Going for a British accent, any advice?

Charlotte   Sat Jul 12, 2008 12:44 am GMT

I've been learning English for a bunch of years now, and I must say that my pronunciation still leaves much to be desired.
I'm religiously learning vocabulary and grammar and I watched TV and listened to the radio in English for thousands of hours, but something's still not right.
I had finally mapped out to learn American English, which I did for a couple of months. Unfortunately, I have to (re)learn British English now, as I'm left with a heavy twang.
I'm motivated but lost at the same time, so here are my questions:

* Is it possible to maintain two "active" accents without getting mixed up, e.g. sounding New Yorker?

* Are there actually relevant tips out there that would help me sound British - and hopefully native - on the long term?

* I tried out shadowing but it didn't prove to be very successful. Are there other good methods to learn pronunciation, let alone phonetics?

* Every time I try to sound British, I ends up sounding really over-the-top. How can I get rid of that "poshness" problem? It makes me cringe, and also makes other people laugh haha.

Thank you.
Guest   Sat Jul 12, 2008 1:32 am GMT
1) yes, you`ll get confused
2) you probably won`t sound native at all. In fact, the only hope you have of sounding native without years upon years of accent reduction, is actually using the opposite accent: e.g. using an American accent when talking to a Englishman, or vice versa. They won`t be able to hear your non-native accent as well. As an American, I`ve been fooled by some non-native speakers of English who spoke English with a British accent. They did not fool
3) Unless your accent is super-terrific, most native speakers won`t be able to tell whether you learned British English, North American English, Australian English, or any other variety. Why worry about which accent you learn. In fact, your greatest chance of passing for a native is if you learn a heavy Scottish accent, or perhaps a Texas accent.

4) Well, then why not stick with your American-sounding accent then. If you go over to Britain, they might think you`re an American if your accent is really good. If you`re planning on visiting North America, people will enjoy hearing your `posh` accent, and it will sound no more over the top than any other British accents--(besides almost all forms of British English except for Cockney tend to sound `posh` to us usually). Besides, 9 out of 10 North Americans can`t really tell any of the different forms of British English apart besides some of the most extreme regional dialects and extremely lower-class sounding accents such as Cockney. Most can`t even tell the difference between British, Australian, New Zealand and South African English. I know I certainly can`t, and I don`t know many that can.
Damian in Edinburgh   Sat Jul 12, 2008 5:06 am GMT
I've no idea what your nationality is, but in your mind what's wrong with your own native accent anyway when it comes to speaking English? By all means perfect your standard of spoken English by every means possible but at least still maintain your own paricular accent. I've heard Dutch people, for instance, speak 101% carat gold English yet at the same time retain their characteristic Dutch accent, and it sounds nicer - nicer than when they are speaking thweir own native Language, which isn't all that easy on the non Dutch ear anyway, it has to be said. Likewise, I love to hear a French person speak good English - it makes spoken English sound so alluring.....

I don't go much on assumed accents anyway - they can really sound phoney a lot of the time.

My advice - don't bother trying too much to adopt any kind of British accent - it isn't "you" right now, I don't think. On the other hand, if you happened to come to Britain and stayed here for any length of time it's probably inevitable that you would naturally adopt Briticisms anyway, and in time you could legitimately be mistaken for a native born Glaswegian or Brummie.....God help you..... That could be remedied by moving to Edinburgh (if you want to go Scottish) or to Virginia Water or Sunningdale (if you want to GENUINELY sound REALLY REALLY posh English!)
Charlotte   Sat Jul 12, 2008 11:16 am GMT
Thanks for your answers. I think I didn't make myself clear at some point though. I need to become bilingual in order to get a job that's related to English, I may become an interpreter, for example.
My teachers all sound native(-like) so I don't really have a choice, as some teachers blatantly told me I should do something about my pronunciation and my accent.
"3) Unless your accent is super-terrific, most native speakers won`t be able to tell whether you learned British English, North American English, Australian English, or any other variety."

I'm still a beginner in this field - and I don't want to be vain because at the same time I really need to improve - but a teacher was a 100% sure that I spent my high school years in the US, and another one asked me if I ever went to New York. I don't sound native at all, but I think that people can tell whether I learned American English or British English.

"On the other hand, if you happened to come to Britain and stayed here for any length of time it's probably inevitable that you would naturally adopt Briticisms anyway, and in time you could legitimately be mistaken for a native born Glaswegian or Brummie.....God help you..."

Well, that's one of the reason I want to switch *before* going to the UK. I'll probably go to the UK in a few years, as you have to stay in an English-speaking country for a year or more if you want to become an interpreter.

