What is an Accent and How Can I Develop One?

Akshat Biyani
Akshat Biyani

One of the first things non-native speakers often notice about English is that native English speakers pronounce the same words very differently depending on where they are from. While every language has its own regional variations, English accents tend to be especially varied and different from each other. Some strong accents, like Scottish or Irish, can be notoriously difficult to follow for someone living outside these regions. 

Regardless, accents are an important part of spoken English. Speaking in the right accent will make you sound like a native English speaker and let you fit in wherever you are. They have a great social impact and can help you connect to and work with local populations much better.

Interesting, right? In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about English accents and give you some tips to learn different English accents.

What are accents?

An accent is a specific way of speaking a language that is particular to a country, region, or city.  Accents differ by how words are pronounced, the tone of voice used, and the general flow and tempo in which the language is spoken. These characteristics make different types of accents in English instantly recognizable. For instance, the Irish twang and Scottish lilt are both accents that are immediately identifiable by people with a keen ear for the English language. 

Although accents are usually specific to particular geographical areas, there can be instances where people in regions far removed from each other speak in a similar accent. This is mostly because of shared culture and history. Accents are often looked at as a part of a region’s cultural heritage and are hence highly valued by its speakers. Catching on to the local accent of a place can help non-native English speakers quickly blend in and communicate more effectively. 

But is it really important for you to learn accents to be able to speak like a native English speaker? Absolutely! Apart from having social value, learning an accent can bring practical advantages like communicating better at the workplace and being generally more articulate in conversations. 

Consider this scenario: You take the time and effort to learn how to speak English fluently and familiarize yourself with the phrases, idioms, and informal expressions used by native English speakers. But without the appropriate accent, all this would help you a little on the street when you have to communicate with a shopkeeper or ask someone for directions. Being able to understand others and make yourself understood depends on being familiar with and speaking with the right English accent.  

How many English accents are there? 

When it comes to English, common accents like American English, Australian English, and British English are merely the tip of the iceberg. Over 150 dialects of English are spoken worldwide, 30 of which are from the U.S. However, are there many different ways to speak the same language? Absolutely. Accents are a fascinating part of the English language. Small geographical regions (sometimes even small towns or cities) can have their own accent. Each of these regional accents can be seen as a small tweak in the way English is generally spoken in that country. 

For example, the Boston accent is slightly different from the general American accent in terms of how it treats the ‘r’ sound and common vowels. Native speakers from Boston, Massachusetts, often drop the ‘r’ sound at the end of words and replace it with an ‘ah’ sound originating at the front of the mouth. This means,

Teacher becomes ‘Teach-ah’, and

Car becomes ‘Ca-ah.’ 

Similarly, the ‘a’ or ‘ah’ sound at the end of words is replaced by a subtle rolled ‘r’ sound. So, 

Tuna becomes ‘Tun-er’, and 

Idea becomes ‘Ide-er’ 

As for the ‘r’ sound in the middle of a sentence, it is usually dropped without any replacement. 


Park becomes ‘P-ak’

and Harvard becomes ‘Ha-vad’

You can practise using both of these rules in conjunction by saying sentences like ‘I want to park my car in the yard at Harvard’, which would read something like ‘I wanna p-ak my ca-ah in the ya-ad at Ha-vad’

Another interesting thing about the Boston accent is that the ‘o’ vowel between words is replaced with a rolled ‘aw’ sound.

This means that, 

Cloth becomes ‘Cl-aw-th’

and, Tonic becomes ‘T-aw-nic’

Sentences like ‘I asked ma to get me some tonic’ would read something like ‘ I asked ma-ar to get me some t-aw-nic’. 

Individuals with different accents may pronounce words differently

The Boston accent is just one of many examples of regional dialects that have developed in cities and small regions over the years. Each of these accents has a cultural and historical significance attached to it. The Boston accent, for example, is the result of large-scale Italian immigration to the region at the beginning of the 20th century. This is why the dropped vowels and rolled ‘ah’s in the Boston accent are so reminiscent of the way Italian is traditionally spoken. 

Different parts of an accent 

It can get confusing and even overwhelming for foreign speakers to tackle English accents head-on. Each accent comes with its own rhythm, pace, and pronunciation, making it sound unlike any other. A good strategy to start learning a foreign accent can be to break the accent down into four key parts - pronunciation, intonation, stress, and rhythm. These four aspects give accents their distinct sounds. 

