How do professional actors change the way they speak for different acting roles? What can learners of English take from the way actors do this, in order to apply it to their language learning? In this conversation I speak to Jerome Butler who is a very experienced dialect coach working in the TV and film industry in the USA, and we discuss these questions.
Hi folks, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been working on the WISBOLEP competition and it is coming soon. I’ll let you know exactly what I’ve decided, I will play you recordings from listeners and you’ll be able to vote and we’re going to find a LEPster to be interviewed on the podcast. So the next installment of Why I Should Be On LEP is coming soon.
Also some premium content is coming. Just a reminder that I recently uploaded a 28-minute video of one of my comedy shows. It’s me doing stand-up comedy in London a couple of years ago. I’d been holding on to that video for a while, but I finally decided it was time to publish it considering I’m not doing any gigs at the moment and I’m not sure when I will be able to. So, premium subscribers – check it out, as well as all the pronunciation videos I’ve uploaded and at least 100 premium episodes. teacherluke.co.uk/premiuminfo if you want to sign up or know more.
Also you can expect more free episodes, including the next WISBOLEP episode and more conversations with guests.
I’ve been doing a lot of interviews recently as you’ve probably noticed. It’s been a really good run of guests that we have never heard before on the podcast, but I will go back to the old favourites soon enough, with hopefully Amber & Paul making a return and an episode of Gill’s Book Club – the book in question will be 1, 2, 3, 4: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown – an interesting, recent book which explores the story of the Beatles in various interesting ways. We’ll be doing that in the new year because I’m getting it for Christmas and I’ll need a chance to read it. I think it will basically be a chance for me to talk about The Beatles with my mum and she was a huge fan back in the Beatlemania days and saw them live twice. So, you might want to get that – 1, 2, 3, 4 by Craig Brown. Anyway, onto this episode and this one is all about pronunciation, so get ready to think about accents and changing the way you speak. It goes quite nicely with other episodes like the recent one I did about Key Features of English Accents (682). So the question is, how can you change your accent? Let’s ask a dialect coach.
— Jingle —–
Jerome Butler – Dialect Coach
Hello everyone – here is an episode all about accents and dialects and specifically how to convincingly sound like you come from a different place, with a different accent.
You’re going to hear me in conversation with Jerome Butler who is a dialect coach. Jerome works with actors who need to change the way they speak.
To give you an example of what this means, let’s say I’m an actor from England, and I’ve got a part in a TV show that takes place in the USA in a southern state. Perhaps the film is set in Atlanta or something like that (like in The Walking Dead perhaps) and the character I’m playing was born and grew up in that area, and so I need to change my RP English accent to a general Southern accent from the USA for the filming of the show.
How can I do it? How can I change my voice? How can I consistently speak like I am from a southern state in the USA? Well, I would need a dialect coach, and that is what Jerome does.
Actually, having to change your accent is quite common for actors in the English language TV and film industry. There are loads of famous actors who have successfully changed the way they speak for different roles. I mentioned The Walking Dead before and it is quite a good example – so many of the actors in that show are from the UK but they sound like they could come from Georgia or a neighbouring state. No doubt those actors worked closely with dialect coaches like Jerome.
And it’s not just British actors working in the USA, it’s anyone who normally speaks in one way and needs to learn to speak in another way, and remember the English language is so diverse in terms of accents and dialects across different parts of the world that it’s very common for actors to have to make this kind of change in their work.
Now, talking to Jerome about this is actually a great opportunity for us to listen to someone who has a lot of experience and expertise in helping people change their accents. He’s been doing it for years now and has worked on loads of different film and TV projects and with loads of different actors from different parts of the world. Jerome is amazing actually, and we’re really lucky to have him on the podcast. I really enjoyed talking to him and it was very interesting to find out the specifics of what he does in his job.
For you as learners of English this should be particularly interesting, because the whole point of this conversation is to answer two questions really:
How can actors change their accents and dialects for different roles?
What can learners of English take from the way actors do this, in order to apply it to their language learning?
How can you change your accent?
It’s quite a complicated question as you can expect – it involves many linguistic factors and a lot of work. In just a one-hour conversation we can’t give you all the answers of course. It’s a complex and very personal process, but at least we can get a sort of window into that process by listening to what Jerome has to say.
Let me tell you a bit about Jerome’s CV before we listen to him talking, just so you get an idea of who you are listening to.
Jerome Butler has had a really diverse career working for over 25 years in acting, teaching and dialect coaching. He graduated from The Juilliard School which is one of the most prestigious acting and performance art schools in the USA. Loads of great actors went there, including well-known people like Adam Driver, Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaacs, Anthony Mackie, Robin Williams and plenty of others.
He’s done various acting roles in theatre, TV and film productions even including episodes of Star Trek Voyager and ER but the majority of the work he has done in the industry is that of a dialect coach and if you look at his IMDB page the list just goes on and on, working on various productions with various performers including names you might recognise, like Emily Mortimer, Tom Hardy, Gerard Butler, Robert Downey Jr., Jonathan Pryce, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Impressive, most impressive.
OK so I just dropped a bunch of names on you there, but this episode is not a celebrity gossip type thing. It’s not about that. I’m not asking him to tell us what Robert Downey Jnr is really like. I just wanted to let you know that Jerome is a proper, professional dialect coach who has lots of real industry experience, so he knows what he is talking about.
He’s also taught classes at universities like MIT and has been involved in an artistic rehabilitation program in the California prison system. That’s quite a glittering and diverse CV, and of course now he has reached the high point of his professional career – appearing in an episode of Luke’s English Podcast. Haha.
In this conversation we start by talking about the work he does and what it involves, and the conversation gets more and more specific as it goes, as we try to understand what he does and relate it to your learning of English.
Now, I would also like to say that I think as a learner of English, the decision to change your accent or perhaps I should say the decision to try to sound exactly like a native speaker of English is completely up to you but in the EFL/ESL community this is actually quite a contentious issue. Should learners of English aim to or expect to ultimately sound exactly like native English speakers? People seem to disagree about it.
Even now I can sense, using my jedi force abilities that some of you are saying “yes we should try to sound like native speakers!” whereas others are saying “no, we shouldn’t” and probably most of you are saying “I don’t really know Luke, I haven’t made up my mind!” and a couple of you are saying “Sorry, what was the question?”
Let me repeat it.
Should learners of English spend time and effort on trying to sound exactly like native speakers? Should we all aim for “native level speech” as our ultimate goal? Or is it better to keep your accent when you speak English because this is all part of who you are and it’s perhaps even damaging to set such high standards?
These are questions that are often discussed and people continue to disagree on the answers.
To an extent it is a question of personal choice – people can do whatever they like and if sounding like a native speaker is your personal goal, then fine. Some people manage to do it really well.
One thing’s for sure – nobody can argue against the importance of intelligibility – being understandable and clear, but exactly who you should sound like seems to be up to you.
