Thursday, October 3, 2013

What Do Brits Sound Like To Brazilians?

Last summer I was a few beers into a street party when one of my friends introduced me to a girl she knew. She’d done this in English so naturally I didn't think twice about continuing the conversation in the same language. However as I started talking over the music I noticed she was shaking her head quite sympathetically at me. “I’m sorry” she interrupted, “You are British? I studied American English so maybe this is why I’m not good at understanding your English”.

I gave her a reassuring smile and was about to repeat myself, only this time a little slower. But she interrupted me again with a smirk suddenly dominating her face; “I think I don’t understand you because you sound like you have a hot potato stuck in your mouth”.

I looked at this girl for a good few seconds in disbelief as I tried to process what she’d just said.

“A what?” I eventually asked faintly, now with the polite smile fading from my face. I was unsure if I’d just been insulted or I’d simply misunderstood what she’d just said.

Turns out, I hadn't misunderstood at all.

“I said you sound like you have a hot potato stuck in your mouth. You need to open it a little more when you talk because I can’t understand you!”

‘Surely she isn't talking about my delightful accent?’ I remember thinking to myself at the time. But she really was. I’m not often lost for words, but I mean, what is the polite way to respond to someone saying this? And I remember wondering just how it is even possible for someone to talk with a hot potato STUCK in their mouth?

Well as if she could read my mind, this girl fed my curiosity by simulating what someone in this rather unfortunate predicament would look and sound like. As she mimicked my British accent with this imaginary hot potato playing heavily around her mouth, he cheeks began to inflate grotesquely. As far as first impressions go this girl had exceeded in making a truly awful one on me. With it being clear that we were never destined to be great friends, I made my excuses and rejoined my American friend. A friend who has no problem understanding me....most of the time! 

I should point out that although this was definitely the most extreme experience I've had of someone reacting negatively to my accent, I do occasionally meet Brazilian English speakers who are so accustomed to American English that my accent proves to be very challenging for them.

I should stress that British English is certainly not always frowned upon over in Sao Paulo. One of the most popular chains of English schools here, Cultura Inglesa, is a school that focuses on the teaching of British English. From my own personal experience too I've had a lot of students specifically ask for classes with me because of their desire to be exposed to my accent.
And get this… a number of people have even said that they find my accent beautiful to listen to. I genuinely thought I was being mocked the first time I heard a student say this. You see, my northern-English farmer’s drawl isn't met with nearly the same level of enthusiasm outside the area of the UK I’m from.

Back there, because the Yorkshire accent is quite slow in comparison to other accents in the UK, I've been told that it makes us sound slightly uneducated (well actually I might have made up that part about people using the word ‘slightly’). However over in the parallel world that is also known as Brazil, I've has people describe my accent as charming, slow enough for them to understand and even (my favourite) sophisticated.

Yet within the UK we have a wide range of accents that can prove quite a challenge for some of my Brazilian students to understand. It would be all too easy to categorise how us Brits speak as simply being a homogeneous ‘British English’, but the reality is very different. This is something one of my students recently reminded me of in his first lesson back after studying at a US university. He told me that he was confused by a Brit he’d met on his course, one he’d assumed he would have had no problems understanding.

“I imagined after having classes with you I’d be able to understand British English. But I couldn't understand most of what the guy was saying. He was British but he didn't talk much like you at all”.

I gave my student a knowing look, and told him that there are some accents from the UK that prove challenging for me too. My mother for example is from a small village just outside Glasgow, and when I go up to Scotland I often have to have her help me out with translating what some of our relatives are saying for the first hour or so. We’re all speaking the same language, but it takes me a little time to tune in to their very heavy Glaswegian accent.

So I could feel my student’s pain, I really could….spoken English isn't always easy to understand when you take into account it has so many variations, even in a country as small as the UK.

However I've noticed three Brits over here with southern English accents who've managed to forge a pretty popular following over in Brazil. Randomly one of these includes Jo Frost (aka Supernanny, remember her?) who was a dominant fixture of TV schedules a year or two ago. Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson are also pretty popular here too. Oliver’s books are a continued presence in book shops over here, and after Nigella’s recent visit to Sao Paulo, she definitely cemented her popularity with the female housewives I teach by praising the nation’s beloved coxinha. 

Interestingly whilst the chef Gordon Ramsay might be a big deal over in the states and in his native UK, he has yet to leave nearly as big a mark on the Brazilian consciousness as his British rivals have. 
And on the subject of popular Brits in Brazil, it would be strange of me not to mention the country's music scene. Our music is one aspect of British culture that is frequently met with a great deal of enthusiasm over here. From The Beatles to Amy Winehouse, Elton John to the Stones, Led Zeppelin to Bowie, Queen to The Sex Pistols, George Michael to Adele, Black Sabbath to erm…One Direction. British music seems to have really resonated with a lot of the Brazilians I've come into contact with...which may or may not be down to these artists being able to really open their mouths when they sing!

Have you ever encountered any interesting reactions to your accent when going abroad? 


  1. Great post Andrew. Lovely to find someone else from Yorkshire. I have never had such a reaction to my accent (I think your story tops most), but when I moved from England to the USA most people didn't understand what I was saying. Out of complete frustration I took on the American drawl and after 12 years in the USA I lost my yorkshire accent!!!!

