What do listeners hear when you speak in a regional accent? (Photo of 'The English Effect' exhibition.)

What do listeners hear when you speak in a regional accent? (Photo of 'The English Effect' exhibition.)

What do listeners hear when you speak in a regional accent? (Photo of 'The English Effect' exhibition.)

English speakers with regional accents are often judged by how they speak, but is this a good thing? Accent and dialect coaches Sarah Shepherd and Helen Ashton explain.

Accents define us the moment we meet others. They pass on information about our lives – where we are from, our age and even our parents’ histories – and they form an identity that gives us immediate membership to an oral tribe. Often this information we are transmitting does nothing other than inform the listener, but what if the way we speak really could change the path of our lives?

Recent research suggests that some judgments made by listeners to an accent are more than simply banter between the borders. Accents can affect how intelligent or attractive you are perceived to be, and can potentially affect results in exams, trials and job interviews.

The UK has a population of around 65 million, most of whom speak English as part of their daily life. For such a small, densely populated land mass full of people sharing a common language, the UK has a huge variety of distinct regional accents, often existing very close to each other – Brummie, Glaswegian, Scouse, Cockney, Multicultural London English (MLE) and Geordie, to name a very few. All of these accents are defined geographically, yet there is one accent that seems to represent us Brits internationally – Received Pronunciation or RP.

Research consistently shows us that RP or the ‘Queen’s English’ gives British speakers the best headstart in life – RP speakers can relax with the knowledge that they will probably earn a few brownie points in that exam/job interview/trial by sounding ‘a bit posh’.

Why? Given that RP has no discernible geography, how did it manage to become the most desired accent on our little group of islands? Well, it’s no secret that power attracts emulation, and it seems that over the last few centuries we have shifted from admiring those ruling the nation to trying to speak like them in the quest to climb the social ladder. As a strategy, this worked in the 1800s, and whilst so much has changed since, this particular mindset remains largely the same.

Accents create variety in speech and form part of our rich cultural heritage, like forms of history and diversity that we can hear. But they are also a form of history in the making. As younger generations discover all that speech has to offer, they claim its expressivity for their own, with new words being created in schools up and down the country.

To some, this just isn’t ‘proper’ speech, the same people who would have ‘standard speech’ – whatever that might be – taught across the UK, and internationally. Supporters of such ‘standard speech’ need to ask themselves this: do you really talk exactly like your parents spoke? Accents evolve across generations; trying to preserve speech is like trying to catch the proverbial wave: impossible.

The question remains for the UK – do we want to waste our energy preserving an accent standard that ultimately does little other than create additional hurdles for our regional, youth and immigrant populations?

Or shall we try to truly embrace the multiculturalism we claim to support and nurture, and start thinking instead about new standards of listening?

Voice and dialect coaches Helen Ashton and Sarah Shepherd presented yesterday’s webcast, ‘The politics of pronunciation‘, as part of the English Effect exhibition at the British Council, 10 Spring Gardens, London, SW1A 2BN.

Find out how English language instructors abroad teach their students about regional accents.


Total 9 Comments Add your comment

Greg Hunt

Posted on May 17th, 2013 Report abuse

In terms of teaching, having a different accent to that which is commonly used in the teaching material can be a problem. I’m from Liverpool, so, unless I’m careful, I don’t pronounce “but” in the same way as in RP, or many other varieties of southern British English, for example. This can cause some confusion amongst students, but I often find that it can also be an opportunity to explore pronunciation and regional accents in more depth.

RP does not have quite the same status it used to though. We often think of it as “BBC English” and yet BBC newsreaders have a range of accents now: Huw Edwards, for example, has a noticeable Welsh accent.

It may be that David Cameron’s “poshness”, including his accent is actually a drawback for him politically and George Osborne was noted to have modified his pronunciation in a speech to Kent supermarket workers last month: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/georgeosborne/9966717/Mockney-George-Osborne-backs-the-Briddish-who-wanna-work.html


Posted on May 17th, 2013 Report abuse

you are presesnt very good activities and we thank you for all

Name*Paul Brown

Posted on May 17th, 2013 Report abuse

BBC English? Ha Ha, the BBC seem to have adopted the short ‘A’ no matter what. Even announcers speaking RP commonly use it and then it sounds completely false/forced. I often wonder if it has become a BBC rule that you can only get a job there if you use the short ‘A’.

Dr.David Ngin Sian Pau

Posted on May 17th, 2013 Report abuse

Different regions in the UK must try to follow the accent of speaking English in London as it is the capital city which will keep the standard of English speaking skill for the whole country. For foreigners, what they know about the English language is that there are two types of English in the world – British English and American English. That’s it. People who speak Singapore English, Indian English, Chinese English or Malaysian English are considered very poor in English, and they are disqualified and incapacitated.

Name* Ann Muir

Posted on May 18th, 2013 Report abuse

The Queen’s RP has been modified noticeably over many years.
As long as you can make yourself understood accent shouldn’t be a problem. Born and brought up in Yorkshire, I am usually unable to say ‘barth’ instead of ‘bath’ etc, but it hasn’t been a noticeable hindrance. Singing is the great leveller as some things you just can’t do in RP.


Posted on May 18th, 2013 Report abuse

I too want to speak much better with your guidance


Posted on May 21st, 2013 Report abuse

I love manchaster dialect…


Posted on May 26th, 2013 Report abuse

That people can do better or worse in life just because of their accents, no matter in what language, sounds like another form of discrimination to me.

George Osbourne

Posted on March 20th, 2014 Report abuse

Oh my days!
Innit bruv