But anyway, I felt I should mention this whole argument in the introduction here, and Jerome mentions it too before going on to describe the specifics of how someone could shift their accent.
Also keep listening to hear Jerome start training me to speak in that southern American accent that I mentioned earlier. Can he help me learn to speak like I’m in The Walking Dead and I’m from a southern state like Georgia or Tennessee or South Carolina or maybe even Alabama?
OK, I will talk to you again at the end in order to recap and sum up some of the main points that are made in this conversation. But now, let’s start this conversation with me in Paris and Jerome Butler across the Atlantic in New York City.
So, that was dialect coach Jerome Butler. Thank you again to Jerome for all that information he gave us.
So, for me that was fascinating and also reassuring to know that Jermoe uses more or less the same methods and approaches in the TV and film industries as I use in my English teaching. I think Jerome gave us some really valuable insights into how people can change their accents. As I said before, this is a huge and complex subject so we only scratched the surface here.
If you’d like to know more from Jerome and use the tools he mentioned then visit his website, which is dialectcoachescorner.com/ You can create a free profile there and then start exploring and practising. It is for a general American English accent though, as Jerome pointed out.
Let me now just recap and sum up the main bits of advice in that conversation. If you found it a bit difficult to follow or to pick out all the specifics, this summary should help.
Summarising Advice from this conversation
Learn the phonemic script because it will help you become more aware of the different sounds that are used in English. There are apps you can use to do this. Check “Sounds” by Macmillan. This will really help you to identify and then produce specific sounds that are used in English → British English in the case of that. “Sounds” contains various tasks that will help you learn the sounds, practise recognising them, transcribing words phonetically and more. The full name is “Sounds: The Pronunciation App” and the best way to download it is from the Macmillan website www.macmillaneducationapps.com/soundspron/
Categorise words by the different sounds – for example, what is the vowel sound in the stressed syllable of the word?
You can take all the vowel sounds – monophthongs and diphthongs and consider them to be categories. Try putting different words into those categories.
Vowel sounds would be good.
Also certain consonant sounds like voiced and unvoiced pairs, TH sounds and so on. Also, -ED endings for regular verbs.
A textbook like Ship or Sheep by Ann Baker can help because in that book all the different vowel sounds are listed chapter by chapter and you can practise recognising, categorising and repeating words with those sounds.
Mechanical practise is important. Repetition is the mother of skill – I think that’s the phrase that Jerome used. It’s reassuring to know this – and he’s a man with a proven track record of results. He knows that to help someone change the way they speak it is a combination of heightening your awareness of the different sounds and how they are made, then mechanical practise with those sounds until they “enter your body” and you acquire the ability to quickly switch between the categories and quickly work out how to say words in the accent you have chosen.
So, again, practise identifying which sound is used – practise categorising words over and over again.
Then practise saying these words by repeating after someone. Again – Ship or Sheep can help because there is an audio CD. Other books or websites may be available.
But there are many things to take into account. It’s not just vowel sounds. If I’d had more time with Jerome we might have got onto other things like intonation, connected speech, elision of sounds, sentence stress, weak forms and all that stuff.
It can be hard to do it on your own so you might also need a personal coach of some kind, like a one to one teacher who can work closely with you.
Let me point you towards Jerome’s website again dialectcoachescorner.com/ where you can contact Jerome, create a free account to access all the resources and more. Remember, that is if you are looking for a general American accent, or perhaps more specific regional accents in the USA. For British English, well of course I’d recommend my premium subscription!
So, work with someone, work with resources designed to help you with this.
Alternatively, you can practise simply repeating after someone whose accent you want to copy.
If you want to copy my accent, you can repeat words and sentences after me.
Do this either by shadowing – just try to repeat as you listen, or perhaps pause and repeat.
Or you can use the pronunciation drills in my premium episodes, because they are designed to help you repeat after me and I focus my attention on things like sentence stress and other specific features.
Practise practise practise.
Have fun with it too.
But also remember that it is a question of personal choice. Please don’t feel that you have to sound exactly like a native speaker. In my opinion, it is totally fine and reasonable to retain traces of your native language when you speak English. That’s part of who you are. Like Jerome said, perhaps the only reason to completely lose all trace of your first language in your English accent is if you are an actor or a spy.
Also, I think it requires a lot of time, dedication and effort to work on your accent to the same level as a professional actor. This isn’t always a realistic proposition for learners of English who are also busy in their lives. So, working on being clear is the main thing and if you have a regional accent in English, that’s fine – it’s part of who you are, just like someone from Liverpool has a Liverpool accent, someone from Glasgow has a Glasgow accent, someone from Essex has an Essex accent – you can have an accent from your country, as long as people understand you.
It’s all a question of personal choice at the end of the day – but there it is, I think speaking to Jerome shows us that there are ways of working on the way that you sound, if you are prepared to put in the time and the effort.
I also wonder sometimes if some people are more naturally talented at changing their pronunciation than others, but that is a question I’m not completely able to answer at this moment. What do you think? Do you think some people are naturally better than others at matters of pronunciation?
A Few Expressions in the Episode
My tongue is firmly in my cheek – This just means he’s not being serious. He said calling himself a dialect coach would mean he’d get paid more.
We’re splitting hairs – To split hairs means to make very specific and unnecessary distinctions between things. Jerome could be called an accent coach or a dialect coach and it doesn’t matter – although to be specific, dialect refers to the words and the grammar, and accent refers to the pronunciation.
I’m not going to go into the weeds – This means getting deeply involved in very specific details. He’s not going into all the complex details, he’s just giving us a simple overview.
Hello and welcome to Luke’s English Podcast. This episode is number 669 and it’s called How To Learn English.
That’s quite a bold title but this really is a lot of what I have to say about learning English. If you really want to learn this language, this is my advice.
I’ve been teaching for about 20 years, podcasting for over 11 years now and I keep finding out more about learning a language through teaching it, getting feedback from listeners and also through my experiences of trying to learn French.
This episode is a distillation of many of my thoughts and advice on how to learn English. It’s not going to cover absolutely every aspect of it, because language learning is a huge subject that encompasses so many different things and you could talk about it all day, but I have decided to talk about learning English, breaking it down into the 4 skills, and giving you as much advice as I can in this single podcast episode. I hope you enjoy it and find it useful.
For those of you who are not so familiar with me and my work. My name is Luke Thompson, I think I am the 4th most famous Luke Thompson in the world. I’m an English teacher, a podcaster, a comedian, a husband and a dad. I am from England but these days I live in France. My podcast is free and is downloaded all over the world. I also have a premium subscription in which I focus specifically on improving your vocab, grammar and pronunciation. To find out more about that go to teacherluke.co.uk/premiuminfo
I expect you want to learn English, right? That’s the main reason you’re listening to this I expect. You want to learn English.
