An international student’s guide to British accents

International students may have a deterrent when communicating with British locals due to the various accents and slang. In addition, some local dialects may be tricky to understand.

“If I don’t understand their accents, I feel nervous and embarrassed to ask them to repeat again, so I will try to end the conversation or change to other topics,” said Owen Wong, a Malaysian student studying in Sheffield, United Kingdom (UK).

In the UK alone, there are many variations of accents depending on the region.

Joan Beal, 59, a Professor of English Language in The University of Sheffield, said: “Generally, those geographically furthest from London such as Geordie (Newcastle) and accents from outside England such as broad Scottish accents may be difficult to understand.”

Professor Beal: different accents would develop because people in some places were affected by contact with other groups. (Photo credit: Joan Beal)

Learning Through Accents

For the academic side, the accents of lecturers may affect the learning process of students.

An Irish lecturer from Sheffield Hallam University (SHU), Steven McDermott, said: “I have a very strong Irish accent, but I try to speak normally and sound English when I’m teaching.”

“International students should listen attentively and carefully when talking to people who have strong accent.”

“If I don’t understand what the lecturer is talking about, I’ll guess the meaning or ask for a translation from my friends,” said Megan Xiao, a Chinese student from SHU.

Steven McDermott (left), Irish lecturer from SHU believes that accent challenge is not a problem for international students as long as they pay attention to the speaker.

In conversation, Xiao finds it easier to communicate when she imitates the locals’ accents and styles.

“I found that if I adopt their accents, they will understand me better,” she said.

Accent Advice

Professor Beal advised for English accents to be taught to international students before they come to the UK.

“They should listen to as many recordings as they can to familiarise themselves with the regional accents of the UK, especially the local accents from the place in which they plan to stay,” she said.

The main differences of accents between North and South England (as provided by Professor Beal) are:

  •  The vowels in words like BATH (long in South, short in North);
  • Whether words like PUT (meaning to place) and PUTT (as in golf) are pronounced the same (as in the North) or differently (as in the South).

To know more about the British accents, take a listen to these short audio clips:

– Story, Photo and Audio by Tiffany Lau

For more information, refer to these dialect guides:
British Library
The dialect dictionary (Yorkshire dialect)

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