Listening – Will I Understand Them?
From the stories I’ve been told by Chinese students studying abroad, one of the most daunting experiences is that of arriving in a strange town or city only to discover that none of its inhabitants seems to speak English! Actually, the inhabitants are speaking English, but they are doing so in a regional accent, one that is unlike any English accent that the student has ever heard.
When you were learning to speak English in China, you spent, most likely, most of your time speaking to people who spoke English with a Chinese accent. You will also have come across films or TV programmes that use American and British English – programmes produced by the BBC, for example. However, most of the accents you will have heard on these media will be variants of a national standard, received pronunciation (RP) in the case of the UK and network English in the case of the US.
People who speak using a national standard are easy to understand: they speak slowly and clearly. But people who speak with a regional accent may speak quickly and indistinctly (it may not be much comfort to you, but even native English speakers find such accents difficult to comprehend). It can take some time to learn to understand English spoken in regional accents, and so it’s a good idea to get your ear attuned to them before you travel abroad.
Overview of Regional Accents
Can you understand spoken English sufficiently well to study abroad? It’s a key question. In particular, can you understand English as spoken by the academics who will be giving you lectures, who will be instructing you via tutorials, who will be answering your questions during seminars?
How do you know if your English is good enough? Here’s a suggestion. Yale University offers a variety of free online lectures that are available on the YouTube platform: navigate to Yale Center for Teaching and Learning; select values from the “Discipline”, “Field”, and “Platform” drop-down lists; and then press the “Apply” button to see what’s available. Try listening to half a dozen lectures selected at random from different fields and see if you can easily understand what’s being said.
The lectures are presented by individuals with a diverse range of teaching styles: oration from the podium, slide shows in darkened lecture theatres, and classic blackboard chalk-and-talk. See, for example, if you could adjust to, and understand, individuals with the following teaching styles:
One of the problems you will encounter is that those who lecture at prestigious institutions are not always as articulate, coherent, and comprehensible as one might wish for: when speaking in an impromptu, extemporaneous manner, a lecturer won’t always complete a sentence, and the discourse may dart from one issue to another and then back again without clearly advancing any particular idea or concept during the course of the digression. Unfortunately, trying to understand a lecture delivered in this manner places an additional linguistic burden on those who are already struggling to understand the language.
Understanding regional accents can be a problem, particularly for Chinese students studying in the UK. If you’re studying at a university in the south-east of England, then the local accent is likely to be relatively easy to understand, as it will not depart too much from RP. Of course, no matter where you study in the UK, you’ll come across students with a variety of regional accents, but in the south-east the number of students with these accents will be comparatively small. In these circumstances, some general exposure to regional British accents is likely to be sufficient.
Here’s a good way to get that exposure. Search on YouTube using the character string:
"British Accents" "English like A Native"
This search will return many dozens of videos that illustrate various British regional accents. For a quick overview, try the following:
For particular regional accents, try the following (these videos also contain some regional words and phrases):
If you’re worried that your Chinese accent might be difficult to understand, then after viewing these videos you should be comforted – you’ll realize that some native regional accents are far more difficult to understand than yours.
Understanding a Specific Regional Accent
If you’re a Chinese student studying at a UK university that is located outside the south-east of England, then the accent that you’ll encounter while shopping or doing other local activities might be very different from RP, and it might be very difficult to understand. However, once you’ve decided on a university, it’s possible to increase your understanding of the local accent before you travel abroad (if you find regional accents particularly difficult, then you might want to assess the comprehensibility of the local accent before applying to a particular university).
The best way to improve your understanding of a local accent is by way of local radio. For a list of all UK radio stations that are streaming live on the Internet and that are broadcasting to particular localities navigate to the following web page:
Then click on the location that is nearest to the university of interest. You’ll find dozens of radio stations listed.
Some of these radio stations will be nationwide stations, such as BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio 4. But others will be local to the area in question. By listening to these local stations, you will get not only an understanding of the local accent but also an understanding of local issues and the whereabouts of local facilities.
These local stations will usually be broadcasting music, so you need to identify those times when programmes that focus on speech are being broadcast. While news programmes meet this criterion, the presenters of these programmes will not always speak with a local accent. What you need to find are phone-in programmes – programmes in which local people phone-in and discuss issues with the programme’s presenter. Perform an Internet search using the name of the radio station to locate the radio station’s website and identify suitable programmes (or email the radio station and ask for the times when they schedule phone-in programmes). If you listen to these phone-in programmes, you’ll hear the full range of local accents that are characteristic of the area in question.
Note: If you’re scanning through radio stations broadcasting to Wales, and you find a station where you cannot recognize even a single word of English, then don’t be dismayed: the station will be broadcasting not in English, but in Welsh!