Well, good news! It’s definitely possible. You can learn English and you will if you put in the time and the effort. It’s important to remember that.
What do I mean by “learn English”, though? I mean that you can learn to speak English fluently, clearly and with confidence, expressing yourself with shades of meaning, adapting your English for the situation both in speaking and in writing, knowing and being able to use a wide variety of vocabulary and accurate grammar and ultimately being yourself in the language and developing beneficial relationships with others based on effective communication. Yes, you can. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
That’s it, just a positive and encouraging message at the start. It’s important to always remember that making progress in your learning is a realistic prospect and will happen when you put in the time and effort, and more good news: the more you enjoy it, the easier it is.
I hope this podcast helps you to enjoy getting English into your life on a regular basis, which is a key part of learning the language effectively.
But what else should you be doing in order to improve your English overall?
In this episode I’d like to talk in some detail about learning English and how you can do it.
This episode is a sort of “come to Jesus moment”, which I feel I should do regularly, just to remind everyone listening that there is a method or approach at work here and that it’s not just you listening to people talking.
A “come to Jesus moment” in the world of business is when someone does a passionate speech or event in which fundamental priorities and/or beliefs are reassessed, or reaffirmed. It’s like when Jesus gathers his disciples around him in order to reaffirm their belief in what he’s preaching or to say some deep stuff which strengthens their faith.
This is a come to Jesus moment for me.
Not that I’m comparing myself to Jesus. No, not at all. Not even a little bit, and anyway that’s not for me to say, that’s for other people to point out isn’t it, not me. Anyway…
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There is a method to the madness.
In my podcast episodes, I’m always teaching you, using my particular set of professional skills, but rather than presenting it all as a lesson I usually try to present it more like a radio show or a comedy show even.
So, amidst the episodes about music, comedy, interviews and so on, I thought it would be worth restating the core values of LEP, which I seem to do about once every 6 months or so.
I’m going to give loads of advice here, and this is all based on what I’ve learned from:
Teaching for about 20 years
Meeting thousands of learners of English, some of them successful, some of them not, working directly with them as their teacher and listening to them talk about their studying habits and experiences
The academic studies I’ve done, especially the DELTA which involved extensive reading and writing on various aspects of how people learn and teach English
Doing my podcast and getting testimonies over the years from many listeners who told me about how they’ve used it to improve their English
There’s also my own personal experience of working on my French
Anyway, the plan is to talk about learning English with a focus on the 4 skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
I have talked about these points quite a few times before on this podcast, and have given tons of specific advice about working on your English, including in episodes like 174 (and others)
So I will probably repeat myself a bit. But I still get asked to talk about “how to learn English” very regularly and I think it’s important for me to talk about learning English on this podcast on a regular basis. Obviously, that is what this podcast is about, first and foremost, even though a lot of the time in my episodes you’ll hear me and my guests talking about all sorts of other things.
Learning English is the main aim of this podcast
Essentially the thinking is that you should listen to natural conversation on a variety of topics and it’s simply listening to things in English (not just listening to things about English) that’s going to help you learn this language, especially if you enjoy the content.
I’ll probably talk about this again in a bit, but let’s say that ultimately the plan with the free episodes is to help you listen to English regularly, for longer periods of time, long term. The more, the better. If the content is enjoyable, that should just make it easier for you to achieve that. In fact, if you’re really into what you’re listening to, you don’t really even notice the time passing.
Then there’s the premium content, which is an effort to push your learning beyond the gains you get from all the exposure and input you get from just listening. The premium content is designed to let you get the benefit of my experience and teaching skills in order to cut out a lot of work that you would otherwise have to do yourself, so I can essentially take you by the hand and lead you through some intensive practice to work on your English more directly.
So that’s my content, but let’s talk now about learning English as a whole then.
Learning English is a holistic thing. It encompasses many aspects and skills that are connected as a whole.
There are receptive skills like listening and reading, productive skills like speaking and writing, language systems like grammar, spelling, vocabulary and phonology, social and psychological factors that come into play when we use language when interacting with others, then there are other factors that come into play like identity issues, body language, culture, literature, pragmatics and all sorts of other things. It’s hard to know where to start when talking about it.
You need to learn it to the point where you don’t even think about it any more.
The more you talk and think about it, the more it starts to sound like the force from Star Wars.
Stretch out with your feelings.
Do or do not, there is no try.
Do not think, feel.
Let go, let the English flow through you.
I am your father (oh wait)
It’s about learning how to do something which goes right to the core of who you are in fact.
It’s a holistic thing. It incorporates many aspects as part of a whole process and so it’s quite tricky to know where to start.
Let’s put it like this. Language goes in, and language comes out. (I told you it sounds like The Force)
Language is within you and language is without you. It flows through you. It binds the galaxy together.
There are receptive skills (this is how language goes in)
And there are productive skills (this is how language goes out)
There’s the written language
And there’s the spoken language
This is our system.
Think of it like a table with two categories on the horizontal axis and two on the vertical axis, so it’s like a grid with 4 squares in it.
On the horizontal access we have receptive and productive skills.
On the vertical we have written and spoken English.
Within the table we have 4 skills – the 4 squares.
So in the box marked “written” and “receptive” we have reading.
Below that in the “spoken” and “receptive” categoriy we have listening.
On the right in the “written” and “productive” side we have writing.
And then in the “spoken” and “productive” side we have speaking.
Those are your four skills. Reading, writing, listening and speaking.
The 4 skills are connected in various ways.
Reading and writing deal with the written word of course.
Reading helps you to write. It helps you to see how the language is built, how words are spelled and how sentences, paragraphs and texts are put together with grammar and textual conventions.
Listening and speaking deal with the spoken word.
Listening helps you to learn how English actually sounds, how words join together in sentences or longer utterances, it helps you get familiar with the speed, rhythm, flow and intonation of the language. It helps you get used to natural pronunciation which in turn helps you produce English in the same way.
Words exist in visual form, and in spoken form.
But reading and listening are connected too because they’re both receptive skills. They provide us with input which is the essential foundation of language learning.
And speaking and writing are connected because they’re productive skills.
These are the skills you need to use when using language for various purposes. This is where you are more active in the sense that you are constructing language and putting it down visually in the form of writing, or using your body to produce it orally.
Let’s talk about those receptive skills and input.
The reading thing there is something we’ll come back to in the section about reading.
This is the academic who is always mentioned in this context, when talking about how to learn English these days. Krashen was one in a long line of linguists who came up with theories about how language is learned and should be taught.
Arguably, we still don’t really know how people learn languages, but various academics over the years have put forward different hypotheses to explain it and these have been the backbone of our understanding of language learning that has informed the way we all learn and teach languages over the years.
