I’m Australian, and I teach English. I know this seems like an uncontroversial statement, but you’d be surprised at how many people it catches off guard. A surprising number of people thought that we all spoke like Crocodile Dundee, and on more than one occasion I’ve had to explain that we do, in fact, speak English down under. One famous blooper, from the President of Bloopers himself, saw us confused with a small, German speaking country on the other side of the world - and he was in Australia at the time!
What adds to the confusion about how Australians speak is the stereotyping and terrible attempts at imitating the accent. Watch almost any attempt from a non-Australian actor or actress and they’ll inevitably aim for crocodile wrestler, and end up somewhere between Cockney and Texan. The result is always terrible, and despite the abundance of Australians in Hollywood, casting agents still sometimes feel the need to make Americans or Brits give the voice a whirl. I still have nightmares about Pacific Rim.
So what’s up with the Australian accent? The story of how Australians got their distinctive sound is actually pretty interesting. Did you know, for instance, that a factor on how Australians speak today was alcohol? Early colonists apparently spent a good deal of their time drunk, so much so that their drunken slur stuck around after they’d sobered up. Ask any Australian to pronounce the names of the capital cities - Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Canberra, etc. - and you’ll quickly notice that some sounds were left at the pub. While this theory probably has more detractors than supporters, I still think it’s a nice story.
A bit too much to drink isn’t the only culprit for the distinctive accent. When Australia was colonised by the British in the late 1700s, the Crown sent mainly convicts to the settlement. These convicts were from all over the UK, and spoke English in the varied ways we’re still familiar with today. Throw into the mix the hundreds of languages spoken by Indigenous Australians, as well as the accents and languages of other people from all over the world who began migrating to the continent, and you had a smorgasbord of speaking styles converging in a single place.
The accent could have gone in any direction at this point, but things have a way of averaging out. Over a few generations, the accents of people when speaking English moved to a sort of middle point, where everyone was able to understand everyone. And this is why the Australian accent is so hard for others to imitate - it’s so close to so many other English accents, that the poor souls giving it a go just end up sounding like something else.
Within Australia, there are three types of accents - broad, cultivated and general. And unlike most other countries, there aren’t great regional variations. You won’t be able to tell if someone is from the north or south or east or west just from how they speak - the most you could do is have a guess at whether they were from the city or a rural area. The broad accent is the one made famous by Crocodile Dundee, and is the stereotypical accent that most people imagine Australians speak with. In fact, only about 10% of Australians speak like this. Another 10% speak with the ‘cultivated’ Australian accent, which is closer to British Received Pronunciation (RP), sometimes known as ‘BBC English’.
The rest of us speak with the ‘general’ accent - this is how I speak, and is the most confusing for non-Australians who try and guess where we’re from. Americans often think that I’m British, people from England sometimes say I’m South African or even American (weird, right?), and once a guy from the East End with a curly red moustache asked me what part of London I was from. This was in Australia, too.
So, is it any good to learn English from an Australian? In fact, an Australian English teacher can be a huge advantage! This is because our accent, rather than being weird, is somewhat neutral. And learning to speak with a neutral accent means that you’ll be easily understood everywhere you go.
This post talks a lot about the way Australians speak, and it wouldn’t be right to leave out a very important point. This post generalises about Australians speaking Australian English with an Australian accent, but Australian English isn’t the only language spoken in Australia. As I mentioned before, there are hundreds of languages spoken by Indigenous Australians, and migrants have also brought their own languages which they still speak. Everyone speaks differently, and there is no way of speaking which is better than another - and this goes for my non-Australian English teaching colleagues too! And who knows how we'll be speaking in the future.