Cognitive Daily

The general consensus about last week’s world accent test is that it was very difficult, but also quite fun. Everyone also wanted to know the answers to the quiz. I’m not going to make it that easy for you, but at the end of the post I will offer a way for you to figure out which is which.

The test required participants to listen to ten people from different parts of the world reading the same English text sample (via the fantastic Speech Accent Archive). Then they had to choose which accent was which from a list of 15 countries (actually 15 countries and 2 U.S. states). Which accent was easiest to recognize? Alabama! Eighty-eight percent of respondents correctly identified this accent (though this result was statistically indistinguishable from Wisconsin, with 86.5 percent correct). Here’s a chart showing accuracy for all 10 accents tested:


Next in the ratings were Pakistan and Ireland, with 75 and 71 percent accuracy. You might argue that the ratings were swayed by a disproportionate number of U.S. respondents. So what happens when people educated or living in the U.S. are removed from the sample? Pakistan, Ireland, Wisconsin, and Alabama move into a virtual tie, with roughly 70 percent accuracy for each.

So how do Americans compare with the rest of the world in judging accents? When you remove the home-field advantage of Wisconsin and Alabama, people educated or living in the U.S. are roughly as accurate as people educated or living elsewhere in the world.

We also asked respondents to report their gender. Did men or women have an advantage in judging accents? Women initially appeared to have a slight edge judging U.S. accents compared to men. But further investigating revealed a very interesting tidbit about Cognitive Daily readership. In past Casual Friday studies we’ve noticed that CogDaily has more male than female readers, and this study was no exception: we found about a 60:40 male-female ratio. Oddly, the gender ratio is not the same around the world:


So while in the U.S. and Canada, the ratio is about 56:44, in the rest of the world, it’s 76:24 — that’s quite a difference! It’s enough to explain the entire female advantage judging U.S. accents. Any speculation from our readers about why non-U.S. readership is so overwhelmingly male?

Some other observations about the data:

  • I was surprised that more people didn’t get the Italian accent — it seemed right out of central casting to me.
  • The choice of distractors probably had a lot to do with accuracy. I suspect if we’d included another U.S. state in the choices, accuracy for U.S. accents would have been much lower. Likewise, “Ireland” was helped by the fact that “Scotland” or “England” wasn’t an option, and “Australia” was probably harmed by the fact that “South Africa” was in the list of distractors.
  • I wish I’d included a question like this: “Is English your native language?” I think we might have had a significant result there, with native speakers being more accurate in judging accents.
  • Our sample size was a little too small to tell for sure, but from the data we had, it appears that people weren’t any better at judging accents from their own region than anyone else — Asians weren’t more accurate judging Asian accents, and Europeans weren’t better at judging European accents.

Now, about those answers… I’m not going to give them to you, but what I will do is include all the samples here, and you can guess them in the comments. I’ll let you know when you’ve got them.

Accent 1:

Accent 2:

Accent 3:

Accent 4:

Accent 5:

Accent 6:

Accent 7:

Accent 8:

Accent 9:

Accent 10:

So more people can play, let’s limit each guesser to two accents. You’ve got an advantage over the original participants, because there are no distractors — you can see the list of possible accent origins on the graph above.


  1. #1 bgerke
    March 16, 2007

    I’m going to guess two that I couldn’t figure out:

    1. Bolivia?

    4. Pakistan?

    I generally found the nonnative speakers to be much harder to figure out than the native speakers–unless I had a close acquaintance from the same place as the speaker.

  2. #2 allison
    March 16, 2007

    So now that I know which are there, a lot of them became a lot easier to tell the difference. I know last week I was taken in by at least two of the detractors – I think I mistook the person from the Phillipines for a Japanese speaker and then identified the person from China as being from the Phillipines. I totally was taken in by the South African distraction. Without that option, I am sure the Australian identification would go up.

