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In this video, Lily Tomlin (an American) doesn't really understand what Kevin Bridges is saying at all with his Scottish accent. She also says she doesn't fully understand what Chris Hemswoth (an Australian) is saying either. Chris Hemsworth says that "he understood bits and pieces" of Kevin's speech (a joke?). Lily also says she fully understands Graham Norton (Irish accent).

I am a non-native speaker of English and I understood everything, this seems quite surreal.

What is going on? Has there been any research on this?

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    Graham Norton does not speak with an Irish accent here. He's likely to do so when he's back in Ireland. Also note that people like Kevin Bridges and Chris Hemswoth are native speakers of English too, and they don't seem to have a problem with the American accent. It's usually a matter of exposure. I used to have a hard time with French and Singaporean accents, but have gotten used to them now.
    – prash
    Apr 27 at 4:00
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    As a native english speaker (American) I can understand what's being said in the video, however it is slightly more difficult for me to understand than American english which I am used to. If you want to investigate more I would recommend looking up "thick scottish accent" to get things much more difficult. These two videos for example I believe very difficult for most Americans to understand (I myself can't understand most of the words): youtube.com/watch?v=luuA6bEoQIE, youtube.com/watch?v=pit0OkNp7s8. Apr 27 at 7:11
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    I believe the first (1988) season of the Glasgow-set comedy show 'Rab C Nesbitt' had fixed subtitles even for UK showing outside Scotland, but these were discontinued for the second and subsequent seasons. Apr 27 at 8:14
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    @MichaelHarvey as a brit, "thick XXX accent" is a well-enough known and used phrase that it's unlikely to cause offence. Saying someone "sounds thick" and depending on tone maybe even describing their accent as "thick" without specifying a place would be interpreted as insulting
    – Tristan
    Apr 27 at 9:24
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    @prash - to any Brit, Graham Norton always speaks 'with an Irish accent'. Maybe he softens it a bit for a UK TV audience, but it doesn't go away. Apr 27 at 9:38

8 Answers 8

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The first thing to consider is that this is a comedy show, and Lily Tomlin is a comedian. The second is that US speakers of English don't have a lot of exposure to UK accents, especially those most-removed from RP. Personally, I find the accent on Derry Girls to be sufficiently unintelligible that I have to turn on close captioning. Dialect-comprehension is a highly individualized ability, and it's invalid to argue that because you can understand so-and-so, any native speaker of English can do likewise. Still, we need a controlled experiment to determine if someone actually cannot understand, and Lily Tomlin probably would not be in the subject pool.

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    ftr I (as a Brit) wouldn't describe the Graham Norton Show as a comedy show (which to me would tend to imply either scripted comedy, standup, or a panel game). It's a chat show and definitely has a humorous tone (moreso than most British chat shows, which already tend to be more irreverent and humorous than US talk shows), but it's not like she's on Would I Lie to You
    – Tristan
    Apr 27 at 9:27
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    What does RP stand for?
    – Stephan B
    Apr 27 at 10:47
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    @StephanB Received Pronunciation - "standard", "posh" or "BBC" English depending on your viewpoint. Common in well-educated people in southern England especially
    – Chris H
    Apr 27 at 10:49
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    US speakers of English tend to have limited exposure to most accents not found in the US, not just UK accents, and to some extent may have limited exposure even to US dialects of AmE (if you were to go to rural Kansas and start speaking to a random person using a heavy Bronx accent, chances are they would actually have some issues at first understanding you). Apr 27 at 13:10
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    True story: during her freshman year in college, my now-wife, a native of the U.S. southeast, lived on the same dormitory floor as a NYC native with a heavy Bronx accent. At the beginning of the year, the two literally could not understand each other. Another student, native to the U.S. midwest, used to translate for them. Apr 27 at 22:16
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Lily Thomlin is a comedian. She's playing the supposed difficulty of understanding the accents as a joke. If you pay attention, she laughs quite appropriately to the jokes the others make. When asked if she can understand the other folks, she says she can't and makes jokes about it - but she quite clearly does understand what is being said.

Not everyone has the same ability to understand different accents. Some folks can do it easily, others can't.

Lily Thomlin clearly can, she's just pretending she can't in order to get some laughs.

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    I thought so, too, but I'm less sure when she keeps it up even when Graham asks her to answer "seriously".
    – Barmar
    Apr 27 at 13:26
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Note, the given example is from a chat show that occasionally borders upon being comedic in nature. Lily Tomlin and Kevin Bridges are comedians - Chris Hemsworth and Graham Norton are Australian and Irish (two nations that are stereotypically quite jovial and jokey). So they're probably just doing it as a gag.

If you also consider that most guests on the Graham Norton show tend to have a couple of alchoholic beverages during the show then that may account for a possibility of it not being a gag (or, more likely, them taking it a bit too far to be funny).

