I'm often asked by students for tips on how they can develop a 'British accent'. No matter how often I'm asked, I never find this to be a quick question to answer. So, in this article I'll try to give some background as to why it's not such a straightforward question, as well as point those who are interested in the right direction.
There are a lot of British accents
Let's start by saying that there is no such thing as a single 'British accent'. For such a small area, there are a great number of different varieties of English.
If you put an English person, a Scottish person, a Welsh person and a Northern Irish person side by side, you would probably hear fairly easily that they sound very different to each other.
Let's break it down even further and imagine ten English people standing side by side at a networking event. They have never met each other before. They start to meet each other and introduce themselves. They mention their names and their jobs, but don’t mention where they come from. But just from speaking to each other, most of them can tell if the person they are talking to comes from the North or the South of England. Some of them can guess if the person they are talking to comes from a city with a well-known accent: London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle. One out of the ten has studied languages in detail and can guess if the person comes from a region with an accent that stands out: the West Country, the West Midlands, the East Midlands, the Home Counties just outside London. Each of these areas and cities can be broken down further – for example, in London and the Home Countries, you might find a mixture of Cockney, Estuary English, Multicultural London English and Received Pronunciation.1
Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘yes, but I mean the standard British accent’. What you’re probably thinking of is ‘Received Pronunciation’, which is the most famous British accent due to its use in the media and foreign television (say, by The Queen or Benedict Cumberbatch). However, in practice, only around 2% of British people actually speak with this accent 2 - making it a minority accent.
Do I need to learn a specific English accent?
One question to consider when thinking about learning a specific accent is whether there really is a need to. In today’s world, an international business meeting including members from countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China is likely to use English. How useful would your British or American accent be here?
The argument here is that what’s needed for successful communication has nothing to do with accent. The continuing internationalisation of English has brought about a need to learn not British, American, Australian or South African English, but a form of international English – almost a language of its own, growing naturally throughout business and travel worldwide.
Instead of focusing so heavily on developing a specific accent, it’s more important to develop the pronunciation and fluency necessary to be understood by both native and non-native English speakers in order to avoid breakdowns in communication.
Another question to consider is the difficulty of the task. In the international business meeting above, would you expect each member to speak with a 'perfect' British, American or Australian accent? In this situation, we’ll most likely hear Brazilian/Portuguese English, Russian English, Indian English and Chinese English accents. Why? Our tongues have been trained over many years to produce the sounds from our own languages. When we speak a second language, it’s only natural that our accent is influenced by our mother tongue. This can be addressed with training and dedication, but in practice very few succeed in achieving a ‘native accent’ without living in that country for a long time. So, you should understand that while it is possible to achieve a native-like accent, it is going to be challenging.
Developing an accent
Now, having said all this, I know there is still a desire among many language learners to speak with a specific accent, so let me end this article by sharing methods I’ve noticed in the few language learners I have known to develop authentic accents:
- Live in the country – This is probably the most effective method, but not possible for most language learners. It's also not enough just to live in the country. You need to do a lot more than that to learn a language.
- Watch TV shows and films with the desired accent – It’s amazing what you can find on YouTube (or Iqiyi/Youku/Tudou). And don’t underestimate the power of motivation. Find shows that you will enjoy, so that watching them is about having fun rather than studying.
- Be interested – If you’re not truly interested in the language, culture and people of the country, it will be hard to stay motivated and ask the questions required to pick up new aspects of the accent.
- Listen and speak – If you want to identify new aspects of an accent, you need to develop the skill of listening out for these aspects and taking note of them. Then you’re ready to try saying them yourself and compare your voice to the original.
- Look and feel – To train your tongue to do new things, you need to become aware of what’s happening in your mouth when you speak in your first language. As you speak, ask yourself what’s happening with your lips, tongue and jaw. Watch native speakers to try to identify what is happening as they speak. Then try it for yourself. You may feel discomfort at first, but it will take time to get used to new movements. A good teacher can help you identify exactly how to move the parts of your mouth in order to produce the correct sound.
So, I’ve managed to write a whole article without giving any specific advice about learning the British accent. However, I hope from this you have learnt that:
- There are many varieties of British accents and no single ‘standard British English’.
- Developing a specific accent is very challenging, but achievable given the right training, environment and motivation.
Do you think it's important to learn a specific accent when learning a new language? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.