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In previous travels to the US I had slight communication issues with people on the East Coast of US (New York, Chicago) compared to the West Coast of US (LA, SF, Las Vegas, Portland). It seems to me like American people have trouble distinguishing between British, Australian and New Zealand accents, and in particular the people on the East Coast have trouble understanding my accent. Is there any plausible explanation for this?

I also have the experience that many people in the US mistaken me for someone who is from England for some reason. I have no problem picking the American accent, but I am not sure how confident I would be with picking people from the East or West Coast.

I noticed that Australian friends also adopted a slight American accent when living in the US, and I wonder if this also has anything to do with being easier to understand or just adopting the local dialect.

This question should not be taken as a criticism or comment about people in the US, it is just a personal experience that I am seeking some generalization which may or may not be valid.

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I'm on the east coast and I understand Strayan quite well, mate! –  Michael Hampton Jul 23 at 1:25
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This has nothing to do with coast location just exposure to the languages. –  Karlson Jul 23 at 1:54
    
@MichaelHampton Whereabouts on the East Coast? I remember speaking to a receptionist at a medical institute in Manhattan and asking for a friend who was working there, and I had to spell out his entire name (letter by letter) because the person could not understand my pronunciation :p –  Michael Lai Jul 23 at 1:55
    
@Karlson Shouldn't people on both coast have reasonably good exposure to the languages given the amount of tourists? –  Michael Lai Jul 23 at 1:58
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@MichaelLai Is that everyone on the East Coast all 2000 miles of it? Or the West Coast all 2000 miles of it? Or is that just this one particular person? –  Karlson Jul 23 at 2:18

5 Answers 5

I occasionally talk to people from various parts of Australia. I find that there are different thicknesses in Australian accent. The thicker the accent, or the faster they talk, the harder time I may have understanding them.

This applies to folks from the UK too. Different accents or speaking speeds can make it hard for me to understand.

This also applies to Americans. Thick enough accent (Boston, New York, deep South for example) and I'll likely have to ask you to repeat yourself.

Non-American English speakers generally have an advantage over Americans when it comes to understanding the others accent: They are usually exposed to American accented English due to the proliferation of American cinema. The opposite does not happen nearly as much.

So to answer the first part of the question directly (why): There is a general difficulty for English speakers to understand other English speakers when an accent is thick to the listener's ears.

How to make it easier to understand Australian [or any] accent: Watch American movies and talk like them! Just kidding. Talking more deliberately (slowly, but not in a way that insults) and avoiding slang/colloquialisms will help.

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AHHA! As a Non-American native English speaker I have to agree with you! Twice! +1 –  Aditya Somani Jul 23 at 7:56
    
I am not convinced it has to do with "proliferation of American cinema". If that is the case many should be able understand indian english due to Bollywood. I believe it has more to do with the richness of the vocabulary of a person. The more (multilingual/dialectal) words a person know, the better he is in understanding foreign or other dialectal conversations. –  andra Jul 23 at 8:08
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@andra I would guess that there are more French-made, French-language films on general release in the UK than there are Bollywood films. We're very aware of the Bollywood musical as a concept but the films themselves get almost zero exposure in the UK. I doubt the USA is much different in that respect. –  David Richerby Jul 23 at 8:20
    
@DavidRicherby I didn't know that. I would expect with the large indian community, there should at least be some exposure. Anyway my reference to bollywood was on a global scale. A better reference might be that top gear and the like do has exposure in the US as well. –  andra Jul 23 at 8:28
    
@andra I'm not sure where (or if!) the UK's Indian population gets its Bollywood fix. And, yes, there are a few foreign TV shows (Top Gear and Downton Abbey come to mind) that have become big in the US but the great majority of film and television watched in the USA is made in the USA. –  David Richerby Jul 23 at 8:41

Understanding unfamiliar accents can be very difficult. Most Americans have never talked to someone with an Australian accent.

Personally, I've gotten a lot better at understanding Australian accents due to some Australian friends and a few trips there, but the first time I heard two Australians talking to each other (I was 21 and traveling in Europe) I could barely understand one word a sentence.

