My top 5 tips for adopting or perfecting your British RP accent: Listen, listen, listen, listen, listen

  1. Practicing task. Work hard on the diphthong ‘owe-oo’ as in ‘hotel’. It is a simple sound for non-native speakers to create, and makes a huge difference as it crops up all owe-oo-ver the place.  Spanish and Greek speakers usually pronounce this sound as a mono-thong; so ‘hop’ and ‘hope’, ‘pop’ and ‘pope’ end up sounding the same. In reality they are completely different sounding words. The diphthong in howe-oop and powe-oop makes them twice as long as hop and and pop. Common words that use this diphthong: so, no, know, slow, although, over, go, show, photo … and many more.
  2. Listening task. Discover and embrace our magnificent and mysterious schwaaaaa. English is a dahhh-dee-dahhh-dee-diddledee-dahhhh language (stress timed). Many other languages are ‘syllable timed’ which means each syllable is given the same length of time and emphasis when spoken; Da-di-da-di-dee-dul-di-da. The commonest vowel sound, and the biggest contributor to the rhythm of spoken English, is our schwa. It’s identified in this paragraph by everything in bold. The schwa is an unstressed ‘uh‘ sound. It can only be detected by listening, because as you can see, it doesn‘t have its own spelling. Only when you’ve detected the schwa, recognised our ‘diddly-daah’ rhythm, and properly understood the link between them, only then should you start trying it out for yourself.
  3. Listening and pra|cticing task. ‘|Uh-|oh’ – the glottal sto|p. This is another anomaly of spoken English for whi|ch there are no clues in the written word. On|ce again, this is about| listening and discovering where it|’s used.  (I|’ts identified in this paragraph by ‘|’). The glottal sto|p, described by one of my clien|ts as ‘choking’ (!) is a pin|ching of muscles in the throa|t to cause a comple|te, bu|t momentary cessation of sound and breath. I visualise it as a line of link|ed sausages. The leng|th of the line represen|ts the sentence and the sausage meat is the sound. Ea|ch pin|ch represen|ts what happens to the sound where a glottal sto|p occurs. There is mu|ch to the glottal sto|p that isn|’t covered here, but think of it as an energy force tha|t we use to spring from one sound to another.  It|’s like a hiccu|p.
  4. Practicing task. The ‘the’. The ‘th’ sound is particular to English and comfortably fudged by non-native speakers with ‘ze’ (German, French) ‘de’ (Spanish, Greek, Chinese, Swahili).  ‘Th’ is created by breath and/or sound expelled between the teeth and the tongue, where the top end of your tongue is snug against your top teeth.  (If it’s tricky, push your lips forward to support your tongue with your bottom lip acting as a hammock.)  Once you’ve got the hang of it, practice will make perfect. If it feels uncomfortable, you’re probably on the right track.
  5. Thinking and visualising task. Your tongue: that valiant little acrobat performing tricks in the smallest, darkest gymnasium in the world.  By the age of 3 you effortlessly mastered a foreign language, complete with excellent grammar, an impressive vocabulary and perfect pronunciation: your mother tongue.  In order to achieve this, your infant tongue shaped itself around and about your lips, teeth and palate and learned all the tricks necessary to communicate and be understood by the people around you. To speak your best English, your tongue must learn to dance to a completely different tune, and your success will depend on how able you are to listen, visualise and retrain your tongue.
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3 comments

  1. Fascinating reading. I’m currently publically speaking more and more and am acutely aware that ‘having a nice tone to my voice’ alone does not cut it, so I’m striving to be much clearer and more pronounced, whilst keeping that warm tone. If only I lived in London I would happily pop along to one of the courses. By the way, I must confess to being a fan of yours from your excellent performance in Casualty back in the day as Dr Mary, you were brilliant. I even recall you – with an impressive Irish accent – in Juliet Bravo too. Thank goodness for DVD releases – I can enjoy some proper acting with good stories on TV!

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    1. Golly! You sure go a long way back … Juliet Bravo my Gawd. I can hardly remember it myself, except that I worked with the same costume designer a few years later and he apologised for what he’d done to me on it!

      I had a quick skivvy through your blog and love all your bits and bobs. I hadn’t seen the Dennis Skinner fracas the other day – so wish we had more fearless people like that who are willing to express what the rest of us are feeling. His final comment accusing DD of doing more to divide this country than anyone else is painfully true – we’ve become sort of anaesthetised while the Tories sell everything off.

      Thank you for your kind comments and good luck with the public speaking. In a knock-out fight, I believe warm tone beats clear pronunciation but it’s obviously best to have it all going on.

      BW

      Helena

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      1. Oh dear, does that lead you to my witterings! Thank you for the kind and very sweet comments nonetheless.

        Aww, well it was the 80s I guess! I was actually only a nipper back then, but I overdosed on UK Gold in the 90s which shaped my televisual tastes to this very day. I especially loved Casualty back then, and still do, like the wonderful Dennis it had the courage to take the Tories to task over its mishandling of the NHS and public services. Now, on the rare occasions I do tune in, it’s all rather toothless like so much TV these days.

        I’m actually a member of the Casualty fansite, Holby.tv if you ever fancy discussing your time on the show I’m sure thy’d love to hear from you there, I believe the site bods do interviews with past cast members…

        Thanks once again for your lovely reply, best wishes

        Mark

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