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Choosing between American and British pronunciation

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

Different kinds of English have different pronunciation. For example, the pronunciation (the accent) of British English is different from the pronunciation of American English.

The most frequently learned kinds of English in the world are American English and British English.

Sample recordings of General American (GenAm) pronunciation

  1. 1. The Perfect Storm by S. Junger, narrator: R. Davidson
  2. 2. The Time Traveler’s Wife by A. Niffenegger, narrator: L. Lefkow
  3. 3. Slaughterhouse-Five by K. Vonnegut, narrator: E. Hawke

American pronunciation

When people talk about “learning American pronunciation”, they mean learning General American (GenAm) pronunciation. General American is the accent that is most often spoken on national television in the United States. American pronunciations in dictionaries are also based on GenAm.

  • Educated Americans usually speak GenAm. (Even if they were raised in a small town in Arkansas with a strong regional accent, their accent often becomes more like GenAm over time – either because they make an effort to “reduce their accent” or because they move to another part of the country and their accent changes by itself.)
  • 90% of what you’ll hear on American TV, radio, podcasts, movies, Web videos, etc. is GenAm.
  • In most parts of the US and Canada, you will hear GenAm (or something similar) spoken by people “on the street” – not just educated people. Two major exceptions are the South of the US (Texas, Georgia, etc.) and black/Hispanic neighborhoods. In general, differences between American regional accents are small compared with the regional differences within Britain.

General American pronunciation is rhotic /'roʊtɪk/, which means that the letter r is always pronounced.

Sample recordings of British pronunciation (RP)

  1. 1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by D. Adams, narrator: S. Fry
  2. 2. Crocodile on the Sandbank by E. Peters, narrator: B. Rosenblat
  3. 3. Carpe Jugulum by T. Pratchett, narrator: N. Planer

British pronunciation

When people talk about learning British pronunciation, they usually think of Received Pronunciation (RP). RP is the pronunciation of the British upper class – people who went to universities like Oxford and Cambridge. This is the pronunciation that you will learn at a British language school; it is also the model taught in coursebooks and dictionaries from publishers like Oxford and Longman.

  • Only about 5% of Britons speak RP — these are upper-class people, academics, actors, TV personalities, politicians and English teachers. Educated Britons from various regions of the UK sometimes adopt an RP-like accent. They may do this for two reasons: 1 they move to another part of Britain and they want people to understand them more easily, or 2 they want to speak with a prestigious accent.
  • Most “normal” Britons speak with their local accents. If you go anywhere else than the south-east of England and talk to people on the street, you will most likely hear something quite different from RP, which can be very hard to understand to untrained ears. Sometimes cities that are only 20 km apart have very different accents. (The British Library has an interactive map of the UK which lets you listen to some examples of British accents from various areas.)
  • Among “normal people”, an accent similar to RP is spoken in the southeast of England — in the area near Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton and London. This accent is called Estuary English.
  • RP is a prestigious accent because it is spoken by many successful, respected people like the Royal Family, Members of Parliament, university professors, etc. However, conservative RP can make you sound old-fashioned, pretentious and even unfriendly. For this reason, some British politicians avoid speaking conservative RP – instead, they choose “modern RP” (RP with elements of Estuary English).
  • RP is the British accent that you’ll usually hear in popular British films and TV shows – especially those made for the international market.

Read more

Sociolinguistics of modern RP by Peter Trudgill

RP is non-rhotic, which means that the letter r is usually “silent”, unless it is followed by a vowel. Here’s how it works:

  • In words like car, tower, inform and first, r is silent (r is not followed by a vowel).
  • In words like red, foreign, print, r is pronounced (r is followed by a vowel).
  • R is also pronounced at the end of a word, if the next word starts with a vowel, for example: number eight, far away.
  • Most RP speakers also insert an r in phrases like: the idea(r) of, Africa(r) and Asia, law(r) and order. This r is not in the spelling; they just use it to separate two vowels.

The following pairs sound exactly the same in RP: or–awe, court–caught, sore–saw, farther–father, formerly–formally. In General American, they all sound different.

Which one should you choose?

To choose between American and British pronunciation, you need to answer two questions:

  1. which one will be more useful to you?
  2. which one will be easier to learn for you?

On the first question, you should remember that whether you choose General American or RP, you will be understood by all English speakers, because everyone familiar with both of these accents from TV and movies. So the objective usefulness of GenAm and RP is about the same. Still, if you know you’re going to be talking mainly to people who have a particular accent, you may want to learn a similar accent (or you may decide that it is better to stand out).

For example, if you are planning to move to England, or if you have many English friends, you may want to learn RP. Of course, the accent of most Britons is quite different from RP, so you will probably stand out anyway. (Speakers of GenAm will have a much better chance of blending in with Americans, as there are fewer regional differences in the US.)

