaker and she says it makes her tired when she hears one of the people I’m referring to speak Spanish. :slight_smile: Although it doesn’t make me tired, I know what she means. Spanish is not meant to be twangy and drawly. :smiley:

I think I’m referring to interference as JKelly Map described it. I had a couple Indian engineering professors. I had no problems understanding one but with the other it was a struggle. There was thread on call centers and someone related that he requested another tech because he couldn’t get through the accent. That’s what it was like with the second professor. I know Spanish has a standard pronunciation so maybe interference isn’t as much of a problem.

You know what really helps when you speak a foreign language? If you try to speak with a foreign accent. Like, you know how Germans sound when they speak english? And you can imitate that and speak english with a fake german accent? When you speak german, try to speak german with a german accent.


Perhaps part of the problem is the Spanish (language) influence in the US. Place names and foods with Spanish names are common and most Americans will probably hear of fajitas or Las Vegas before they learn Spanish, which perhaps gets in the way of learning the correct pronunciations of Spanish words. Just another unsupported theory of mine.

I remember a report where the British in Afghanistan were complaining they couldn’t understand the Canadians at all in the CF units assigned to their command.

In Germany in the town (we call it town they call it city) had a firm from Manchester operating. In the bar their employees were drawn to me like a flies to a dead fish. I couldn’t understand anything they were saying (or as the night went on, trying to say)

I have a cousin who works with ESL foreigners (South-East Asian, particularly Burmese) who wish to improve their English fluency. Apparently, it does take a lot of plain old exposure to the new language to speak it well. He tells me that they can become skilled and fluent in English grammar and vocabulary, and yet their pronunciation is utterly unintelligible. His work (at which he has training and skills) is to teach them English pronunciation.

I’ve been told I speak Japanese with a French accent. (English is my first language, Quebec French my second, Japanese a distant third.) For example, I pronounce “j” as “dj” in words like “ha(d)jimemashite” (“nice to meet you”). I’ve been told it’s cute and pleasant, though my hosts might have just been being polite. :slight_smile:

Well I am slightly offended, actually. I can assure you that I am nothing like Apu, and, in particular, I am not any sort of Asian, and speak nothing like him. Perhaps your ridiculous and unfounded assumption goes to prove my point, however: people’s ideas about accents, and which they find unintelligible or funny, usually depends much more on the hearer and their experiences and prejudices, than it does on the speaker and the actual way they talk.