    But I can’t for the life of me determine which is the Moroccan! I studied Arabic in college, so I think I’m really listening for an Egyptian or Gulf accent, and if the person has more of a Berber background, my “key” sounds (difficulty with certain strings of consonants, for example like “scr”) may not apply. I think I’m mixing the Bolivian, the Italian, and the Moroccan – Arabic, Spanish, and Italian have similar consonant forms (rolling the R, for example) and Arabic and Spanish have very similar cadences. Can’t we please see the cheat sheet?

  3. #3 LabCat
    March 16, 2007

    I am going to do the same as bgerke and guess the ones I can’t work out

    I’m with bgerke for (1) even down to the question mark!
    Is (5)Phillipines?

    I also struggled with (8) and (10). I had Morocco and Italy left over. Obviously not stereotypical Italian to my ears

    I can tell you (4) isn’t Pakistan.

    It might have been interesting to compare British-English, Irish, Scots, Australian, New Zealand and South African. I am often asked if I am one of those; only the first is correct.

  4. #4 bgerke
    March 16, 2007

    Ack, the way that’s laid out, it’s really easy to mix up the labels… when you’re in the middle of the list, it looks like the labels refer to the accent *above*, not below.

    So, to correct my earlier post (I know 4 isn’t Pakistan):

    3. Pakistan?

  5. #5 Mark Frank
    March 16, 2007

    I am guessing the speakers read these words. It would be interesting to try it with actors who had learned the words and spoke them as if they meant them. When you read you lose a lot of the variety of rhythm and cadence which helps identify the accent.

    Looking forward to knowing the answers…

  6. #6 Dave Munger
    March 16, 2007

    Guesses so far:

    1. Bolivia

    3. Pakistan

    5. Philippines

  7. #7 Maureen Kachline
    March 16, 2007

    Morocco is 5 or 8?
    Bolivia is 1?
    China is 7?
    Phillippines is 10?
    Australia is 4?
    Ireland is 2?
    Pakistan is 3?
    Wisconsin is 9?
    Alabama is 6?
    I’m amazed that I can’t pick out the Italian. I think I confused the Irish for South Africa originally.

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    March 16, 2007

    Maureen — that’s too many guesses!

    I’ll consider your first three.

    5. Morocco

    8. Morocco

    1. Bolivia
    Incorrect–this was already guessed!

    Okay, I’ll give you one more:

    7. China

  9. #9 Sally Langer
    March 16, 2007

    Already confirmed

    3) Pakistan
    7) China

    I’ll throw in two more ‘guesses’

    4) Australia
    5) Italy

    And if I got those right (I also guessed 3 and 7 correctly) then I think it’s only fair for my ego that I’m allowed one more…

    2) Ireland

  10. #10 Mark
    March 16, 2007

    1. Morocco – The hint of french was the tipoff
    5. Italian – Mostly through elimination, didn’t sound that stereotypal though

  11. #11 Mark
    March 16, 2007

    Ignoring the rules…

    8. Philippines
    10. Bolivia

  12. #12 Duncan
    March 16, 2007

    In case others were wondering, the “Ireland” accent is from Strabane in Northern Ireland, which has a very different sound to the classic Irish accents of Dublin and the South (and is, of course, actually not from Ireland but from the UK!). This particular accent sounds almost as Scottish to me as Northern Irish (and I was born in Scotland). So these are not all typical accents. I checked on the speech accent archive and there are some wonderful samples (a gorgeous typical Latvian) and some strange ones (the Saint Petersburg doesn’t sound classically Russian to me). A fantastic idea for a quiz BTW, but some of these accents are tough, indeed a little misleading. My guesses:
    1 Italian
    5 Moroccan
    8 Bolivian

  13. #13 Va
    March 16, 2007

    I’m quite sure that 5 is Italian – note that when reading the name “Stella”, the speaker pronounces the L doubled (like a native speaker would in “well-lit”). And 6 is Alabama – the giveaway there is “Wednesday”, pronounced “winsday”; e being raised to i before n is typical of the southern US.

