You’re learning English. Good for you!
What kind of English are you learning?
If you don’t know the answer to that, you might want to learn more about English dialects.
Dialects are the ways a language is spoken in specific areas or among specific people.
Think about your own language. Can you tell where someone is from by the way they speak?
English is the same way.
A number of countries are English-speaking: England, America, Australia…even Ireland and a few others have native English speakers.
Inside each of these countries there are even more dialects.
Someone from New York sounds very different from someone from Texas!
Why It’s Important to Learn the Right English Dialect
When you’re learning English, you have to decide how to learn. Should you watch an American TV show like “Friends,” or use the learning materials from the British Council? Your decision can make a big difference, even if you don’t realize it at first.
Different dialects can have different…
- Common phrases
- Differences in speech (pronunciations and accents)
Sometimes, they even have completely different words for the same things!
Now that you see how important this decision is, you probably have another question: How do you choose a dialect?
Choosing an English Dialect
It all depends on why you’re learning English.
Are you planning to move to or study in an English-speaking country? Are you hoping to get a job with native English speakers? Or do you just want to be able to communicate online in English?
Think about your reason for learning English, and it will be much easier to pick a dialect.
If you just want to use Facebook or Twitter in English, you can learn any dialect you like. Online, it doesn’t matter as much. (Even some native English speakers use terrible English grammar and spelling online!).
But if you’ve been applying for jobs in England, you probably want to learn about British spelling and pronunciation. If you know what part of England you want to go to, even better! There are many different accents and ways of talking in just this one little island country.
Why Listen to English Dialects?
Lucky for you, there are lots of different resources you can use to hear how people speak all over the world. Hearing the different ways of speaking can be very interesting. It can also be very useful.
- It can be difficult to understand a dialect if you aren’t familiar with it already.
- Listening to people talk naturally teaches you how people actually speak, and not just how they’re “supposed” to.
- You can feel more confident about how you speak English from listening to the different ways English is spoken around the world.
You’re ready to start your trip through different English dialects and accents! Read the suggestions below for some great websites, TV shows and podcasts that will help you learn dialects.
If you want to read along as you listen to dialects, FluentU offers a great selection of movie and TV clips along with transcripts. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Websites for Listening to English Dialects Online
The International Dialects of English Archive (or IDEA) is a website with a huge amount of recordings from all over the world. IDEA recorded people reading a short story that was written specifically for hearing the different ways people pronounce sounds in the English language.
On IDEA, you can listen to dialects by country, residence (where someone lives), gender or age. You can hear native English speakers of all kinds. You can even hear how someone sounds when they’re born in one place but move to a different place later. Browse around and learn about all the wonderful ways people speak English!
The Dialect Blog looks at how people speak in areas of America, England and Ireland. You can find a specific area you’re interested in and find out what kind of dialect that area has.
The explanations may be difficult to understand for anyone who isn’t a linguist (someone who studies languages), but it’s a great place to find out what makes each dialect different.
For example, you can learn that people from New England (the Northeastern states of America) often don’t pronounce the “r” sound at the ends of words. So the word “car” sounds more like “cah.”
The blog also has links to examples of the accents in use, so you can hear the differences between all the dialects.
The British Library has a great collection of recordings from different parts of the country. Each recording has people talking the way they normally talk, so you get to hear phrases used in everyday conversation.
Every recording also has some explanation about what makes that dialect unique. So if you’re not sure what to listen for, reading the explanation can help you hear the differences in speech.
If you’re more interested in American or Australian dialects, you can find them in the Speech and Accent Archive. Here, you can listen to the accents of people all over the world as they speak a phrase.
So far, you’ve heard how native English speakers pronounce their English. But what about people who learned English as a second language? How you speak English has as much to do with where you’re from as where you live now.
The “Celebration of Dialects and Accents” on LibriVox is a collection of 35 voices reading a passage. It lets you hear people speaking English with different accents. You can hear native English speakers from various countries, but you can also hear accents from people who are English learners.
English is a Germanic language—it’s part of a group of languages. Other Germanic languages include German, Dutch and Yiddish. Sound Comparison is a fun website that shows you how different (or similar) English is to other Germanic languages.
It’s interesting to hear how one word can sound so different in languages that are closely related. Choose a word. Then, move over a bubble on the Sound Comparison map to hear the word spoken by someone in that area. They might sound different, but can you also hear the similarities?
English Dialects in TV Shows and Movies
The above websites can help you hear different dialects, but they are limited to short samples. If you really want to hear a dialect used naturally, try watching TV shows and movies from the area you’re interested in.
“Friends” (which we mentioned above) is good for the New York accent. Nancy Donovan on the show “30 Rock” has a Boston accent. New York and Boston are actually very close to each other, but with very different pronunciations!
You can find a list of shows and movies with different American accents on TV Tropes.
“Downton Abbey” is great for hearing proper British accents. You can hear that the difference comes not just from location but also social status (how much money and what kind of job you have).
A show set in today’s time, like “The IT Crowd,” is even better. This show has more realistic and modern speech, and it also has different dialects. (One of the characters is Irish, for example).
Many shows mix dialects and accents. The great drama “Lie To Me” has a main character who is British, for instance.
The similarly excellent show “Leverage” has characters from all over the world. In this show, you can hear accents that range from the American South to Britain.
Keep in mind that some actors use fake accents. One example is Gillian Anderson (famous for the X-Files). She’s American, but uses a thick British accent in the Netflix show “The Fall.” Fake accents can be fun to try to copy. But if you want an authentic (real) dialect, you can check where an actor is from on IMDb.
Podcasts and Audiobooks
If you listen to podcasts or audiobooks to learn English, you can probably find a reader who uses the dialect you’re interested in.
Some audiobooks even have more than one reader. A good example is Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass.” This audiobook is read by the author, but also has a separate person reading what each character says.
Podcasts are another great way to hear different dialects. The speech on podcasts tends to be more natural and conversational. To listen to Australian dialects, you can look around the Oz Podcasts website. For a list of British podcasts, check out the British Podcast Awards.
Podcasts can be about anything, so you can easily find one that interests you. Maybe you like hearing about interesting facts, like on 99% Invisible. Or you can even hear a podcast about horses. There are many lists of excellent podcasts you might love. There’s one you can look at from Complex, and another from Entertainment Weekly.
Now you know a lot more about how English is spoken all over the world.
Which dialect are you most interested in listening to?
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.