I grew up speaking English from a very young age and understood many different English accents. After all, English is English… right? Sure, there were many accents in South Africa but we all spoke a shared language, even if it wasn’t ‘the Queen’s English.’

Being surrounded by different accents was the norm for me. There were hardly ever two people who articulated words the same. It never occurred to me that maybe I might not understand someone who speaks the same language. Boy was I mistaken!  

From the Queen to the Cape

Roughly 6,500 languages are spoken around the world today. That number pales in comparison to the number of accents, or dialects, spoken within each. English alone has around 160 unique dialects, 29 of which are crammed into the 130,000km² of England itself. Then you’ve got Australians, Canadians, Americans. The list is almost endless.

To elaborate, let’s take a look at my home country, South Africa. There, you’ll find a myriad of accents that have come to play due to different cultures arriving here over the years.

Accents don’t only change based on cultures and people’s heritage. Location also plays a big role. Take the Cape Coloured accent and try to find someone speaking it in Johannesburg, you’ll find it’s impossible. Unless you’re raised in the Cape, you’re never going to speak in that high-speed cadence. Watch out, Eminem, we might have a new Rap God.

Fags, darts, durries, and context

I’ve done my fair share of travelling for a 23-year-old. During my travels, I learnt just how many unique words there are for a cigarette. I’m convinced that every individual English-speaking country has a unique name for a cigarette:

  • An Englishman asks for a fag
  • Australians will bum a durry
  • Canadians hack a dart
  • South Africans score an entjie

Context might be the most powerful tool in communication. It sounds strange, but a lot of what we listen to doesn’t have to be understood. We can often interpret the meaning of a sentence without knowing every word.

Take this sentence for example, “It was an idyllic day – sunny, warm, and perfect for a walk in the park.”

Unless you’ve come across the word ‘idyllic’ before, you’re likely to be like me, who had no idea what it meant. Is it a food, a season, a mood? Yet, through context, we can work out that it means happy, peaceful and picturesque.

 Where it all went south (no, wait… north)

Generally, we all probably agree that the traditional English dialect, the Queen’s English, is the easiest to understand. It’s spoken slowly, clearly and without dropping syllables. As we move to countries like Australia, Scotland, and Ireland, the accents get thicker. For the most part, that makes them trickier to understand. 

I hope you’re holding onto your pants, ‘cause here comes a shocker. The only (supposedly) English-speaking person I’ve met who I simply couldn’t understand was from England. Specifically, she was from the North of the country.

Let me set the scene, I was in a hostel in the South of Portugal. To be more specific, I was in the lovely surfing village and former end of the world, Sagres. I was speaking with a bunch of my fellow backpackers when another group of people joined the conversation. 

– Sagres, Portugal captured on a disposable camera

This woman, presumably in her early 30s, had a full conversation with us. After a few minutes of chatting, with a lot of that laugh you do when you don’t understand something, she left to make dinner.

Thinking back at it, I was a foreigner in my own language. I asked the others if I was the only one who understood nothing. To my relief, I wasn’t. Luckily for me, I hadn’t somehow completely forgotten how to speak English. I still could understand my native tongue.  

How do we remove a language barrier? 

If you’ve ever wanted to learn a language, SPEAK is the preferred choice for language acquisition. You can learn lesser-known languages like Urdu or globally recognized ones like English.

I can’t promise you’ll understand the likes of my mysterious Northern lady after one session. Hell, I don’t know if anyone will ever understand her. But with SPEAK, your chances are likely much higher. 

Thanks for the memory, you mysterious ‘English-speaking’ lady.

Do you want to read more about South Africa? You can read "Migration: A snapshot from South Africa, the Rainbow Nation."

Author: Robin Müller

Robin is a 23 year old South African. He enjoys spending his free time socializing and travelling the lesser-known places of our globe.


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