Krashen though is the one that people often talk about today, including all the many YouTubers who regularly post videos about the best ways to learn, the only ways to learn, the secrets of learning and all that sort of thing. Krashen is usually brought up because his ideas fit in quite nicely to a model of language learning for today. I mean, it involves a lot of consumption of content in English – plenty of listening and reading and that sort of content is in plentiful supply online, like for example episodes of Luke’s English Podcast.
In his input hypothesis in which he makes the case for the importance of comprehensible input for language learning, he states that in fact the only way we can successfully increase our underlying linguistic competence. This is our system of linguistic knowledge or let’s say that “language instinct” that you have, which even subconsciously gives us a sense of when language is right or wrong. I suppose it could be active in that you know a certain grammar rule and can see when it’s been broken, or passive in that you just feel that something is right or wrong but can’t necessarily explain it.
I would say the passive knowledge is the vital one because ultimately you just want to be able to feel that language is right or wrong without thinking about it.
But that being said, your active knowledge can be really useful when doing things like avoiding common errors as a result of your first language, or consciously pushing yourself to create language which is normal.
Anyway, Krashen says the only way to increase your linguistic competence is through comprehensible input, meaning reading and listening to things that we mostly understand and that with the context of what you do understand, you are able to work out the bits that you don’t know. This is how we acquire new languages.
So basically, we learn a language when we understand it. So, naturally, according to Krashen, the receptive skills come first.
I think this makes a lot of sense to me. I think it’s bound to be true that we learn language by listening to it and reading it. But what about those moments when you have to speak or write, what about learning the grammar and all the rest of it?
Krashen would say that we learn the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of a language by listening to it or reading it, and that it’s a natural process and part of how we decode language through comprehensible input.
So, don’t worry about grammar rules and all the rest of it, just listen and do your best to keep up and work out what’s going on, and do it regularly.
Again, I am sure this is true but I also think it’s worth studying the language a bit too, breaking it down a bit, seeing how it works, actively trying to learn more vocabulary, checking up on the rules of grammar and doing some controlled practice. Working on your pronunciation by copying and training your mouth and brain to cooperate with each other, like the way we practise certain movements in sport or musical parts on an instrument.
I do believe that controlled practice and conscious learning like that must also be beneficial because I’ve seen it happen. Doing some active studying can be like a fast track of English learning. It can cut out a lot of time by helping you realise certain things about the language quickly, and I think if you then notice it again while listening and reading that only reinforces what you’ve learned.
Of course, you shouldn’t get blinded by grammar or pronunciation rules and so on, to the point that you can’t see the wood for the trees.
Try not to get hung up on grammar, because it can make you process language in an unnatural and contrived way. It can get stuck in your head and block you a bit. Instead, try to notice patterns and incorporate them into your use of English. Try to see grammar study as a way of confirming things you’ve already noticed, or a way of consulting with a reference book as you also just absorb English more naturally. If you only study English with the grammar, it’s going to be a weird abstract process for learning the language. It’s better to focus on consuming English in the form of messages which you are trying to understand, and then perhaps check your grammar later to straighten things out.
The premium subscription is where I help you with that sort of thing, hopefully combining with the free content to give you all the stuff you need to attack English from several angles.
How can you learn this language if you haven’t heard it and read it a lot?
Read and listen to things that are slightly above your level, so you can understand 60-80%. You need to be able to understand that much for your brain to work out the remaining 20-40% that you don’t know. Meaningful context is vital.
Basically, listen x5 and read x5.
It’s largely a question of finding the right stuff to listen to.
There’s this podcast of course. Others are available.
Watch TV and films with and without subtitles.
Hopefully you’ll find content that you actually want to listen to, not just for studying English. So if you do get addicted to a Netflix series and you can’t wait to find out what happens next, that’s good! That means you will get more comprehensible input and you will be much more focused and involved in it, which is great for your English. Or maybe you want to hear another stupid and funny conversation with my friends just because it makes you laugh and you feel some sort of connection to it. All of that is great because it will help you listen more, listen longer and listen long term.
This one is also a pleasure to talk about because it’s a pleasure to do and there are lots of great things to read.
Let’s hear from Krashen again as he is the master of the whole input model.
This is again from Wikipedia, which I think is fine usually for the basics like this.
Extensive reading, free reading, book flood, or reading for pleasure is a way of language learning, including foreign language learning, through large amounts of reading. As well as facilitating acquisition of vocabulary, it is believed to increase motivation through positive affective benefits. It is believed that extensive reading is an important factor in education. Proponents such as Stephen Krashen (1989) claim that reading alone will increase encounters with unknown words, bringing learning opportunities by inferencing. The learner’s encounters with unknown words in specific contexts will allow the learner to infer and thus learn those words’ meanings.
Of course that system is disputed because this is the academic arena we’re dealing with and people are always putting forward ideas, defending them, disputing them and so on. It’s how we move forwards and learn about this stuff.
So this is extensive reading which is different to the sort of intensive reading you do in English lessons, where you spend ages on just one page of text, break it down into tiny chunks, understanding every single morsel. With extensive reading it’s all about just getting as much English into your head as you can by reading as much as you can, and you focus on reading enjoyable things, especially stories and you don’t stop too much to analyse the language or even check words, you just keep trying to follow what you’re reading. The more involved in it you are, the better.
Again, this point about input is that it feeds your instinct for the language. You get a subconscious sense of what is right or wrong, which comes in very handy for when you’re doing those nasty sentence transformations and use of English tasks in a Cambridge exam like CAE. What you really want in those situations is to know exactly which preposition or auxiliary verb is missing, or to be able to manipulate sentences in a variety of forms. I reckon it helps to do a bit of language practice as well, with a few controlled exercises but the idea is that it should all go in naturally giving you this sense of language competence.
It’s important though to choose texts which are not too difficult for you. You need to be able to understand enough to be able to get a grip on the rest of the language.
So which books do you choose?
We’ve talked about the importance of choosing stuff that’s interesting to you, that reflects the type of English you might need.
Genre isn’t an issue. People assume you need to read or listen to the news but as we’ve already established they don’t really talk like normal people on the news, and they also write in a certain “newsy” style. Funnily enough it might be more useful to read the tabloid papers as they write in a more conversational style, but I think it’s worthwhile looking beyond the news.
Basically, read whatever you want.
Even comic books or graphic novels as they’re known for adults.
Graphic novels can be brilliant because they support your understanding with the images and often the English is in the form of speech so you learn really directly how to apply that stuff to real life. I love graphic novels in French. It’s my favourite way to work on the language.
You could consider the current bestsellers. If other people like the books then why shouldn’t you? Look in the fiction and non-fiction categories.
Or try graded readers, which are an excellent and underused resource. I really recommend them if you’re not a strong reader. They’re previously published books, and often some of the great classics and modern classics in English, but they’re republished with English that is graded for certain levels. The number of words is reduced, it’s truncated and essentially it’s a way to increase the percentage you do understand, and decrease the amount you don’t understand, getting to that 80/20 spot where you can maximise your language learning.
