How to Get to Grips with British Accents

English Courses

Once you have progressed to a certain level of a language you are learning and are comfortable with the sounds, vocabulary and structures you are using, a new challenge you may find is understanding and recognising different accents of native speakers of that language. 

For example, if you’re learning ‘standard’ European Spanish (also known as Castellano) you may consider yourself fairly fluent in the language, but then meet a person from Andalucia and find it very difficult to understand what they are saying – or perhaps when you are speaking to a Colombian friend in Spanish you know their pronunciation sounds different but can’t quite understand how or why. 

English is recognised as an official language in a total of 67 countries (as well as 27 non-sovereign entities) so there is a huge variation in how it is spoken around the world. Some English-speaking accents might already be quite recognisable to you- for example, if you watch a lot of English-language television, you may be familiar with the differences between US vs UK vs Australian accents.  

Received Pronunciation (RP) - often referred to as the ‘Queen’s English’, ‘BBC English’ or ‘Oxford English’ - is the accent most people consider to be ‘typically British’ - but very few people actually speak like this! The UK is a relatively small country and yet there are many vastly different accents across the population – you can even find different accents in different parts of the same city! Language is fluid and subject to many different influences over time (for example migration and trade), so accents can be an interesting insight into a place’s history. 

Some typical UK regional accent differences you may notice: 

  • In the North of the country, the long ‘A’ vowel sound isn’t pronounced in some words – so for example the A in ‘bath’ and ‘cat’ sound the same, whereas in the south the ‘A’ in ‘bath’ would sound like the ‘A’ in ‘far’ 

  • In Birmingham, the ‘Brummie’ accent uses a downward intonation at the end of each sentence 

  • In Bristol, the letter ‘R’ is often emphasised/rolled, and words ending with a vowel are often pronounced with an ‘intrusive dark L’ at the end – so “idea” and “ideal” could be pronounced similarly  

  • Liverpool and Manchester are only about 55km from each other in the northwest of the country, and yet their accents sound very different! 


How can you better understand different UK accents? 

You can learn more about different accents and their characteristics on the British Library’s website, or IH Bristol teacher Joanna has some suggestions for you: 

The Listening Project – A BBC Radio 4 show which presents curated interesting conversations between people who know each other.  You can listen on radio four to hear a wide variety of accents, or access the full bank of recordings at the British Library if there’s a particular accent you’d like to become more familiar with. 

Erik Singer is an accent expert and dialect coach who has some interesting videos on YouTube about regional accent differences, both in the UK and wider English-speaking world.  I recommend his whole collaboration with Wired, but here is a good place to start.

Netflix Dramas are a good way to improve your listening skills, but it’s not a truly realistic listening experience because you’re hearing actors reading a script rather than real spontaneous speech.  For that reason, I’d recommend watching British TV show and documentaries with real people to hear a more authentic portrayal of British accents.  For something light try Gogglebox, or for more serious I’d suggest 24 hours in A&E (especially if you’re preparing for the OET exam!) 

Of course, you can also study in different cities and immerse yourself in the accents first hand! With several partner schools around the UK and Ireland, why not study at IH Belfast, IH Galway, IH Manchester or IH Portsmouth