What does an American accent sound like to foreigners?
I haven’t answered questions on Quora in a long time but I visited the site recently and was reminded of this question that I answered. It’s been quite a while since I thought about the “Skwerl” (“squirrel”) video and wanted to share it. This may be more interesting to native American English speakers who don’t know how they sound to speakers of other languages, but I’m curious what everyone, from every language background thinks about it.
The basic concept is that what you notice in other languages is what is different from your own. In the video, there are some real words, but the majority of the speaking is nonsense words that use common American English sounds and typical prosody.
This was my answer to the question, “What does an American accent sound like to foreigners?”
I think this is an interesting question because it’s so hard to know what your own accent sounds like. As part of my teaching English for many years, I love asking this question to students in my class, “What does American English sound like to you?” I ask them to imitate it even without forming real words, just using the sounds they notice and the overall intonation pattern. I can anticipate what different students will say based on their native languages.
People notice what is most different from their own languages, including individual sounds and intonation. In general, students notice the /æ/ vowel (as in “cat”), the /ə/ (as in “up”) because it is so common as a replacement for unstressed vowels, and the voiceless /θ/ “th” sound (as in “think”) and the voiced /ð/ “th” sound (as in “the”). When they imitate the intonation pattern they exaggerate the up and down in pitch to create, as they describe it, “a song.”
If you think about it in reverse, try to imitate a language that you don’t speak just by making sounds you notice most in that language and using an intonation pattern you think sounds similar. You’ll be imitating the sounds and tones that you don’t use as much or at all in your own language/dialect.
A video that attempts to create how English sounds to non English speakers is, “Skwerl.”
As a native english speaker I found this fascinating. I was frustrated because it sounded so much like English that I was straining to understand words that weren't really there.