How to perfect your British pronunciation

A large number of English learners across the world want to speak English with a British accent.  Due to the famous brand of Great Britain, with the monarchy, academics, movies and the BBC, the British accent has become famous and desirable.  But what is a British accent and how do you perfect yours? 

What is the British accent?

Britain is a diverse country full of a wide spectrum of very distinct accents.  There are more than 40 distinct accents in the UK.  So, is it possible to say that there is a ‘British accent’?  Well, no. 

What do people mean when they say ‘British accent’?  Typically, they are referring to the RP accent; Received Pronunciation.  What is the RP accent, I hear you ask?  

The British RP accent is often referred to as BBC English or the Queen’s English, but even these two accents are two different versions of Received Pronunciation. 

The two versions are:

  1. Modern RP – this is ’BBC English’, what the Cambridge dictionary uses in its pronunciation examples, and the version most speakers of RP have.
  2. Heightened RP – this is the ‘Queen’s English’. Also referred to as ‘posh’ English. This is the accent of the British upper class and is rarely found in natural speakers.

Guest lesson – English Like A Native

Anna Tyrie is the head teacher at English Like A Native.  She has 15 years of experience teaching English as a second language and as a British English pronunciation coach.

Perfect your pronunciation
Anna Tyrie: English Like A Native

What British accent should I learn? 

The answer to this question is simple: learn the accent you want to learn!  If you want to sound like a Cockney, a Scouser, or a Scott, that is your preference and you’ll be joining millions of proud speakers of that accent.  

Choosing a regional accent is a good idea if you live in the location of the accent you are learning and, have no plans to leave in the future. 

However, if you do not live in the location of your favourite accent, or expect to move away, I would advise caution in learning English with a regional accent (unless it’s for acting).  My advice when choosing an accent is to:

  1. Learn an accent with lots of resources: the modern RP accent, like the Standard American accent, has a huge amount of resources for language learners and users.  Most major British publications (such as dictionaries) and media channels use the RP accent.  Therefore, as a learner, you’ll have plenty of resources to use. 
  2. Choose one accent and stick to it: we all have a variety of influences on our speech and pronunciation.  As a learner of English, it’s helpful to focus on one accent for pronunciation so that your speaking develops in a consistent way. However, ensure that you expose yourself to many different accents to improve your listening skills.

Above all, the RP accent will serve you well no matter where in the world you go or what you are doing.

Three top tips for perfecting your British accent.

1. Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) 

If you are learning another language or trying to perfect another accent, you will not sound the same as you do now.  This may sound obvious, but it’s often not properly understood.  

The way that sounds are written in different languages is usually different in a number of areas.  What makes English particularly difficult is that sounds are often written differently across the English language.  English does not have a phonetic alphabet.

You may know that there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, but did you know that there are 44 sounds in the British RP accent?  Master these 44 sounds and you will be well on your way to perfecting your pronunciation.

You can use the International Phonetic Alphabet to read and write the 44 sounds of received pronunciation in a consistent way.

If you learn the IPA, you will be able to read, understand and repeat the pronunciation of any word.  Even better, almost every major dictionary includes both the normal and the phonetic spelling of every word.  

This is the single biggest game-changer in perfecting your pronunciation.  You can use this workbook to help you memorise the IPA

2. Use regular shadowing practice

Shadowing is the process of mirroring, imitating, or replicating speech, in order to improve your pronunciation.

Have you ever sung along to a song?  Essentially, you are shadowing that song.  You’ll learn the words, pitch, pronunciation, intonation, pacing, and flow of the song.  You’ll then repeat the song in time to the singer you’re modelling. 

When you use shadowing to improve your pronunciation, it’s no different.  Here’s what to do: 

Step 1: Find a speech to model.  You may choose an actor, a teacher, a YouTuber, or a politician.  The only thing that matters is that you like the way they speak and want to sound like them.

Step 2: Listen to the speech, write it out, make notes and identify the areas that you will find most challenging.  In this process, the aim is to get familiar with the speech so that you can start to imitate it.  You may want to write out the speech in full or if it is a video, perhaps turn on the captions. 

Step 3: It’s time to imitate.  Replay the audio/video speech and try to copy the speaker exactly.  This will be a process of repetition and perfection.  The idea is to sound exactly the same as the model speech in every way possible.  

This is one of the most powerful ways to perfect your pronunciation and because you will be replicating the whole speech exactly, you will find broad benefits for your language growth across vocabulary, grammar, and fluency in general.  

If you want a huge resource of high quality shadowing exercises, my Pronunciation Course has everything you will need.

3. Get an expert to assess your pronunciation

One of the fastest ways to make a change and perfect your pronunciation is to identify your weakest areas.  With an expert pronunciation assessment, you’ll find out what you are doing wrong, what you are doing right, and what you need to do to improve. 

As with any skill, knowing how to improve is essential to both achieving your goals and doing it quickly, without picking up bad habits.  

There are lots of sources of expert guidance.  Here are a few ways to get what you need:

  • The cheapest way is to be your own expert.  Get really good at being objective when assessing yourself.  Use a recording device, like your mobile phone, into which you can speak.  Leave it a day then play it back to yourself and compare it to your model speech.  You can make huge progress with this approach and it’s a great skill to master. 
  • The most accessible way to get advice is to ask your English teacher for help.  Apart from being more objective than doing it alone, most English teachers have some experience with accent coaching and can often give some great advice. 
  • The best way: You would be surprised about how much helpful direction you will receive from a true pronunciation expert.  Really great ones are rare, and they can make an enormous difference to your progress.  Experts will help you to identify problems you never knew you have.  The best pronunciation experts work with native speakers, actors, and public speakers, as well as language learners.  You can learn more about my assessment service here

Get the practice you need to help you sound and feel natural

One of the hardest parts of language learning is to get the practice that you need to feel confident, fluent, and natural when speaking English.  The UK government says it takes hundreds of hours to reach fluency.

Most language learners do not have the opportunity to travel, work, or live in a foreign country. So where do you get the practice that you need to master your pronunciation and develop your speaking fluency?  Here are some ideas to help you to achieve your goals. 

1. Start your own speaking club

If you have friends who are English speakers and/or learners you can get a huge amount of practice for free by hanging out with them and agreeing to speak only English.  This may be hard at first, and it’s always tempting to slip back to your native language, but you can make a lot of progress.  

It’s not true that you have to speak with natives to become fluent.  A lot of people all over the world become fluent in English at school and only ever learn with their teachers and friends.  The key is to make sure that you have the right resources for learning. Speaking practice helps you to connect what is in your brain with what comes out of your mouth.

2. Try immersing yourself at home

Another fun and free way to get the practice you need is to make your home an English-speaking zone.  This great method is used by many families all over the world to help their children learn English.  

The challenge, like a speaking club with your friends, is that you don’t slip back to your mother tongue.  

Join an online English-speaking club

Probably the best way to get the practice you need to be fluent in English is to join an online English speaking club.  

Nowadays, online video calls are the norm and feel quite natural to us.  The best practice classes will be supported by a teacher who gives you pre-reading and helps the conversations flow.

While these online speaking clubs do have a cost, it’s usually much cheaper than formal lessons.  The conversations can be a lot more genuine and you may find that you get a lot more actual practice.  

So find yourself a good speaking club, one that is supportive, like-minded, and where you are comfortable taking a few risks.  

Good luck with perfecting your pronunciation and I hope to see you in my Conversation Club sometime soon.  

Anna – Head Teacher, English Like A Native