There are lots of titles to choose from and various publishers. Check these ones out
But your English may well be good enough now to have a go at a book for native speakers. So go for it. You have loads of options. Just make sure you enjoy reading on a regular basis.
I would also add that it’s important to choose texts which are written in modern style and perhaps about an area that you are particularly interested in. Perhaps think of it like this – what is the kind of English you want printed on the back of your head (on the inside)? Odd question, but I mean, what is your target English. Perhaps it’s the involving and descriptive storytelling of fiction, or it’s the matter-of-fact world of non-fiction. I reckon non-fiction is probably better because it reflects the kind of English you are more likely to be writing, especially if it’s things like academic work or reports at work, because they’re all about presenting you with information, data, commenting on what’s going on, describing how to do things and that’s probably the sort of thing you’ll need to use English for, especially in writing.
This might be a bit dry but it will really show you loads of examples of emails with full explanations, so you can read and learn.
The Story of English in 100 Words
Anything by David Crystal is fantastic, but this non-fiction book will teach you the entire story of the English language through 100 words and there are some great words in there like
Loaf, Street, Riddle, Arse, Jail, Wicked, Matrix and Skunk, to name but a few.
So you’re bound to learn tons from that.
Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny By Nile Rodgers
The War of the Worlds by HG Wells
The writing is a bit old fashioned. I have to be honest, but it’s mostly modern in style and I think it’s worth it because the story is amazing and it’s not too long. It’s wonderfully descriptive and much better than any movie version could be. Definitely one of my favourite books of all time.
Productive skills / output
This is where we get to the more nebulous world of productive skills. It’s like an alien land where monsters roam, a bit like war of the worlds maybe.
OK I’m exaggerating here but I mean that productive skills are a bit harder to pin down because even more psychological and social factors come into play. You have the public aspect of it, the fact that you’re trying to manipulate the language and get your ideas across in the right way, being coherent and cohesive and in the right style with the right level of politeness with the correct conventional replies and requests and on and on it goes!
Again, I’m making it sound tricky, but I mean that you are involved so much more because you’re making the language and actually using it. This is exciting because you get to express yourself which is the most wonderful and gratifying thing you can do in another language, and when it slides out quite fluidly and you’re not too blocked by who knows what, then it’s all gravy. But sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work out that way and you get mixed up and it doesn’t come out right at all. There’s a sense of performance in productive skills, and a sense that you have to be aware of the right way to conduct yourself, and to be able to utter things in English instantly, following what the other person is saying, it’s all done in a sort of unconscious blur and thinking about grammar in that situation is a killer.
So it’s about getting a level of ease, a level of comfort, a platform from which you can bob and weave your way through the conversation, finding other ways to say things and switching correctly between tenses and situations. I think you get what I mean.
So how do you work on these things?
Ease – a voice, fluency
Control – grammar, vocab, pronunciation
Range – a wide range of language for a wide range of things
Coherence – does it all make sense? Can people follow you easily?
Cohesion – particularly in writing, how does the whole text make sense as a whole?
Social factors – knowing how to put things and how to manage relationships through language
Again, the idea is that this language is just built into you from all that exposure and input.
I would say that there’s a great deal of other stuff you can do to improve your productive skills beyond reading and listening a lot, of course.
In both writing and speaking the first thing to remember is you need to engage in it as much as possible. Real writing and real speaking.
Ultimately this means trying to use language to communicate a message in some way and that’s what you should be focusing on. Meaningful interactions, especially ones in which you have something to offer or something to gain, such as negotiations or even information gap situations in which you’re telling someone something they don’t know. Also social interactions involving being polite or building relations with people. Ultimately, doing it for real is the best workshop in which you can work, rolling with the punches and trying to keep track of what you’re learning.
This is why people learn English best when they’re forced to do it because of their surroundings. They learn by being a waiter in London for a year or working in an office with native speakers, or being plunged into a foreign university for a year, or moving to a new country and having to cope with all the challenges that brings and in a second language. I suppose this is immersion, but it;s more than that. I recommend actually conversing with people to just practise. It’s the 5 Ps.
It’s like going to the gym. Fluency is like physical fitness in your mind and also in your body because you’re using your mouth, your breathing and your head and hands to communicate too.
It applies to writing too. You can observe the way other people write their emails and kind of copy their style, you have to really think about what you’re saying and doubtless you will end up writing emails with requests, with information, with questions and with complaints and so on, so you will have to learn on the job. Being thrown in at the deep end, or if you just have to use English at work it could either be a big stress for you or a huge opportunity to just go for it.
Anyway, let’s talk about specific productive skills – writing and reading, and how to work on them.
Let’s say you’re not actually in a situation where you can talk to people or have correspondence with people, or have to write things which other people will ultimately have to read. Unless you find a tutor on italki for example then that person could be your practice point for speaking and writing, giving you feedback as you go. But let’s say for the purposes of this episode, it’s just you and the English language, facing each other off in a kind of wild west fashion.
How can you practise on your own?
Obviously you need to write. But what are you going to write and who is going to read it?
Firstly – just write, write regularly, write meaningfully and write with a reader in mind, even if nobody reads it. This is important because it will help you get used to simply putting your ideas into words. It’s a creative process and also a mechanical process to an extent. Building sentences is a sort of art or a craft. You have to practise it in order to get some level of comfort with it. Let’s imagine there’s a muscle in your head (this is not scientific at all) which, if you never exercise it, will be quite weak and underdeveloped. But if you exercise that muscle regularly it will be strong, reactive and quick. I expect there is a part of the brain responsible for creating written language, and a sub-section for creating written English. Keep that part of your brain fresh by writing English as much as you can. That’s as scientific as I can get here.
So, here are some things you could write
What to write
Email an imaginary person (spooky?) or yourself (think outside the box here ok?)
Academic writing – text types
Emails – email types and conventions
Reports – same!
Formal and informal letters – same!
Applications – same same!
Basically – Whatever you have to write, you should try to find some samples of these texts and aim to copy them. Copy the style, the arrangement, the language they use and reproduce it yourself. Texts that you write will invariably be very practical so it’s about reporting information and asking questions. Look at the sample texts and copy them.
It helps if you have a specific workbook. I recommend Email English by Paul Emmerson. It’s a simple workbook that helps you work on almost all those things and I’m not even sponsored by Macmillan or anything, it’s genuinely a great book.
They also have downloadable email writing tasks on the Macmillan website or here
Ideally you’ll have a teacher to proofread your work, correct you and give you feedback.
If this isn’t possible, it’s still a good idea to write.
A diary (just describe things that happened, or make it more personal and really explore your thoughts and feelings. If the words don’t come, just use basic words. If you feel unable to express yourself perfectly, express yourself imperfectly but try to express yourself.
