Why British people sound different to the English taught on language courses

Variety of signs for pleasure boat trips called Pirate and Yorkshireman

When you hear British people speaking, they often sound very different to the English that is taught on language courses. This is because language courses are based on one particular accent called RP. The RP accent is more common in south-east England, but it is not strictly regional.

Most people in Britain don’t use the RP accent – they have a regional accent. Britain is famous for its accents, which are very diverse. There can be a clear change in accent even in places only 30 miles apart. This is obvious in northern England (for example, between Yorkshire and Northumberland).

Southern English accents have differences too, but they are more subtle. People from northern England sometimes joke that there are only 3 southern accents – ‘London’, ‘farmer’ and ‘posh’ (RP). This is because differences between the accents of rural regions like Suffolk, Dorset and Gloucestershire are difficult to hear if you’re not familiar with them.

In London, the main working-class accent for all races is MLE (multicultural London English), a mix of Jamaican, traditional London ‘cockney’ and other accents. It is a result of London’s diversity. MLE is also found in southern cities like Reading, Milton Keynes and Luton.

Some accents are more fashionable than others. The BBC (the national broadcaster) uses a northern English accent for its voice-controlled assistant because it is seen as trustworthy and friendly. It is less usual to hear people in the media with accents from the Midlands (cities like Birmingham, Coventry or Wolverhampton) – although the TV series Peaky Blinders helped to make them better known and more popular.

It’s very rare to hear people in the media with an accent from agricultural regions like East Anglia or south-west England. For example, David Prowse, who played the part of Darth Vader in 1977 film Star Wars, had a Bristol accent, but the filmmakers decided it was not menacing enough and recorded someone else’s voice for the spoken parts. Even today, it is unusual to hear these accents unless the person is acting the part of a farmer – or pirate.

An RP accent can make you seem well educated and/or from a high social class. Sometimes having an RP accent is described as being ‘well spoken’. For these reasons, the RP accent still matters more than it should for many influential jobs. Many surveys show some type of discrimination against regional accents, especially if they are strong. It is therefore not unusual for people to use an RP accent at work and a different accent among friends and family.

Some people have special lessons (known as elocution lessons) to learn the RP accent. Even former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher felt the need to have elocution lessons to make herself seem more powerful.

Image: Johnhill118/Dreamstime

Was this useful?