And no, I can't stick to American English. I don't want to go into the details, but I really need to learn British English. It is not only a matter of not liking my non-native pronunciation. Let's just say that for business purposes, I have to do that. I'm highly motivated, and my teachers are the living proof that acquiring a native-like accent is possible. I don't think that they were all highly gifted. With hard work, I believe you can achieve anything, and I'm not particularly gullible.

I don't know if that helps, but I love the accents of the actresses in "Two pints of lager and a packet of crisps" - I don't know if you've ever heard of the show - and I did some research and found that they all lived in the North of the UK.

I would also like to add that I'll have to take an exam whose topic will be phonology and a teacher told me that the test consists in talking about anything (bullfighting and what not) but that we'll be judged on our intonation and pronunciation, e.g. each and every sound that we will produce will be under the scrutiny of the person who'll be in charge of the exam. And in that particular case, believe it or not, the goal is to sound as native as possible.
I genuinely want to better my spoken English and will welcome and test all your tips.
Guest   Sat Jul 12, 2008 12:53 pm GMT
Don't listen to the people who say no that matter what accent you learn you no one will be able to tell. I can always tell. Sure, few people get it perfectly, but it generally is visible, and significant... It's perfectly legitimate to say, for example, they speak "American/British English with French/German/Chinese characteristics"
Charlotte   Sat Jul 12, 2008 1:40 pm GMT
Thank you, Guest. It is, in fact, significant and that's why I need help with learning British English. However, I can understand that giving advice is difficult, since I assume that there is no secret formula out there which could help me with perfecting my pronunciation.
I'd feel comfortable using accent reduction books - that's what I've done with American English - if I actually knew there was such a course for British English.
I'm especially struggling with intonation. So please, if you learn a language and read this topic, try and explain how you work on your pronunciation, even if you are learning Italian or French. I can cope with learning vocabulary and grammar because I found appropriate "techniques". I'm only looking for a suitable method - in my case - to learn spoken English.
Guest   Sat Jul 12, 2008 8:46 pm GMT
Talk like a dirty chimney sweep. ALLO GUVNA. That's what they all sound like.
Charlotte   Sat Jul 12, 2008 9:23 pm GMT
LOL. You've been watching "My Fair Lady", right?
This movie is so cool. I also had to read the book, and for once, I enjoyed reading.
Uriel   Sat Jul 12, 2008 10:01 pm GMT
<<* Is it possible to maintain two "active" accents without getting mixed up, e.g. sounding New Yorker? >>

Well, Russell Crowe and Colin Farrell seem to be able to make their command of various accents into party tricks they can summon up at will, but I don't think most ordinary people can do it. And honestly, New Yorkers don't sound even remotely British. There is no real composite British/American accent in curent general use, so you can't look for one of those to try to emulate, unless you want to talk like an actor in a black and white 40's flick. (Which will just sound odd to everyone, because no one really talks like that, or ever did.) But I have seen lots of courses and resources on the internet for actors wanting to learn various accents -- why don't you try one of those? If your job requires it, I think you are right to pursue it.

<<I watched TV and listened to the radio in English for thousands of hours, but something's still not right.>>

Probably just listening to Brits or even being around them won't do the trick -- you need to understand WHY they sound distinctive, and identify what you need to modify in order to emulate their sound. That's going to require some in-depth analysis. Lots of ex-pat Americans and Brits live in the UK and the US and retain their native accents with only minimal concessions to their surroundings, so unless you are actively trying to change your speech, it won't just happen by osmosis -- it'll take lots of conscious effort.

<<I had finally mapped out to learn American English, which I did for a couple of months. Unfortunately, I have to (re)learn British English now, as I'm left with a heavy twang.>>

Americans sound "twangy"?
Damian in Edinburgh   Sat Jul 12, 2008 11:06 pm GMT
If I make any blips in this posting it's because I've only just come in from the pub where I've been with my mates having a right laugh - a lot earlier than usual for a Saturday night (it's now gone past midnight here at the minute) as I have a lot of "work" work to catch up with sadly due to a wee bit of laxity on my part and I must meet deadlines.

The British accent you're banging on about - one of my real top fave stage plays (and also a full length film starring the original cast of the stage play which has toured the UK several times as well as abroad) is Alan Bennett's "The History Boys". I've seen it at the National Theatre in London twice, and once each in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Alan Bennett comes from Leeds, and as a true Yorkshireman he used Sheffield as the setting for this play, so all the lads playing the students had to adopt a Yorkshire type accent although all of them came from different parts of the UK. Posner is my fave by a long way - he's great, and I love the bit in the play where he tells Irwin, the new teacher: "I'm small, I'm homosexual and I come from Sheffield. I'm fucked!" All in a Yorkshire accent although Stephen Barnett, who plays Posner, comes from Hertfordshire (I think) - in SE England.

The play reminds me so much of when I was at school before I went up to uni - a very similar scenario to this play/film in so many ways - but with a Scottish theme of course.

