English is the main language and is understood everywhere. But it is not the only language. There are also regional languages, like Kernewek (Cornish) in Cornwall, Cymraeg (Welsh) in Wales and Scottish Gaelic in Scotland. In these places, road signs are written in two languages and there are special TV and radio channels. There are language courses available and children learn in school.
In Scotland, many people speak a language similar to English, called Scots.
Deaf people in Britain speak a language called BSL (British Sign Language).
You will also hear many overseas languages spoken in Britain (for example, it is estimated that in London there are about 300 languages). Some official documents and websites are available in several languages. Many local councils offer several different options, based on their local community needs.
RP is probably the English accent you will be most familiar with, because a variation of RP is usually taught on English courses. Historically, RP (Received Pronunciation) was the English accent of people with power, such as the royal family.
However, only 2% of the British population speaks with a true RP accent. Most British people speak with an accent, perhaps from their region or community. Some accents from southern England sound similar to RP, but other accents sound very different to RP – especially those from Scotland, Wales, London, northern and western England, and within certain communities.
Many other countries speak English and therefore British people are used to hearing English spoken in many different ways. Speaking clearly and having a good understanding of words is more important than any accent or grammar.
The British Library website has a lot of information about accents, including some interesting blogs and sound clips.
People who speak with a strong RP accent are sometimes said to have a ‘plummy voice’. The RP accent has long vowel sounds, people joke that is sounds like they are holding a plum in their mouth while they are speaking.
Many people believe only upper class people speak this way (Prince Charles is a good example), but in fact the RP accent is not a reliable social class indicator.
The government offers ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses. These might be free or discounted, depending on how long you have been in the UK. You can find a course (search for ‘ESOL’) on the National Careers service website or search local council websites of areas near you.
It is also possible to get private lessons. You need to look for ‘EFL tutors’ (English as a Foreign Language). These tutors are trained to teach adults who don’t have English as a first language. Some tutors will come to your home, although others teach in a public setting.
The IELTS (International English Language Testing System, shows that you have good English. It is offered in association with the British Council, which is the UK organisation for cultural relations. IELTS is useful if you want to study at an English university or for some jobs. Read more on the IELTS website.
An American organization called ETS offers TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language, which is similar. Read more on the ETS website.