The Perfect British Accent – Does It Really Exist?

20-Jun-2013

As I was eating my breakfast this morning, I watched an interview with a young local schoolgirl who had been chosen to give a speech at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. Hearing her speak made me realise that the Northern Irish accent is an interesting one, and something you don’t hear all too often (unless you go to Northern Ireland obviously). As part of the UK, the Northern Irish twang couldn’t be more different to RP. Then again, it’s not wholly similar to the Southern Irish accent either.

It got me thinking about non-native English speakers who strive to get the perfect “British accent.” But surely that must be difficult given the wealth of different accents in the UK alone, before you even count differences in international English dialects. Which one to choose? Should it really be the Queen’s English? In American films and TV series it can be pretty infuriating to hear characters talking about “the British accent” – which one?

I myself am from Birmingham – a city unfortunately not known for being the jewel in the crown when it comes to desirable accents. When I first started teaching, my students were baffled as to why I pronounce the word ‘cup’ a little like the word ‘book’ instead of the RP way which might be pronounced more similar to the word ‘cap.’

The British library has a very interesting little feature on British dialects and accents, with a history of where they come from, audio clips and social variations too. Have a look at the ‘bath map’ to see how pronunciation changes across the country and discover why the accent in Liverpool is worlds apart from that of Manchester, despite the two cities having just 50 kilometres between them.

There is still a surprising amount of debate about accents in Britain. Talk still exists of people taking elocution lessons to have more success in finding a job, but conversely, of the BBC wanting to employ more regional accents in its programming. An interesting clip from the BBC explains a bit about why Britons have tried to change the way they speak over the years. You might be surprised to find out that even Margaret Thatcher’s plummy English isn’t the same one she grew up with. Whatever the history, it still creates problems for English learners, especially those that arrive in London for the first time expecting everyone to talk like Hugh Grant.

If you want to give your students some exposure to different accents (and maybe they can choose their favourites) why not take a look at our Live from…  series on onestopenglish? Sophie and Lucy from the onestop team jetted off to exotic places from Geneva to – erm – Cardiff, to ask locals and visitors alike a series of questions. The variations are great to hear, and every downloadable clip comes with a lesson plan. The same goes for listening activities on Macmillan English Campus.

And if you want to find out more background on this topic, you can also take a look at some of our past blog posts, like A Touch of Class, An Accent of Prejudice?, The North and South of England, or search through the archives at blendedmec.

Peter

 

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