Tips, ideas and resources for understanding accents in English

We have been contacted recently by someone who is having difficulty understanding clients with British and American accents. Here you will find some advice, ideas and resources to help with understanding accents, focussing specifically on British and American ones.

The difficulty with accents

Accents!! They can be very difficult to understand and they can make social or work situations complicated. It's completely normal that you don't understand some accents. Even native speakers have problems with accents that they are not familiar with! The good news is that with time and hard work you can learn to understand any accent!

The main difficulty with accents in English is that there are so many! Within the UK, for example, there are 56  distinct regional accents. This means that there is not just one ‘British accent’ or just one ‘American accent’ that you will hear.

Here are two fun videos showing some of the different regional American and British accents.

What can you do?

Preparation

  1. Identify the regional accents you want to understand. This is really important! Try to find out where the speakers are from in the UK or USA. This will help identify their regional accent (e.g. Manchester, Boston, Bristol, Texas, or Yorkshire). When you know which regional accents you need to understand you can plan a routine of listening activities based on these accents. These will be your target accents.
  2. Unfortunately, there is no quick way of understanding an accent. The only way is by listening to the target accent a lot.
    • You need to adapt your ear to the typical sounds of that accent.
    • It’s better to listen to ‘real’ English.
    • You should create a routine of listening. Short daily practice is better than one long session once a month. Be constant and regular.
  3. Find lots of different resources to listen to with the target accent.
    • Series and films - Write the following into Google: ‘Films with accent from Texas’ or ‘Series with accent from Manchester’. You should be able to find some ideas of series or films to watch. You can also watch with English subtitles to help you understand more.
    • Here is a list of films and series with different regional accents: Love Actually (various UK), Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (London and Liverpool) Billy Elliot (County Durham), The Full Monty (Sheffield) This is England (Midlands), Life on Mars (Manchester), One of Us (Scottish), MUD (Florida), Fargo (Minnesota), True Detective (Louisiana) Sweet Home Alabama (Alabama).
    • PodcastsThere are lots of English podcasts to listen to, but most of them have ‘standard’ British or American accents. If that is your target accent, then they are great to listen to. You can find our general recommendations for podcasts here.
    • Radio
      - TuneIn – This is a great website and app. You can listen to radio stations and programmes from around the world. You can search for a station by regions. This means that you should be able to hear speakers from your target accent.
      - Radio Garden – This is a nice resource where you can listen to local radio stations from all around the world by navigating the map of the world. Find the region that interests you and listen to the radio from there.
    • TED talksTED is a great resource for listening to real English. You can find speakers from all over the world talking about really interesting topics. We have created two lists on YouTube: TED talks with American accents and TED talks with British accents. We hope they help!
    • StoryCorpsThis is a lovely resource to use for listening to American accents. They record the lives of real American people from all over the USA. You can get more information about it here.
  4. Find a language exchange partner with your target accent. This is a great way of understanding an accent. It’s fun and totally free! The best thing about talking to someone and not just listening is that you can ask that person when you don’t understand something. Take a look at our general recommendations for finding an online exchange partner.

While you are speaking

  1. Keep calm!! It’s really important not to feel nervous when you are communicating. How you feel affects how much you understand. The best thing you can do is to take a deep breath, relax and remember that it’s totally normal that you don’t understand everything the person is saying.
  2. Be honest. Don’t pretend to understand if you don’t understand anything the other person is saying. It’s better to be honest and tell the speaker that you are having difficulty understanding him/her. Ask him/her to slow down or to repeat as many times as you need. Many people might not realise that you don’t understand and will continue to speak at their usual fast speed.
  3. Learn some key phrases and keep them in front of you while you are talking (this works best if you are on the phone). Here are some phrases that could help you:
    • Could you repeat that, please?
    • Could you spell that for me, please?
    • Can you please speak a little more slowly, please?
    • You can find many more phrases here.
  4. Keep a notebook. In the moment you are speaking to someone on the telephone write down anything that you don’t understand. After you have finished the conversation you can look for the word in a dictionary or ask someone to help you understand it. Here are some resources for checking words or phrases that you don't understand:

Finally, always remember that it's completely normal that you don't understand some accents and that it is totally possible to learn to understand any accent. We hope that these tips, ideas and resources help you. Good luck!

If you have any questions about learning English that you would like us to answer, please contact us. We are waiting for your message!

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