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I thought that Australians have been globe-trotting for a while, and would have covered a fair few areas of the US... As for Americans, I guess making movies like Wolf Creek is not going to help with tourism :D –  Michael Lai Jul 23 at 22:41

It has primarily to do with exposure to different dialects of English. The number of Americans who have traveled abroad is but a small percentage of the population vs Australians, New Zealanders and British. The USA is so large and diversified, that many American travelers have a multitude of things to see and do during their holidays in country without the need to jump on a 7 hour plus flight. And while many travelers come to the USA, the chance of an average American encountering foreigners is rather limited unless they work in tourism. And even those workers may only encounter the occasional Australian or Englander or any other specific nationality.

And as was previously mentioned the massive numbers of Hollywood films being shown around the world does give the rest of the globe a taste of Americanisms giving them a bit of an understanding advantage.


I edited my answer to concentrate on the OP's original question, as there seems to be too much argument on who has an accent vs non-accent aspect.

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I think the claim that Americans don't have an accent is not true, this is always a questions of perspective. What I consider a neutral English (as a non-native English speaker I have to add), let's say what railway station announcement in English sound like in most countries, is very different from what most Americans I know speak. Also from the point of view of a non-native speaker American English is often more difficult to understand than UK English (depending on the region of course) due to the fact that it's often less mumbled. –  drat Jul 23 at 14:34
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Almost all Americans have a very noticable accent! Some have a noticable but still easy for most to understand one, some noticable and hard for many non-Americans to follow, but all have an accent... –  Gagravarr Jul 23 at 14:40
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@Tom Many singers are forcing themselves into an American accent, see e.g. linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/2405/… and slate.com/articles/arts/explainer/2012/11/… ; the issue is rather more complex than you make it out to be. –  choster Jul 23 at 15:06

As a native-born American English speaker, I find that I have to 'tune' my hearing if I haven't heard a particular accent before or not heard it for a while. Let's just say that the first time I saw an episode of Taggart (Glaswegian accents), I understood almost nothing. Even after watching multiple seasons, there are still some words that I can't make out because they're slang, even though I can understand the accent.

I can now usually identify an Australian speaker, but still have trouble differentiating some Kiwi / New Zealand and South African accents, and that's after living with a South African partner for 8 years.

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Australians with a broad accent tend to omit letters from words when speaking. For example, mispronouncing "Australia" as "Ostraya", which ends up sounding like "Austria". Additionally, many Australians will merge words together, failing to clearly delineate between the end of one word and the beginning of the next, and make excessive use of colloquialisms (slang). For someone unfamiliar with Australian English, this just sounds like mumbling.

Contrast that with Americans who will often speak very clearly, especially when speaking with someone who isn't from their own community or is simply unfamiliar, and it's a recipe for misunderstanding.

I'm from Melbourne, and I had no problem being understood in the states, but then I completely omitted slang and spoke "properly" except with people who knew me well.

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-1 for the ridiculous generalization of Australians as mumbling slang users and Americans as speakers of the Queen's English with perfect diction. –  David Richerby Jul 23 at 8:22
    
Please explain all the downvotes... I am trying to understand the points being made and raised here, not trying to get into a war of words between US and rest of the world. –  Michael Lai Jul 23 at 22:42
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David's comment explains the downvotes - Americans are stereotyped as omitting letters and merging words together (eg y'all) and yet this answer asserts the exact opposite as truth and basically says Australians are hard to understand because they're lazy but Americans understand each other due to their diligent clarity of speech. It's both inaccurate (We all have accents and understand our own accents better than others; everyone uses slang; Americans don't speak more clearly than others) and rude. –  Kate Gregory Jul 24 at 14:11
    
That's fairly ridiculous Kate. Of course Americans have accents and slang. I was answering the OP's question, which was asking why Australians have difficulty being understood by Americans. The question was not about comparative use of slang or accents. I stand fully by my answer. –  Marky Mark Jul 25 at 5:23

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