Writing is not just sentences, it’s paragraphs and pages. The thing you are writing will define how you write it. This means – conventions of certain texts, formality level of the language.
Specific exam tasks → IELTS, FCE, CAE, CPE, BEC higher and vantage
These will often push you to learn the conventions of different types of text, so it could be a good idea to take a Cambridge exam if you want to work on your writing.
You might write some notes on vocab and I would recommend here that you take a more extensive approach to doing this. Don’t just have one word per line. I want to see one word or phrase at the top of the page, and then loads of text underneath full of examples and your own examples with the language. You can then come back and cover up some of the words and try to remember. Alternatively you can use my PDFs with the notes and memory tests if you’re a premium subscriber. Little plug there for my other podcast.
But making more extensive vocabulary notes with plenty of examples means that not only are you recording vocabulary, you’re practising using it in writing too.
I mentioned italki before and you can find tutors, teachers and conversation partners there for regular practice and I do recommend doing that.
Otherwise, let’s look at some ways you can work on your speaking other than in actual spoken practice with others. Developing your speaking on your own.
This is quite a tricky thing to do because normally speaking is an instantly interactive form of communication. It also involves a lot of listening and then being able to produce English instantly and without hesitating too much.
It’s also quite physical as it involves using your mouth to produce words and sentences in the right way.
And of course there are all those cultural things to think about too.
But really speaking should just be your attempt to find your own voice in English, with fluency and with a specific tone. Of course it comes through a lot of practice, of having conversations in which you’re not really thinking about what you’re saying on a grammatical level but it’s pouring out of you due to necessity and not being able to really think a lot. Doing that regularly helps your brain map out the extent of the English you have and increase it, keeping it sort of fresh. That’s not scientific but more a metaphor of what I think speaking can do. It activates something in you that you have to maintain and keep active or those parts of the brain go dull.
So practice x5
But with who?
The fact is, it just helps to talk to other people and that’s the best and most basic advice I can give. Outside of that, you have to manipulate your surroundings and use your imagination to practise speaking on your own.
Talking on your own (and even in your head)
This might sound a bit odd, but it’s a surprisingly effective way to activate English that is in your head. You essentially talk to yourself, out loud, in English, describing what’s going on, what you’re doing, what you’re thinking about, say it all in English. Alternatively you can just do it in your own head and just think the sentences. This also keeps that system of language production in your head fresh.
Listen and repeat
You can use certain audio and play a bit, pause, repeat what you heard, rewind, repeat again and keep going until you’ve got it, and then check the transcript or subtitles to see if you’re correct, check any new words and carry on. Always find ways to vocalise the things you are learning and that means saying them out loud even to yourself.
You can also practise different speaking scenarios.
Preparing for a Cambridge exam you can find past papers with speaking part preparation and practise. Find out what’s required in the different parts, watch videos of people taking the speaking part on YouTube, practise answering common questions about yourself, practise speaking on a topic for a minute or two, practise discussing your opinion on the issues of the day. Those are all specific speaking skills that you can practise on your own. I particularly recommend listen and repeat, especially when you have to take quite a long utterance in English, hold it in your head and repeat it like it’s one word? It’s like going to the gym in English. It involves a lot of things: Understanding the clip, identifying the words and grammar, being able to remember it all, being able to produce it in a similar way. That’s a whole punch of different kinds of practice. And if you repeat the sentence straight away, and again, you might notice certain little errors you’re making and correct them. So repeat over and over again, a bit like practising boxing combinations in the ring before the big fight.
In reality, the 4 skills are often mashed up together and you find you are doing things like listening and speaking at the same time, while also taking notes, looking at visuals and so on. It all gets very messy when language is actually applied to real communication in the real world.
A little note about pronunciation and a sort of disclaimer.
I think there are probably plenty of other things I have not mentioned in this episode, such as not talking about specific memory techniques (done that) or specific features of pronunciation (done that) or exactly how to read a book to learn English (done) or plenty of other things probably. To be honest this is just a podcast episode that I wanted to make about the 4 skills and it expanded into an episode all about learning English as a holistic process.
Anyway, the note about pronunciation
It is worth learning the phonemic script
It is worth getting the sounds app on your phone
It is worth doing drills and practising different features
It’s worth getting a book called Ship or Sheep or other books of that nature.
It’s worth remembering that if you have an accent when you speak that is fine and it’s part of who you are, the main thing is that you speak clearly, not which regional accent you have. Clarity is the thing to achieve. Also, it’s extremely difficult to “lose” your accent in English. Hardly anyone does it. But you can still be fine with your accent. English is quite open like that. Everyone’s welcome.
But there you have it. That was quite a comprehensive look at how I think learning English is best when you combine two things: comprehensible input, and a clever studying routine.
I think it can work wonders for your English.
And that’s what I try to do with this podcast. Give you all the input in the free episodes and then do some more focused studying in the premium content. Hopefully, together those two channels can boost your English to the max.
This is part 2 of a double episode exploring the question of why British people often change their accent when they sing. This episode contains more examples, including some (dodgy) singing from me in order to hear how it sounds when different songs are sung in different accents. Notes, lyrics and transcriptions available on the page below.
Hello, welcome back to the podcast. I hope you’re doing ok out there in podcastland during this difficult period.
It’s necessary to say that isn’t it these days. You have to acknowledge the fact that everyone’s struggling, or you have to explain that things are perhaps not happening normally because of the coronavirus and there are various ways of saying it – both informal and formal, perhaps in a work email or something. I saw something on Twitter which made me laugh and I retweeted it. If you follow me on Twitter you might have seen that. My Twitter handle is @EnglishPodcast by the way. So the thing I saw on Twitter was just a little meme about how in normal English we say “because of the coronavirus” but in formal writing (like in a work email) we have to dress that up in more fancy language, like “due to the ongoing situation regarding covid-19”.
So I hope that you are not having too much of a bad time because of the coronavirus, or perhaps I should say “I trust that you are managing to maintain your working routines effectively in the context of the current situation regarding covid-19.”
This is episode 658 and it’s part 2 of a double episode. This is part 2. Don’t listen to this, until you’ve heard part 1. Seems obvious, doesn’t it, but I just want to make it clear. Part 1 contains loads of context and details which I think you should hear before listening to this.
In part 1 I started answering a question from a listener, and the question is “Why do British people sound American when they sing?” It’s actually a bit complicated. It’s all about the conventions of modern pop music which has its roots in the USA. But there are also plenty of examples of British singers singing in British accents. It’s a mix of language, identity, music and phonology. In part 1 I answer the question in some detail and also point out some features of what I’m calling the American Singing Accent, including things like the way certain words which I pronounce with diphthongs (that’s double vowel sounds) become ‘flattened’ to single long vowel sounds, like in the words I, find, time, mine in the line “I need to find my time to get what’s mine”.
