Before you ask, I don’t get it either. I don’t understand why anyone would write about this and yet, I am. Specifically, by English language accent alone, you, too can tell the difference between a person from the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, or South Africa. Yes, you can. It doesn’t count if they tell you or you are currently in one of the named countries or happen to be a native of any of the above-mentioned countries. For the rest? Hold on, here we go.
Germany: A German person speaking English sounds nothing like what you hear on those silly dated sitcoms of the past. Not at all. The (stereo-)typical German person will speak precisely, in part because they’re smart and studied, but also because their native language, at least the standard version, requires a precision that most of us non-Canadian speakers ever acquire. Every other promised group deviates from this single standard.
The Netherlands: When I hear Dutch folk talk, I hear versions of the German accent, but with a touch of the BBC. Is it the proximity to London? I don’t know. When I could barely speak German (a long time ago), I remember seeing Dutch words and thinking how bizarre the spelling looked, particularly when, once spoke, it sounded almost the same. To be sure, they are two different languages, but, now, if I heard both, I would know just enough to pretend (only to myself) that I actually understand 10% of what I heard. But I digress. This German/Dutch spelling difference reminds me of the American/all-others spelling differences. Does mere spelling difference affect pronunciation, even in a third language? I don’t know, but, in my all-knowing blogger persona, I say yes it does.
South Africa: Among the various South African languages, Afrikaans is closely related to Dutch having moved out from it’s parent’s house along with various settlers of long ago. But, an Afrikaans English accent sounds almost exactly like a Dutch English accent, replacing London with Cape Town. Most Americans, including me, can’t easily tell the difference between the English of Sydney, Christchurch, or Cape Town so I could have it wrong. In that case, relying on this post, for any reason, is not advised.
Switzerland: When I traveled to Switzerland, someone once told me that the key to differentiating between German English-speakers and Swiss German English speakers is simple. German English speakers use the language just as good (well?) as folks in North America. In contrast, the Swiss will speak it better. Oh, it’s not because Swiss are any smarter, but, yes, I remember being embarrassed by my native linguistic skill speaking to an ordinary bartender.
Austria: I should know this, but, when I lived there, Austria was where I went skiing/hiking and not, unfortunately to talk. I’ll get back to you some day.
For those of us native English speakers, much of Europe is linguistically undemanding because English-speakers are everywhere. In a train station in Milan, I recall the German travelers buying tickets from the Italian clerk using English. But, when I needed to find a hotel in Florence, the only other language the Italian clerk knew was German. I pretended and even understood a word or two. I did not find that hotel … ever. Irony.
Now, if you’re good, some day in the future I’ll tell you all about how, by body language alone, to tell an American gaggle of teenagers from that of Canada, Germany, Italy, or France. Or, maybe I’ll act wisely and stop analyzing silly differences. Maybe.