  14. #14 Vasha
    March 16, 2007

    Oh, and a few more guesses:
    2 Ireland
    4 Australia
    9 Wisconsin

  15. #15 Sammy
    March 16, 2007

    Well, I didn’t get to take the actual test, but I agree with Sally and Mark. So the last two are:

    6) Alabama
    9) Wisconsin

    But those seemed pretty obvious to me as an American. I think I got the rest except for Bolivia and Morocco. Mixed those up…then I listened again and realized hey, there was a hint of French. Oops.

  16. #16 ashvin
    March 16, 2007

    The answers are :

    May the record show that the only one I got wrong was Morocco (I guessed France, which is a close).
    Damn I’m good 🙂

  17. #17 simulacra
    March 16, 2007

    1. Italy
    10 Morocoo

  18. #18 wintersweet
    March 16, 2007

    ashvin, Dave Munger already said that #7 was China, not Japan.

  19. #19 Dave Munger
    March 17, 2007

    All right, since you clearly aren’t playing by the rules, here are the answers:

    1. Morocco
    2. Ireland
    3. Pakistan
    4. Australia
    5. Italy
    6. Alabama
    7. China
    8. Bolivia
    9. Wisconsin
    10. Philippines

  20. #20 ashvin
    March 17, 2007

    Oh I’m sorry. I didn’t read the rule about only two guesses.

  21. #21 Stephen Downes
    March 17, 2007

    I think that the results are reflective more of the fact that the British have taught people English around the world while people from Wisconsin and Georgia haven’t.

    A much more interesting experiment would be one that compared accents from people who are native English speakers – i.e., people from Britain, Ireland, Canada, the U.S., South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

  22. #22 G, Shelley
    March 17, 2007

    I got 2 and 4 without looking at the options and identified the two US ones as Southern US and not southern US. Once I saw the options I could get Pakistan and identified 10 as Asian, but guessed China. Now that I know 7 is China I can recognise it, however 1, 5 and 8 all sound north/east European to me. Curiously, that would be Italian, Bolivian and Morrocan which someone else mentioned having difficulties with.

    As someone from England, north us/south us are easy to distinguish, but within those regions, I can’t tell the difference – certainly from Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Wisoncsin, Toronto, Minnesota even California are all pretty much the same to my ears. In just England, I can identify half a dozen accents that are so clearly distinct I can’t see how anyone might think them similar and two or three times that that are clearly distinguishable.
    Which is to say that familiarity with the accents is probably a major issue – unfamiliar ones are perhaps judged by how they differ from what you know than by the differences between them

  23. #23 hibiscus
    March 17, 2007

    i don’t how you’d measure this, but i felt that china/japan and australia/ were too close to call. got the rest. i also had to toss a coin between russia and italy, maybe because of the rhythm of it. “china” as a category is also a little much? like placing “india” up against pakistan as a distractor…

  24. #24 Martin
    March 17, 2007

    Being an Australian, it clearly sounds nothing like a South African 🙂 and having taught hundreds of Chinese students, it was very clear to me that it was a Chinese speaker and not a Japanese speaker.

    But the Italian speaker sounds nothing like the many Italian English speakers that I’ve met to my ears, though most of those are southern Italians and of course Italian varies dramatically from region to region. Do we know what part of Italy the speaker came from?

    Didn’t get the Moroccan, but I don’t know if I’ve ever met a Moroccan, though the tinge of French is recognisable in hindsight.

    Great Casual Friday, extra thanks for this one.

  25. #25 Hao
    March 17, 2007

    I agree with Martin. As a Chinese native-English speaker who has taken Japanese, I can say that native-Mandarin and native-Japanese speakers of English sound very different, both in terms of the phonemes they use and the rhythm of their speech.