So let’s continue and in this part, which is part 2 I’m going to continue to explore this whole area by singing some songs in different accents and by listening to some samples of music. I hope you enjoy it and find it interesting. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section or perhaps links to YouTube videos with other examples that you can think of – examples of British artists singing with American accents, or perhaps British artists singing with British accents, or artists from anywhere else for that matter, singing in any other accent. It’s not just British and American of course, there are so many other accents that you might hear in English language songs. Reggae music from Jamaica for example is usually sung with a Jamaican accent of course.
Anyway, let’s carry on with part 2 and here we go…
Singing songs in different accents
I want to experiment with this by singing some well-known songs in either an American accent (The American Singing Accent as defined above) or a British accent (again, which one? Probably my own standard British RP but also I might try some cockney or maybe Liverpool or something).
Brits singing with American accents
What happens when you sing certain American songs in a British accent (let’s be more specific, let’s say my British RP)
If you sing some songs in a British accent they usually sound weird and wrong. You might disagree, because you might have a soft spot for British accents (and in fact more recently there have been some very successful artists who seem to sing in British RP as a stylistic choice) but I think overall, most people would think it sounded wrong, like my previous example with “Shallow”.
My Girl by The Temptations
Tell the story (briefly) of someone who sang “My girl” at a party once. It was ridiculous.
I’m now going to sing the songs in their normal American voice, then in a British accent.
Songs by British artists sung in an American accent
I could pick almost any song by a British pop artist and the chances are that it’ll be sung in an American singing accent.
Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin
We Are the Champions by Queen
Weirdly, Freddie seems to drift from an English sounding voice in the verse to an American one in the chorus. Listen to how he sings “time” (Time after time) in the verse and then “time” in the chorus (No time for losers).
This is so tricky! The accents seem to drift around while people sing.
Ultimately, I think this shows that when people sing they change their voice to suit the music. Freddie Mercury wasn’t just a rock singer, he was also quite operatic and theatrical and I think he probably chose to sing in different ways depending on the feeling he was choosing, including some bits where he sings with a more English sounding voice and some bits where he’s in full-on rock mode and sounds American.
British bands/singers singing with British accents
Let’s consider some songs which are clearly sung in British accents, or moments where British accents are more obvious.
There will be billions of examples of great British bands who sing in British accents. Here are some ones which I can think of right now.
They’re a difficult case because it’s quite hard to tell when they’re singing with American accents, when they’re singing with Liverpool accents but there are definitely times when their Liverpool accents came through.
It seems to me that their accents became a bit more English as they went on because in the early days they were (to an extent) imitating American artists they loved like Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry & so on (especially when doing cover versions like “Long Tall Sally” (“Oh baby, some fun tonight”) and “Twist & Shout” (“And let me know that you’re mine”).
But later as they wrote more of their own music and became more original, their own accents came in. They also used to make a point of singing in a Liverpool accent sometimes.
Penny Lane by The Beatles
“In Penny Lane the barber shaves another customer” 2:00
Lennon singing Polythene Pam (intentionally putting on a strong Scouse accent)
John Lennon – Norwegian Wood “I once had a girl” – the “I” is rounded like Lennon would say it.
Paul McCartney – I’m Looking Through You
Paul McCartney’s English accent is quite recognisable in “I’m Looking Through You” “I thought I knew you… what did I know?” “Why tell me why did you not treat me right?”
Although some bits still sound a bit American – “You’re naaat the same”
Steve Earle – I’m Looking Through You
But when US country singer Steve Earle did a cover version of it, he did it in a Southern sounding American accent.
“Aaah thought aaah knew yewwww whut did aaaaah know?” “Yurrr voice eis soootheuyin , but the wrrrrrds arrrrnt clearrrr” “Whaaaaa tell me whaaa did you naaat treat me right?”
The Smiths – Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
“Why do I give valuable time” –all with rounded diphthongs
The Undertones – My Perfect Cousin
The Undertones were from Northern Ireland and you could hear it in some of their songs, like this one.
“He’s sure to go to heaven” “He thinks that I’m a cabbage because I hate university challenge”
A lot of Britpop bands sang with British accents, because it was Britpop. BRITpop, you see.
Blur – Parklife (they were making a point of singing in a British accent)
There are billions of other examples, I’m sure.
But it’s weird and not black and white.
It’s not like all punk bands or all Britpop bands sang with their local accents. Sometimes they did, sometimes it was definitely American.
There’s no escaping that rock & roll is basically American.
Singing in an American accent when it should be British, and people get annoyed
Alesha Dixon sings the national anthem in a “soul” voice. Basically, she sang the word “god” in an American accent, which pissed off the Daily Mail readers.
She got quite harshly criticised for this. She said she did it on purpose because it was a “soul” version of the anthem. Naturally a lot of Brits were triggered by this.
What’s the conclusion?
Singing is different to speaking.
Accents change to suit the music and the social rules are a bit different when people sing.
Singing is a more open and free form of expression than speaking. Our accent when we speak is completely tied to our identity. But when we sing it’s more tied to the feeling we are trying to create or express.
Some types of music or some songs just have to be sung in an American accent and it’s usually not a big deal.
Some artists sing with British accents because they are expressing something uniquely British, like a folk singer such as Billy Bragg or a rapper like Stormzy.
It’s also interesting to note that a lot of non-native speakers of English can sing in a native-like accent, but when they speak English it’s not the same story.
For example: Paul Taylor’s bit about his wife saying “Hello how are you?” –> His wife can sing “Hello” when she’s singing along with Adele’s song but when she has to say it, she says “‘ello ‘ow ‘are you?”
Leave your comments, thoughts and video suggestions below
Have you ever wondered why British people sometimes change their accent when they sing? This episode explores the question of why this happens, with various examples and some (dodgy) singing by me. Notes, videos and transcripts available on the page below.
This is episode 657 and it’s called “Why do Brits sing with American accents?”
Essentially this episode is about accents in English, and how our accents sometimes change when we sing.
This is all based on an email I got from a listener recently. Here is that email. I’m curious to see if you have ever wondered the same thing.
An email from a listener, with a question about accents
Name: János Bernhardt /jænɒʃ bɜːnhɑːt//
Janos gave me the OK to read this out, and I’ll make some corrections as we go.
I have just watched this video (attached) and one question came to my mind about the british english accent.
A couple of corrections from Luke
“British English” should have a capital B and a capital E (British English) because we capitalise the first letters of nationality adjectives and the names of languages in English. Also, I’d avoid saying “The British accent” or “The British English accent” because there are lots of British accents, and this often annoys British people, who often get a bit offended by other people writing “the British accent” and they say “There’s no such thing as The British Accent!”. So, I suggest that instead you should say “British accents”, just “British English” or maybe “a British accent”.