The second question is more tricky. Here, the most important thing are your individual circumstances, such as:

  1. Whether you simply prefer one of the accents (for example, because it sounds more pleasant, more sexy, more intelligent, more powerful, etc. to you). If you want to get results, you have to be excited about learning English pronunciation. The more attractive your goal seems to you, the more motivation you will have.
  2. Which accent you hear more often. It’s usually easiest to learn an accent that you hear often. Think about your (current and potential) sources of spoken English: movies, TV shows, podcasts, teachers, friends. Are you going to spend more time listening to American or British accents? If you pick an accent that you don’t hear a lot, you will make your job harder for yourself because you will have to actively seek out content with this accent – this content may not be as interesting and fun for you, which may hurt your motivation.
  3. Which accent you find easier to imitate. Sometimes people find they have a knack for one, but not the other.
  4. Which accent your friends are learning and which accent your teacher speaks. In addition to being a source of spoken English (see point 2 above), friends and teachers can provide advice and help you with your pronunciation. It is easier to learn if you can talk things through with people in real life.
  5. Whether you are interested in science or computing. GenAm is more frequently used in those fields and if you are interested in them, you will hear it more often and will find it easier to learn.

If the above questions don’t point to an obvious choice, take a look at this table, which compares the more objective advantages of each accent:

US flagGeneral American (GenAm) UK flagReceived Pronunciation (RP)
  • If you speak it, you will be understood by all English speakers.
  • If you speak it, you will be understood by all English speakers.
  • You have a better choice of movies, TV shows and video games to learn the accent from. America’s media industry makes a larger amount of interesting, funny and exciting content than Britain’s.
  • Although American English dominates the media, there are plenty of well-known British actors and movies full of British pronunciation (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings).
  • The Web has more GenAm content (YouTube videos, podcasts, etc.) than RP content.
  • There are at least 10 times more speakers of GenAm than of RP. If you have pronunciation questions, GenAm speakers are easier to find on the Web than RP speakers.
  • The best English dictionaries are made in Britain and focus on RP. (They also have information on American pronunciation, but it is not always accurate, so if you choose American English, you will have to consult American dictionaries, too.)
  • People (in America and Britain alike) are neutral towards speakers of GenAm. It’s a kind of “Everyman’s accent”.
  • Because RP is an elite accent, people associate it with high social status and intelligence, but sometimes also with arrogance and unfriendliness – both in America and Britain.

My choice of General American pronunciation

My reasons for choosing American pronunciation were personal. I wanted to learn the same kind of English as my two best friends in high school, who were also the best English learners. I also wanted to be different from “average” students (most people in Poland try to learn RP), and I wanted to annoy my teachers, many of whom viewed RP as some kind of “gold standard”. If I had been studying RP, I simply would not have had so much fun on a social level.

Even though my reasons were personal, American English turned out to be a good choice. RP may be the king of schools, coursebooks and dictionaries, but most popular, real-world content (movies, TV series, podcasts, Web videos, etc.) features American speakers. Because I was learning American English, I could practice my pronunciation while watching my favorite TV shows and playing my favorite video games. If I had chosen RP, I would have still had some fun content to learn from, but my options would have been more limited.

The importance of learning about the other accent

Whichever accent you choose, you should have some knowledge about both accents. Let’s suppose you want to speak pure RP. You don’t want to have an American accent at all. Should you pay attention to the American pronunciations in your dictionary?

Yes, you should. First of all, you need to understand both British and American English, since both are widely used. Even if you want to speak RP, it is good to know how words are pronounced in General American. It helps you understand American speech.

Secondly, you ought to be aware of the systematic differences between RP and GenAm because you will be learning words from Americans as well as Britons. Consider what happens if you (a student of RP) hear a new English word on an American TV channel. Let’s suppose this word is nuke, pronounced /nu:k/. If you know nothing about American pronunciation, you may assume that the word is pronounced the same way in RP, and you may learn to say it like that.

However, if you had some basic knowledge of American phonetics, you would know that many words which have the sound /ju:/ in RP, have /u:/ in GenAm (for example: new, due). Because nuke is one of such words, the pronunciation /nu:k/ is not correct in RP. The correct pronunciation is /nju:k/.

If you pay attention to both British and American pronunciations in your dictionary, you will eventually develop a type of intuition about these things. For most words, you’ll be able to tell how to pronounce them in your accent, even if you have only heard them from speakers of the other accent. For other words, you’ll know that you just have to look them up to be sure.

(This topic has been discussed in the Forum.)

Accents other than GenAm and RP

Generally speaking, I wouldn’t recommend learning an accent other than GenAm or RP, for two reasons:

  1. GenAm and RP are the easiest to learn because it’s easy to surround yourself with GenAm or RP content. Those two accents are world leaders in terms of the amount and quality of available content like movies, podcasts, TV shows, etc. It is simply too difficult to get a constant stream of high-quality content in Australian English, Scottish English, etc.
  2. GenAm and RP are widely understood around the world, by both English native speakers and non-native speakers alike. This is not the case for other English accents.

Of course, if your circumstances are special – for example, if you live in Australia or have frequent conversations with an Irish friend – you should take that into account.