Now, with that out of the way; in the real world (not TV) there are plenty of examples of perfectly valid variants of the English accent being completely unintelligible to people who don't live in the same area (let alone different English-speaking countries).

England (and the rest of the UK) probably has one of the most noticeable ranges in regional accents when compared to places like the USA and Australia - purely because of how small those regional pockets are. For instance, someone in Croydon would have a completely different accent to someone from Harrow (despite them just being different estates in London).

In the USA, if you drive for a couple of hours you may not even leave your county - if I drive the same distance I'll pass through at least 20 different names for a breadbun (roll, barncake, bap, bun, cob, etc) and the price of a drink can change significantly.

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    I've often told my linguistics classes that there's more variation in English in any hundred mile square of England than there is in the whole of North America. They've just been speaking Englishes there for so much longer, and the dialects were different to start with; now they're more so.
    – jlawler
    Apr 27 at 21:26
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    @jlawler, reminds me of a story my dad told of when he had to some work up in Scotland. There were a couple of blokes from Glasgow, and one from the Highlands. The Highlander was a relatively quiet guy; but eventually he spoke up and said something. My dad didn't get it and looked at one of the Glaswegians, only to be met with "Don't look at us, he lives 5 miles away and we dinnae get a word". Apr 28 at 12:42
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    @jlawler - That's how languages work in general. Show me the distribution map of a language family and its family tree, and I can point to you on the map with a high degree of certainty exactly where the entire family came from.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 28 at 23:01
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There are numerous fields of research on English dialects.

A particular issue is that dialects change over time, so resources such as this one are very useful. Going further back in time, we are reliant on authors writing characters in semi-phonetic dialect speech, or sometimes on poetry where it is clear two words are required to rhyme. In *Great Expectations" for example, we know the dialect accents of Pip's area of Kent substituted "W" for "V", with characters saying "wery" instead of "very". Dickens used semi-phonetic writing to convey the dialect. This later allowed George Orwell to note in the 1930s that this feature of the dialect had basically vanished when he spent time in the area.

Regional accents within the UK can be highly localised. Ironically for a small island with no real barriers to travel, you'll often still find people staying in the town where they grew up, which of course makes sense when you consider that it provides you with a family network for childcare and generally helping out in emergencies. As a notable example of this, people in the Midlands (particularly around Staffordshire and Birmingham) can often recognise peculiarities of accent in each other which allow them to place each other's birthplace to a particular small town within a roughly 50-mile radius; although it is much harder for outsiders to make this distinction.

You'll often also find local dialect words used around the country. The British have a lot of different names for a bread roll, for one example popular amongst Brits as an opportunity for making fun of each other.

Because of this, there are significant changes in English accent over the British Isles. This especially applies to Scotland, Ireland and the Channel Islands, which have original accents deriving from the influence of other languages. The comedy series Rab C Nesbitt, set in Glasgow, was originally thought by the BBC to be too hard for English viewers to easily understand since the characters used broad Glasgow accents, so was subtitled. On the BBC, in Britain, for a programme in English.

The problem is compounded when you move abroad. The British Empire ruled a large part of the world for a time, and each area has developed its own dialect. There are distinct major groups of accents such as North American, Australian, Indian, South African, Jamaican, and so on, and obvious further variations between them when you look at places like North America. The problem becomes even harder for dialects such as Hinglish which freely combines two languages.

In short, yes this is a known problem, and yes there is a great deal of research on this!

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  • Interesting answer 🙂
    – Alex
    Apr 29 at 19:47
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A lot depends on who you've mostly spoken English with, and how close their accent is to your own. To my ears, at least, English with a Russian accent sounds more similar to a Scottish accent than to an American accent. They both are kind of spoken further back in the mouth.

I remember a conversation I had with a coworker shortly after our company acquired a German company. He had a very difficult time understanding them, but could easily understand colleagues from India, and I was the exact opposite. The difference is who we had worked with previously. Now 10 years later, both accents are relatively easy for both of us to understand.

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"Wa gwaan, people?" :) [clue: Jamaican patois] (I know, this is not just an accent, it is patois but it helps to make my point about exposure and experience.) I heard this in a TV series with Jamaican characters who kept saying it over and over. It finally hit me: What's going on. :)

Leaving aside comedy as mentioned in the question, understanding an accent different from one's own is a matter of two main factors:

Exposure and Experience. And also, bear in mind that vocabulary and phrases will probably also be factor. A third factor can be what I call "the talented ear". Just like with music, some people can hear and reproduce an accent at first hearing. Others might be accent deaf (like tone deaf) and have a very hard time understanding an unfamiliar accent.

Bear in mind, there are many, many accents in English and one must not forget foreign accents with a typical sound.

This phenomenon about understanding accents is quite difficult to study scientifically. One would have to do something like this:

  • Set up a native English control group from a geographical area to ensure they all speak the same variety of English.
  • Read or play a text for them in an accent in English that is not their own.
  • Have them answer a questionnaire about that experience.

