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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

American pronunciation

In the context of language learning, American pronunciation means General American (GenAm) pronunciation. This is the pronunciation used by educated Americans, on television and on radio. It is described in dictionaries of American English, such as the Merriam-Webster and Random House dictionaries.

Most Americans and Canadians speak something similar to General American. Whether you’re in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle or Toronto, you will generally hear the same accent. There are some regional differences, but they are usually very small. The only major exception is the South of the US (especially outside of big cities), which has its own distinct accent.

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

Sample recordings of British pronunciation (RP)

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; it is sometimes called the Queen’s English. 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.

In the UK, only a small percentage of people speak something similar to RP — these are upper-class people, academics, actors, TV personalities, politicians and English teachers. Outside of these groups, RP-like pronunciation is used in the southeast of England — in the area near Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton and London — although most people in that area actually speak Estuary English, which is significantly different from RP.

“Normal” Britons usually speak with their local accents, which are often quite different from RP, and 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.)

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:

  • 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.
  • Which accent you find easier to imitate. Sometimes people find they have a knack for one, but not the other.
  • Which accent your friends are learning. It is easier to learn if you can talk things through with your friends.
  • Which accent your teacher speaks. (Same reason as above.)
  • 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, it is easier to find a speaker of GenAm (or something close to GenAm) than of RP.
  • 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 Britain are neutral towards speakers of American English.
  • Americans love RP. If you speak RP in America, people will think you are intelligent and the opposite sex will take more interest in you.

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.)