Regional varieties of English

Did you know that English is an official language in 54 countries and regions all over the world? Amazing, isn’t it! And in no less than 24 of these countries and regions it is the first language, also known as ‘native’ language. The 6 largest countries of this last group are the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, but for example Barbados, the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar are on that list too.

If we only focus on the 6 largest English speaking countries, you will find lots of varieties of English because each country has its own version of English, with different pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and spelling. The most famous being the differences between Standard American English and Standard British English. Here are some examples: “water” in the UK is pronounced as “wotu”, and in the US they say “wate”. A film in England is a movie in the US. An American will tell you “he ate too much”, whereas a Brit will tell you “he’s eaten too much”. Differences in spelling can be found in British words like “colour” and “metre”, which are spelled as “color” and “meter” in the US.

This brings us to an important question: if you want to learn English, which version of English do you need to learn? It’s easy to answer for someone who for example only deals with clients in the US, but many people need a more general English because they travel all over or speak to all sorts of people on the phone. The best thing to do is to be consistent. Don’t mix different English varieties. This is especially true in exams: you have to stick to just one version.

However, communicating in English involves more than just speaking a consistent language. You will have to understand the different regional accents too. The best way to train this is by listening, listening and more listening. Watch English films (and movies) in the original soundtrack with English subtitles, listen to your favourite music on Youtube with on-screen lyrics, listen to audio books or look for podcasts on the Internet.

One very important thing to remember if it comes to understanding regional accents: don’t panic. Keep in mind that an Englishman from London has great difficulties understanding a colleague from Texas, just as a native Spanish speaker from Madrid has difficulties understanding some people from Argentina. But if both make an effort they will be perfectly able to communicate and that´s what language is about.

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