Even so, I don't know how scientifically valid it would then be to make broad sweeping statements about "understanding other accents" on the basis of that type of exercise. Many of these types of experiments would have to be conducted, and cross-validated. The endeavor could be nightmarish as finding statistical relevance could be very difficult. I can imagine a situation where some Group A of English speakers could barely understand some other accent, whereas some other group, Group B of English speakers, might understand the other accent better. One's starting point would have to be clearly defined. In other words, for example, can a Londoner understand an American southern drawl more easily than a Liverpudlian? Drawing on comparative studies of accents might help here prior to setting up the survey.

In those three statements, one could replace the word English with any other language, and a variation of that accent. Think of a country like India. There are several hundred languages spoken there. This is an interesting statistic in that regard: As per the 2011 Census of India, languages by highest number of speakers are as follows: Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Gujarati, Urdu, Kannada, Odia, Malayalam. [Wikipedia]. Think of running an accent survey there...:)

The exposure criteria is crucial. Although one speaker may understand an accent, another may not. One comes to understand accents through one's lived experience of them. However, it may also be true that one can understand a new accent the first time one hears it. Someone who is used to different accents in their own language will probably understand one that is new to them more easily than someone with little or no exposure to other accents.

It's interesting to note that the BBC (UK) and PBS (the U.S.) sometimes provide closed captioning for some speakers in English they are reporting on in their news reports or video clips. Sometimes, these English speakers are from Africa or India, for example, where there are some very strong lilts (which can be quite beautiful, in fact.)

Anyway, accents make the world go round and so does comedy. The greater the exposure to different accents through travel, media or personal interactions, the greater the ability to understand them, as a general proposition.

A non-native speaker of English can obviously master English at a high level. When one does master a language at a high level, understanding more than one regional accent in that language should not be that much of a problem, at least to a certain extent but maybe not every nuance.

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I want to address things from the opposite front than the other answers. You seem to believe that non-native speakers have a better facility for understanding accents than native English speakers. However while it is true that some native speakers cannot understand some accents, and for extreme accents there might be a lot of people who can't understand, I don't think it's true that non-native speakers have a better facility for understanding, even if you personally do.

In my experience non-native speakers can have a difficult time with accented English even if you personally do not. I have a relatively mild accent. I have never had a native English speaker not understand me. Most non-native English speakers can understand me too but occasionally people with less experience will have problems ranging from slight difficult (could you speak more slowly) to completely incomprehension.

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    To me it seems like OP didn't believe that a non-native speakers can understand other more accents than a native speaker, and so feels "surreal" about this experience, and asking for research on this topic to confirm or deny or generalize or specialize. Your answer does well on the generalization and the specialization part by giving your personal anecdote!
    – justhalf
    Apr 28 at 4:24
  • @justhalf I didn't want to put personal anecdotes in to the answer but I was thinking specifically of a German exchange student when I was in college. He could not understand me at all. I would say something like "Do you want to go for a coffee?" and an English person that was with us would have to repeat it exactly before he could understand. The German person said that I slurred my vowels and my consonants together and that made it difficult for him to pick out individual words.
    – Eric Nolan
    Apr 29 at 9:29
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What is your native language?

As a native english speaker born and raised in the midwest, I have a hard time understanding him. I wonder if some of the sounds may be more similar to the normal pronunciation for the equivalent letters for the word in your native tongue. There might also be some unusual phrasing, and the quickness of the speech makes it difficult.

As an example from my life, when visiting a coffee shop in London I could not understand what the server was saying and she had to repeat herself several times and slow down. What I heard was "fair tegway". What she was actually saying was "For here or take-away?". The 'o' in For sounded like an 'a' or 'fuh' sound. The 'for here' seemed to be combined into one word. The 'h' and 'e' sounds were almost non-existant and the 'r' sound from the two words merged into one sound in my mind. The hard 'k' sound sounded like a 'g' to me and the first 'a' in away was skipped over. I also didn't notice the 'or' at all. Maybe she was actually skipping it until I asked her to slow down. To compound it all, that is not a common expression in the US. We are more likely to hear 'for here or to go?'

Listening to him again and again in the video, when he says 'I think that's why we die so young in Scotland", the "I think" seems to almost sound like 'ing' to me. The first thing he says is translated in CC as 'I'm certain to say the guy that's spilled on three and a half billion dollars'... That's what I hear to. I'm guessing what he really said is "I'm sittin' beside', but that is not what it sounds like to me. Also think 'spilled on' should be 'pulled in', but I can't tell if that's the accent or phrasing. Also I don't know what he means when he says "I've asked the same 25 copies"

So if pronouncing 'k' in your native tongue is softer and sounds more like 'g' to me, it would make sense that you would have an easier time understanding his accent than a native speaker.

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