No matter where in the world they come from, visitors to Australia often remark about the difficulty in understanding the language. People from non-English speaking backgrounds who may have had the chance to study English at home still struggle to comprehend the Aussie vernacular and accent. Those from English-speaking countries such as the USA and England even find things difficult on occasion.
The same, but different
When it comes to understanding the Australian accent, it’s useful to point out that not all Australians speak exactly the same way. But unlike other countries, where accents vary slightly depending on the part of the country from which someone comes, in Australia accents are more likely to differ based on class factors. Two people living in the city on opposite sides of the country — say, Sydney and Perth — might sound exactly the same, despite the distance. However, someone from the rural areas of Victoria is likely to sound different to someone coming from it’s capital, Melbourne.
Australian accents can be split into three categories — broad, general and cultivated. Broad accents are generally used by rural australians and can be likened to the exaggerated accents people like Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin presented to the world. General accents are the most common and are most likely to be used in metropolitan areas; Aussies like Hugh Jackman or Jennifer Hawkins employ this kind of accent. Finally, there’s the cultivated Australian accent, which has more similarities to British English and can be heard by the likes of Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis.
One of the most common habits of Australian language is the tendency for speakers to run words into each other. While most Australians will avoid this when speaking one on one with someone from another country, if a foreigner finds themselves in a mixing in group of mostly Australians, they often find the conversation hard to follow. In some cases, Australians will leave off certain syllables altogether; the suffix “ing”, for example. “I’m going to the football tonight”, then, may become “I’m go’n the football tonight” when many Australians are speaking in their local dialect.
Some might say lazy…
Australians also have a tendency to avoid pronouncing the “R” at the end of words. For example, a word like “bar” will be pronounced “ba” and a word like “doctor” will be pronounced “docta”. In a similar vein, Australians often shorten common words by taking the first syllable and adding a vowel. “Afternoon” will become “arvo”, service station will become “servo”, barbecue will become “barbie” and breakfast will become “brekky”. This is also commonly done with people’s names; somebody with the surname “McDonald” will probably become “Macca”, and someone with the surname “Roberts” will generally become “Robbo”.
You may also notice Australians use terms that you recognise in a way you may not be familiar with. Take the term “heaps”, for example, which is used in place of “really”. Something that is “really good” will be “heaps good”, or someone who is really sick will be described as “heaps sick”. Although, we should point out, sick doesn’t necessarily mean “ill”, either — in Australia it could mean “great”! Yep, we’re a confusing bunch.
Finally, one final thing to note is that Australians have a habit of answering a question with a double negative. “Not bad” is a common response to the question “how are you”. If an Australian agrees with something you’ve said, they may say, “You’re not wrong.” Or perhaps they think something is nice, or good — they might say that it’s “not too shabby.”
If you do find yourself struggling with the Australian language, there are two surefire ways to get ahead. Firstly, engage in as much conversation with Australians as possible. Feel free to ask them to repeat something if you didn’t understand; most will be happy to, and if they’re not, they’re probably not the kind of person you’ll want to be talking to anyway. Alternatively, you can attend English school. There are several study options in all major cities and this is a great way to sharpen up your Australian tongue.