English is spoken with countless different accents. Within Britain alone, there are a large number and they can vary between towns a few kilometres apart. Then we come to accents such as Australian, South African and New Zealand English. Are they all British accents as well? To answer this we have to leave the linguists behind and simply ask ‘What does an average citizen regard as British English?’ The simple answer is ‘Any accent that doesn’t sound American’.

As American English is prominent internationally, any English accent is now commonly perceived as ‘sounding’ either British or American. For example, a typical outsider is unable to distinguish between the many USA accents and Canadian accents. Like it or not, they all fall into the ‘American’ category. In the same fashion, our everyday definition of ‘British’ English covers all accents such as those in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. 

How British and American English differ

Let’s work with the idea that there are two broad categories of accent, British and American. This means we should be able to slot every Regional and local accent into one of the two. Fortunately, we can do this very easily.

The most obvious feature that sets British and American accents apart is the way a printed letter ‘r’ is treated when a word is spoken. This is the overriding feature we all identify.

  • In British English, an ‘r’ following a vowel in a syllable is silent. The ‘r’ in words such as park, perk, pork and paper is not pronounced. Instead, the speaker holds the vowel for the ‘time’ the missing ‘r’ would have taken. Park is therefore spoken as paak with a long vowel.
  • American English pronounces every ‘r’ sound strongly, no matter where it is in the syllable. Park is pronounced parrk with a strong resonant ‘r’. The vowel almost seems to disappear as the ‘r’ quality is so prominent.

But where did this pronounced American ‘r’ come from in the first place? It came from the many Irish immigrants that settled in the USA. To this day, the Irish accents have a gentle, pronounced final-‘r’. Yet we don’t say they sound American! I hope you’re starting to see why we have to classify accents in terms of how they are commonly perceived. The academics will simply have to live with it.

Which English accent is best, and why?

Officially, the British Oxford accent is taken as the reference for the accent called Received Pronunciation. This term arose from the fact that in days gone by only those with this accent were deemed suitable to be ‘received’ by the King or Queen. It’s also commonly called the ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘BBC English’. The difficulty is, how many of those in England actually speak this way? Not all that many. But old perceptions die hard and there is no doubt that, for clarity, absolutely nothing beats the best spoken British. This, despite the fact that American English may be heard more frequently, and be more familiar, in many foreign lands.

You can, of course, choose to learn a Regional English accent, if all your dealings are with local speakers. However, the advantage of training towards Standard Neutral (British) English is it will give you greater clarity in any environment.

And what of American English? There’s absolutely no doubt if you are dealing with the Americas that American English is the way to go. Beyond that, the best choice is for you to consider the dominant influence of the English being spoken around you. South Korea has an American English influence, while India has a British English influence. As with all things in life, ‘best’ depends on your particular circumstances. 

Benefits of speaking with a clear British accent

For practical purposes, those wanting to improve their English accent must choose between either British or American English as a first step. All training programs will start from one or the other as their base. To misquote Shakespeare; To ‘silent r’ or ‘not to silent r’, that is the question.

So, why choose British? Standard Neutral English is a universal, clear British English that blends perfectly with any foreign or Regional accent. Training towards it gives the speaker a ‘soft’ or mild version of their original accent. This gives their speech its greatest chance at clarity. As adults, very few people are able to eliminate their first accent entirely. Maximum clarity is therefore the ultimate goal.

If you want to be understood every time you speak, then rest assured Standard Neutral English won’t let you down. 

How can I learn a British accent?

It’s probably better to start with how you can’t learn a British, or any other, new accent. Your brain is hardwired from the age of 9 to 11 years to produce only the sounds of your native accent. After that, any change requires serious re-programming of your brain-mouth connection. You can’t do this by simply trying to imitate a good speaker, or viewing short video clips, even if they do throw in a few instructions.

Changing your accent is a skill. Like any skill it takes detailed instruction and a great deal of targeted repetition. After all, you wouldn’t expect to pick up and play a violin well by following a few short video clips. You may be able to play some notes, or repeat a few words accurately, but you will never be able to either play, or speak, fluently with this  approach.

How do I practise a British accent?

There are no easy short cuts but Time-Online has been designed with the serious student in mind. Perhaps you’ve tried the short approaches on offer and found they don’t actually work? If your aim is to speak English clearly and fluently, an intense Time-Online course will give you your best chance at success. You still have to put in the hours of practice but you’ll have all the tools you need.

The many techniques and Masterclass videos train you how to make each sound correctly; and how to shape your mouth into the correct ‘holding posture’. After that, you simply tune in to the many hours of audio exercises and off you go. You can do these while washing the dog, cooking the dinner or travelling to work. The key is repetition, repetition and more repetition.

Then it’s over to you to be brave and try out your new speech with other English speakers, as often as you can. In the end, you can only chalk up success when you’re able to think and talk at the same time. All in perfect British English, of course.