Students sometimes ask me whether it is better to speak English with a British or an American accent. The answer is, of course, both, or neither. Why not an Australian, a South African or a Jamaican accent? No accent is superior to any other; the important thing is to speak correctly and, above all, comprehensibly. However, supposing I tell them that I think an American accent is preferable because it is more widely spoken. Which American accent are we talking about? The way people in Texas speak is very different from the way they do in New York or in Ohio. There may be some common features, but is there such a thing as a standard American accent?

The same goes for Britain. Even within a small geographical area, there can be a wide variety of accents. I grew up in Bristol, in South-West England but my parents were from South Wales, a mere forty-five-minute drive away but a completely different world in terms of the accent. Even within South Wales, the accent in Cardiff is very different from that of the former mining villages a few miles to the north. This also occurs in Spanish, of course: I still find it strange how the prevalent seseo of the inhabitants of the city of Seville suddenly changes to a ceceo in other parts of the province.

So, is there a standard British accent? In the past, television and radio presenters in Britain spoke with what was called ‘received pronunciation’ or ‘RP’ a regionally-neutral accent spoken by the upper classes and some middle-class people. RP went into decline as it was increasingly viewed as elitist and was even ridiculed in later years. It became increasingly common to hear other accents on the BBC and it is now perfectly normal for a newsreader to speak in his or her regional accent.

With increased geographical mobility, there is a possibility that regional accents may become less pronounced as people interact more with people from other regions and from different social classes and cultures. In the 1990s, some linguists suggested that the different regional accents of southern England were being subsumed into what they called ‘Estuary English’ which combined elements of ‘cockney’, the traditional London accent, with more standard forms of speech. More recently, Multicultural London English (MLE) has been identified as a trend, especially among young people living in ethnically diverse parts of the capital and other British cities.

Anyway, my view is that there is no need for learners of English to worry so much about not having the perfect accent. As English is now a global language, learners are just as likely to interact in English with other non-native speakers and studies have found that it is easier for non-native speakers to understand other non-native speakers. And for native speakers it is not at all off-putting to hear a language spoken in a foreign accent. Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, for example, both speak very good English but, despite having lived in Hollywood for years, they still have a Spanish accent. Do people complain? On the contrary, most people find it attractive.

Jon Ostler

Keep Reading