  • Pronunciation: Pronunciation is the specific way in which a word is said in a language or accent. It involves how vowels and consonants are grouped together to form syllables and how those syllables sound when said out loud. Getting the pronunciation of keywords and phrases right is the first step toward learning any accent. Most accents can be practised by sounding a few phrases aloud. These phrases contain all the key sounds of that accent arranged in close proximity to each other. For example, the phrase 'A bottle of water' is considered to be great for practising a posh London accent.
  • Intonation: Intonation is the tone, or more specifically, the rise and fall in the pitch of a person when they speak in a certain accent. Intonation is the reason why some accents sound sweet and friendly while others can sometimes come off as rude. Different languages around the world have vastly different intonations. When natives from these regions speak English, they tend to juxtapose these intonations against the language, giving rise to a new regional accent. The best way for foreign speakers to understand the intonation of an accent is to listen to native speakers talk regularly in person or through podcasts and TV shows. 
  • Stress: The concept of linguistic stress can be confusing for foreign speakers considering that it overlaps with pronunciation a lot. The key difference between the two is that pronunciation is concerned with the emphasis laid on each individual syllable whereas stress talks about words and phrases as a whole. Native speakers tend to lay emphasis on certain words and clauses when they speak in their natural accent. Listening to these patterns and catching on to them will get you a step closer to being able to imitate their accent perfectly. 
  • Rhythm: Rhythm simply refers to the pace and cadence in which a person speaks. As mentioned before, most English accents originate from a foreign language that has a specific intonation and average pace of talking. When these speakers talk in English, they often use the same rhythm, making it sound very different. Like intonation and stress, rhythm is also best understood first-hand in conversation with native speakers. 

Tips for learning English accents 

Accents can sometimes be the toughest part of mastering a language. Their wide variety and variations can be challenging to pick up. So here are a few tips to help you learn to speak English with the right accent. 

Active listening plays a huge role in understanding/developing accents

  • Listen intently and practice

    The first order of business in learning any accent is to listen to native speakers closely and frequently. Each accent has its own rhythm which comes from the phonemes (individual sounds that make up words) being used.

    For instance, what somebody in London will call a ‘town’ can sound more like ‘toon’ when spoken in a Scottish accent. The difference is how the ‘ow’ vowel sound in ‘town’ is made in both cases. Listening carefully to accents - on the street, in movies, podcasts, or TV shows - can help you pick up their nuances more accurately. Finally, practice determines how long it takes to develop an accent.

  • Get familiar with IPA

    The IPA or International Phonetic Alphabet is an excellent tool for learning a new accent. One of the most pressing problems non-native English speakers learning an accent have is that words can sometimes be pronounced completely differently from how they’re spelled. Further, the same word can have multiple pronunciations depending on the accent that is being spoken. The IPA can help you understand the different ways in which a word can be spoken, irrespective of its spelling. It does this by distinguishing every sound from similar sounding but distinctly different sounds. IPA can make it easier for foreign speakers to learn new accents and practice by reading words out loud.

  • Identify the unique quality of each accent

    Every regional accent tends to have a defining quality that can be used to distinguish it from other similar accents. The differences between English accents can come from an added emphasis on particular sounds like nasal sounds or using the back of one’s throat to pronounce letters like R and H. Identifying the unique qualities of an accent can help you catch on to its rhythm more easily. You can identify quirks in particular accents by listening to native speakers or consulting educational videos and online courses.

  • Know the cultural context behind an accent

    Accents are usually developed over a period of decades (sometimes even a century), due to important historical events that bring different kinds of people together. Knowing these events and how they influenced the local culture can help you understand why some accents are the way they are. For example, native speakers from New York City have a distinct accent called the New York City or NYC accent. In the NYC accent, the ‘r’ sound in words is often dropped, especially if it’s an ‘er’ sound at the end of the word. Similarly, the ‘th’ sound is replaced by the ‘d’ sound. Both these quirks, and many others, are a result of the large-scale immigration of Jewish, Yiddish, Dutch and Irish natives to the city in the late nineteenth century. Knowing this helps foreign speakers truly understand the metropolitan culture of the city and know why the natives pronounce some words in a specific way.

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