  26. #26 penumbra
    March 18, 2007

    2 Ireland
    3 Pakistan
    4 Australia
    6 Alabama
    9 Wisconsin
    1 Morocco
    5 Bolivia
    7 Philippines
    8 Italy
    10 China
    Now you posted the results, I did worse than I expected. I am curious if my skills are worse than I thought, or if there were other factors
    Do you know if these speakers live in these countries? Many of them sounded like they had a definite american inflection, which made it much harder to identify them. There is no indication on the source site, so I am curious if other people hear this accent?

  27. #27 penumbra
    March 18, 2007

    Sorry, in response to my last post, the data are there at the GMU site, but it takes some trial and error to locate the right samples.

    The test was perhaps a little misleading? These samples are not all indicative of their supposed locations. For example, the sample from the Philippines is a person who has been living in the US for the last 4 of her 21 years. Surely that has had a significant impact on her accent?

    Therefore your extrapolation of how americans compare with the rest of the world is presumably invalid.

    All good fun though.

  28. #28 redSAID!
    March 19, 2007

    Any speculation from our readers about why non-U.S. readership is so overwhelmingly male?

    I suspect that readers outside of North America have a higher male-female ratio because of cultural differences and attitudes towards women.

    Although North American women have had equal opportunity for some time now, it is STILL not appropriate in many parts of the world for women to have an opinion. They are discouraged, even punished, for having an education or standing up for basic human rights. It’s only been in recent years that these women have found a voice. Perhaps that is because technology brings us closer together.

  29. #29 Dave Munger
    March 19, 2007

    I suspect that readers outside of North America have a higher male-female ratio because of cultural differences and attitudes towards women.

    You might be right — but when we’re talking about “the world” we’re overwhelmingly talking about Europe and Australia/New Zealand. Do you think attitudes about women are really that different in those places compared to the U.S.?

    Another possibility — are women in Europe less likely to study English than men?

  30. #30 David Marjanović
    March 19, 2007

    Another possibility — are women in Europe less likely to study English than men?

    English is compulsory at European schools.

    BTW, I haven’t listened to any of the samples, but sufficiently strong Chinese and Japanese accents are easy to tell apart. The Chinese get the English R right because they have something very similar in their own languages (and very few other languages have that sound). The Japanese tend to use a short Italian-type R for that — and, if they don’t watch it, they use that for the L, too. And if a sentence/phrase/…utterance begins with an “ee”, “i”, or “oo” sound, the Chinese will really let it begin with that, without putting a glottal stop in front of it. Some use a “y” or “w” instead — that’s why the Pinyin transcription of Chinese has all those yi and wu.

  31. #31 acm
    March 20, 2007

    You might be right — but when we’re talking about “the world” we’re overwhelmingly talking about Europe and Australia/New Zealand. Do you think attitudes about women are really that different in those places compared to the U.S.?

    Yes! French women are still expected drive home early to make their families a home-cooked mid-day meal, British women are subject to much worse handling of rape cases and near-universal disregard of domestic violence, and there are plenty of other examples. Family leave and childcare may be better in much of Europe than in the US, but there are plenty of other ways in which the chauvenism is much worse (especially given the wide range of cultures that fall under the heading of “European”).

  32. #32 Jim Babcock
    March 28, 2007

    Great quiz. I’m going to bookmark this blog and return soon.

    My guesses (one week too late)
    1. Morroco
    2. Ireland
    3. Bolivia
    4. Australia
    5. Italy
    6. Alabama
    7. China
    8. Pakistan
    9. Wisconsin
    10. Philippines

  33. #33 Fahad
    April 8, 2007

    All the answers are from my experience of watching TV and books. My guesses so far are:

    Accent 1 (Bolivia)
    Accent 2 (Ireland)
    Accent 3 (Pakistan)
    Accent 4 (Australia)
    Accent 5 (Italy)
    Accent 6 (Wisconsin)
    Accent 7 (China)
    Accent 8 (Moroccan)
    Accent 9 (Alabama)
    Accent 10 (Philippines)

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