Listen to the lads speaking entirely in French (along with Hector, their history teacher - played by the fantastic Richard Griffiths) and judge for yourself their native British (Northern English English for the most part) and also their English accents when speaking in French.

It's the hadmaster (played by Clive Merrison) who comes into the classroom halfway through the French bordello scene along with the new teacher addressed simply as Mr Irwin (played by Stephen Campbell Moore). The student lying sans ses pantalons sur la table is the broody Dakin (played by Dominic Cooper).

Listen to the lovely Posner singing in French. Samuel Barnett also had a bit part in the film "Mrs Henderson Presents", the film with Judi Dench playing the part of Laura Henderson who bought the famous Windmill Theatre, close to Piccadilly Circus, in Central London, and organised, along with Vivian Van Damm, a continuous, non stop, musical revue in the only London theatre which remained open during the height of the WW2 London blitz, where performances continued in front of packed houses (95% of them servicemen in uniform) even when they all had to duck down between the seats when high explosive bombs landed and exploded dangerously close by leaving just the performers (mostly naked or half naked girls) standing put on the stage and taking their chances without moving a muscle and becoming covered in dust and bits of masonry falling down from the ceiling.

Xie   Sun Jul 13, 2008 12:30 am GMT
>>2) you probably won`t sound native at all.

Again, I must say accent is sooooooo pointless to pursue. And yes, just like what My fair lady implies, you just can't do all that much for yourself, because you are you, you aren't (in general) a duke/duchess. At my place, for example, biracial children speak two languages, Chinese children speak one, Indian/Pakistani speak two (and probably one only, i.e. their ancestral). You simply can't and, to a greater extent, shouldn't imitate any of the accents that doesn't belong to you. It's not only a futile attempt to fake identity, but actually an impractical no-no.

For English, it's actually quite free: even if you can't speak it very well, a decent command of expressing yourself is far more important than pronunciation - what I mean is you don't have to struggle with individual vowel sounds, which are very important in English, to imitate a constructed standard (RP, GA, for example) that perfectly. Just don't pronounce th-sound as f or v or t or d.

But for others, it's a different story. I think Mandarin is a really artificial example or a constructed standard. Even though native speakers go with regional accents perfectly fine, they must fail in a random language test, and foreigners find it bewildering why only one standard is acceptable in an exam... while they can hear millions of accents all the time on the streets, even in Beijing.

I still think English is ... European but... international. Like a foreigner learning my language, to a lesser extent, no matter how native (and I mean perfectly native), I still just look as Asian as you can guess. Your social identity is closely related to your linguistic identity.

It makes perfect sense to be truly native if you move to the country, for example. My aunt never really mastered English before she moved, but now she's speaking (supposedly) perfectly Aust. English - but so what, everyone except her husband and daughters can't really understand "English". She said without second thought that my English had been British, but I just couldn't understand any "wee bit" of her English. In a stricter sense, this is the kind of unintelligible English that I got for myself and from her.

The story of Honglaowai, while terribly politically funny, did show that, no matter how native you are, you are still a laowai. Even if you don't intend to, learning a language in this manner or, simply, in any normal manner already means faking identity, and this also applies to English somehow.

I think, too, that, besides social identity, going for an accent has to match your social needs. Perfect pronunciation may be terribly useful for a scholar, but as a traveler, a student, or a spouse of a native speaker, you have different needs. Now, the knowledge is only between the novice and native levels. It's just pretty like grammar or vocab. I wouldn't rush for a good accent, and without immediate needs, it's actually ok to do it slowly - let it improve along with grammar and vocab.
answertheQUESTIOn   Sun Jul 13, 2008 12:35 am GMT
Why is everyone here jumping in and telling her about how she SHOULDN'T do it. I don't recall her asking whether she SHOULD or not, but rather she was asking HOW to do it. She can make up her own mind whether it's necessary or not.

Btw, Xie, don't be so pessimistic. Maybe it is only you who is incapable of getting a good accent, don't be so quick to generalise.
Guest   Sun Jul 13, 2008 12:40 am GMT
Also, if she's doing it for work reasons it's completely legitimate. If she's doing,say, interpreting for a meeting in London, for a British company, and it comes down to 2 candidates of equal skill, one having a British accent and the other having an American accent, they're obviously going to choose the one with the British accent.
Jasper   Sun Jul 13, 2008 5:44 am GMT
Charlotte, you said that you have tried shadowing with little success; have you given the effort enough time? Are you sure you're following the instructions correctly? (Speak along with the speaker, one sentence at a time, until perfection is reached, then go on to the next sentence.)

It would take 500 hours, perhaps more, to achieve a good skill level with this method if you're a non-native.
Xie   Sun Jul 13, 2008 9:17 am GMT
I often got picked up on for PC reasons.