    1. I think I have managed to keep my Yorkshire accent, although after almost nine years of living overseas I think it has softened somewhat. I've also unconsciously managed to add some American English to my vocab too...which sometimes amuses my friends back home, especially when I tell them I'm going to the 'movies'. Thanks for the complement, and I'm happy to hear there is a 'Yorkshire Lass' blogging over here!

  2. I'm Brazilian and I need to speak and write in English most of the time because of my job. I work with people from all the world and we speak only in English to each other. And honestly, I understand everyone very well except for a girl from London. Actually she is located in London, but I don't really know where she is from in UK. Her accent is similar to Adele´s accent. It is quite challenging for me and the telephone call quality doesn't help at all! After speaking to her a couple of times I started understanding better, but sometimes it still sounds to me as if the words are all linked, I can’t say when a word ends and another begins, as she was "eating up" the last letters of the word. It's really challenging!! However, I don’t have this problem with other people from UK!
    I think British accent is more difficult for us because we are more exposed to American English in movies, TV, etc…
    By the way, great post!!

    1. Hey Tati, I laughed when you compared that girl to Adele, because I knew EXACTLY what you meant! Adele's accent is very strong. In the UK I've heard people say she sings like an angel, but talks like a London cab driver! Well good luck trying to understand.

      Thanks for the complement on the blog too, very much appreciated!

    2. Yeah, you've got what I meant!! The day I understood what she was saying I felt like I could understand ANYONE in the world, I was so proud of myself!!!
      About the potato thing, we use this expression to refer to anyone that speaks, how can I say, in a difficult way to understand. It is hard to explain that because it is so common for us, but it is really like the person has something in his mouth that don´t let the sound came out or don´t let the word to be pronounciated correctly. However, this girl you met was not polited at all!
      (And now I will remeber about the "London cab driver" everytime I speak to the girl.. lol! Thanks for that!)

  3. In case you're wondering, the "hot potato in mouth" is a rather common impression Brazilians have of the "classic" British accent (more David Attenborough than Yorkshire). Yes, it seems the girl you met is unimaginative as well as incredibly tactless. Don't worry, apparently the Swedes have the same impression of the Danes (check the last paragraph):

    As for American vs British English, I went the other way around (from the US to England) and I find it frustrating too. Nowadays I stand in a queue instead of a line and I'm careful to pronounce the "t" in "water" even though most people in London say "wa'er", innit? :)

    1. Hey Andrew, I learnt about this hot potato thing soon after meeting this delightful girl!
      Good luck in London, and I hope you're not stood in queues for too long! Thanks for the comment.

  4. I'm from Bristol, another place in the UK where people are generally though to sound stupid! Makes me proud. I had Russian students ask for me personally because of my 'British' accent (whatever that is!)

    I had to laugh at you wondering how to respond politely to someone being impolite. That's terribly English of you, old chap.

    1. Since moving abroad I've seen Bristol on some TV shows (like Skins and Affterlife...wait, maybe I'm too old to admit to having watched Skins!), and I would love to visit.It looks stunning, so I'm happy to hear it is full of people without snooty accents!

      And you're right, I'd not thought about how polite I'd been when someone was insulting me! Ha ha! You can take the guy out of England....!

  5. I learned English as an adult while living in the US. Up to this date, to me, the easiest spoken English to understand is...Canadian, besides Californian (whatever that is). Every time I watch Jamie Oliver (he makes it very easy to understand) I have an impression that he is a foreigner speaking English, always afraid that he is going to misprounounce words. But don´t worry, Brazilians think of British accent as classy, glamourous, and linked to the refined European culture. At least it is what students at Cultura Inglesa tell me (always disappointed with my American accent. What they don´t know is that my accent is Brazilian Portuguese...)

    1. Jamie Oliver has a difficult time with his accent in England. He is from just outside London, and many people say he tries too hard to fit in with the 'cockney' culture. They say he talks 'Mock-ney' English, so you are not alone in having the impression he talks like a foreigner speaking English!

      My students have got me watching Nigella Lawson, I love her English accent. She definitely sounds, not so much so! Which is something I love about living here, my farmers accent is almost forgotten about! Thanks for the comment, I look forward to reading your blog when it's up and running. Where in Rural Brazil are you living?

  6. I can beat you, Andrew, because I am from Birmingham, the home of stupid sounding accents. Fortunately, Brazilians have no idea about this.

    The problem your insulting never-to-be-friend had, apart from a complete lack of social skills, seems to be that she was never exposed to various accents. I reckon we are doing our students a disservice if we don't teach them how to deal with a range of accents, from American, British, Australian through to Japanese, German and French.

    1. You're definitely right, I spend most of my day speaking British English and then being asked questions about American English (and answering some questions based on watching some TV shows!). Other accents rarely get asked about. Indian English is becoming quite important to some Brazilians in Sao Paulo though, which seems to be a bit of a challenge for them when coming from studying purely British or American.

      And I'm enjoying reading comments on here from other bloggers from the UK telling me something similar to what you've just said...that they like the perception of their accent changing when living abroad.

      So it's good to know I'm also in good company with a Bruumie speaker over here in Brazil!

  7. i just read this in a slow, sophisticated yorkshire accent :)
    I've been taking british english lessons for many years and i still cant achieve the wanted accent. I fancy british accents and i want to learn them all, but all i can perform is an american accent. I dont know why it is so hard to learn it. I've been able to speak spanish and italian and english and often i've been mistaked for a native. But when it comes to british i just screw it up.
    I think it is a wonderful way of speaking and despite its origins it is quite sophisticated