Why do Americans have more difficulty understanding some accents more than others? There are many reasons for this, but it’s primarily due to a speaker carrying over the sounds and patterns of their native tongue to the second language.
The more similar the sound system is between two languages, the easier it is to understand as the sounds are carried over to the second language. While we share the same alphabet, production of some sounds vary, and some vowels may not exist in the native tongue. For example, Spanish only uses 5 vowels (though 2 may be combined). The i in it does not occur in Spanish, and Spanish speakers usually substitute their native vowel as in eat. American English has the same vowel letters (plus y) but we produce them quite differently to increase the number of vowel productions. So the ‘a’ in fat is produced differently than a in fate or about.
To the American ear, many of the more eastern European languages sound harsh, guttural or slightly staccato. French and Italian may sound somewhat sexy, but may not be easier to understand. Since Italian, Japanese and Korean have many vowels at the ends of words, they may add a vocalic syllable to American English productions
American English has a preponderance of words that end in consonants, including our grammatical endings. Often the consonant endings are in clusters, such as most or finds. If the speaker is coming from a language that has few final consonants, they typically encounter difficulty producing these. Chinese languages have few consonants at the ends of words, and they have a tendency to omit the final consonants in English, which impacts grammatical endings.
Resonance, rate and vowel production differences also influence our understanding of accented speech. Many countries teach English (British or American) to their students. While proficient in English, they generally maintain the resonance and vowel production of their native tongue, and their rate of speech may be too fast for Americans to comprehend due to this proficiency.
But the problem is complicated because the listener plays a part in communicating. Those from more rural areas who may not have much experience with non- native speakers are often confused and overwhelmed by the foreign-ness of the situation. They may listen with half an ear while thinking Yikes, an accent! There are those with prejudices who may not wish to put in any effort to understand an ESL speaker. They most likely are tuning out the speaker. I recall working with a group from the USDA who travelled the US doing meat plant inspections. They came to class one day frustrated that while in rural Oklahoma they could not be understood when ordering at McDonald’s.
Below is an interesting link regarding accents and perception from speakers of various languages. Hope you enjoy it. Also, check out our Facebook Page for additional thoughts, and don’t forget to like our page!