Let’s rephrase Janos’s sentence like this:
I’ve just watched this video and one question came to my mind about British accents…
The video in question is of a British singer called Charlotte Awbery who became a sensation (in February) due to a viral Instagram and YouTube video in which she was randomly asked to sing in a Tube station in London.
In the video sent by Janos, we see that she sings Lady Gaga’s song “Shallow” from the film A Star Is Born really well, just like Lady Gaga, but when she speaks she does so in a completely different accent to the one she was singing in.
We’ll listen to the video in a moment, but let’s continue Janos’ email.
In the video Charlotte clearly loses her accent when she sings, but when she speaks I can hear her beautiful british accent. Is this a normal thing or she has to pay close attention to this during singing? Does she have to…
Sorry for disturbing you if it is a stupid question and also sorry for my bad english.
By the way I love your podcast. I just discovered it recently but I really try to relisten as much episodes as I can.
I am really trying to relisten to as many episodes as I can.
Thanks a lot Luke! Kind Regards, János Bernhardt
This is an example of an email from a listener which immediately sent me down a huge rabbit hole (a complicated journey in which you get lost looking for an answer).
That doesn’t always happen when listeners send me questions, but it did with this one. To be honest, I should have been working on other things but when I received this email it caught my attention and then I got sucked in! I thought it would make a perfect episode of the podcast because it’s about accents in English, it’s about American and British English, it’s about music, it’s about culture, it’s about identity and I am certain this is a question that a lot of you have thought of → Why is it that British singers often sing with American accents?
Brits don’t always sing with American accents (there are plenty of cases when this doesn’t happen, as we will see later in the episode), but they often do.
This is the stuff I’m interested in. Also it gives me a chance to play a bit of guitar and do some singing on the podcast too, which I will probably do a bit later when we get stuck into this properly.
God knows how long this episode will be, because there’s a lot to unpack here. It might be a double episode. We’ll see.
Before we go any further, we should check out that clip that Janos sent to me, so we know what he was talking about.
Let’s listen to the video that he mentioned.
Charlotte Awbrey on The Ellen Show
This is a clip from the Ellen show (an American chat show), and you’ll hear various people speaking including chat show host Ellen Degeneres, and also some other people. I won’t explain any more. Let’s just listen to the clip and your job is to work out what is going on, who is speaking and where they are from.
Who is talking?
Where are they from?
What accent does Charlotte have? Don’t just say “British”. Can you be more specific?
“Charlotte Awbery is an internet sensation after a video of her showcasing her incredible singing voice went viral on February 20. Just four days prior, a content creator named Kevin Freshwater shared a video of a segment he hosted called, “Finish the Lyrics.” In the video, Freshwater can be seen traveling through the streets and subways, asking random people to finish the lyrics of popular songs. And, that’s where he came across Charlotte, who was making her way to a train in the subway. [The Underground!]
Freshwater approached Charlotte who was visibly caught off guard, and began singing the lyrics to “Shallow” — Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper‘s Oscar-winning hit from the film, A Star Is Born. Charlotte began singing the lyrics quietly, but just enough for Freshwater to recognize how talented she is. When he kept asking her to sing more, Charlotte went all out and it took the internet by storm.“
Then she was invited onto the Ellen show with Ellen Degeneres, to sing the song and then be interviewed.
The thing is, she sang with an American accent but then spoke with a really broad Estuary English accent (some call it cockney, some call it Essex – basically it’s a strong local accent from the area to the east of London.)
So, going back to Janos’ original question then:
Why did Charlotte Awbery switch from an American accent when singing, to a British accent when talking?
Is this normal? Do British people normally do that when they sing? Do they/we have to make special effort to do it? What’s going on?
Is this normal? Do Brits normally do this when they sing? Yes, lots of Brits suddenly change their accent and sound American when they sing. (Why? We’ll see). I’m talking about singing pop music, which sort of covers various forms of modern music that largely originate in the USA, like jazz, blues, soul, country, rock & roll, rock, gospel –> all the main ingredients of modern pop music.
It’s not just Brits. Irish people, Australian people, people from New Zealand, people from South Africa, any English speaker, including non-native speakers of English in France, Germany, Japan, wherever! Everyone does this.
I’m sticking with Brits though because that’s what I am and that’s what I know.
Yes it is very normal and very common. There are various degrees of it – sometimes it’s just a slight American accent, sometimes it’s really strong. We’ll be looking at some examples later.
But it doesn’t happen every time. There are plenty of examples of British singers singing in their own accent too (again, more on this later).
Do British people have to make a special effort to sing in an American accent? I would say “no”, it normally happens completely effortlessly but it does depend on the song, or the style of the song. In fact, in many cases it would take a lot of effort to sing some songs in a British accent even if that is your native accent. I’ll hopefully demonstrate this later when I try to sing some songs myself.
What’s going on? Various things! This is a complex question to answer and that’s what the rest of this episode is about. I’m going to explore the answer to the question, although I’m not a linguist or a sociologist or anything so I’m kind of working it out myself. One thing that can help is to listen to some samples of music and also it might help if I try and sing in different accents myself and we can see what happens.
Basically, singing and speaking are different. Let’s talk about why.
Social, linguistic and musical conventions
American accents are conventional in music which has its roots in the USA.
Certain genres of music were born in the USA, including most pop music, soul, rock, R&B, jazz, funk, hip hop → this goes back to the roots of modern pop music, American blues, gospel and country music.
Therefore, when singing pop songs an American accent is the standard and is therefore easier, more normal and more natural.
Singing those songs with an obvious RP accent (or other) just ends up being weird, unnatural and wrong sounding, mainly because it would be unconventional. It just doesn’t sound right to sing certain songs with a British accent like mine.
But there are plenty of exceptions to this too, and that’s songs, genres or bands that have something authentically British about them.
In the case of this song (Shallow) Charlotte is singing a Lady Gaga song, and Lady Gaga sings it with an American accent because she is American. It’s a cover version and it would be a bit weird if she made it sound different to the original. Also the song is in a country-rock style, and in country music it’s normal to sing with a really pronounced accent – probably a southern or mid-western drawl. “Shallow” is a song from the film “A Star is Born” which is about a country singer.
Singing “Shallow” in a British accent
Let’s play “Shallow” on the guitar and first sing it in an American accent and then in a British accent.
How does it sound in my accent?
What’s your accent Luke? Just a reminder (and because people often ask me questions about this) My accent is basically standard RP, which is said to be not specific to any region of the UK, but to be honest it’s usually associated with educated, middle-class people, probably from the South East of England. I’m not trying to say I’m educated (and of course you can be highly-educated and everything and have a regional accent), but I’m definitely middle class and from the south east of England, but I also spent time growing up in the midlands as well as west London, so you might hear a bit of west-midlands Brummie in my voice or a bit of a London accent – if you’re listening very carefully. But basically, I speak with standard British RP from the south east of England but I’m not posh.
I don’t know what you think. There’s bound to be some people who prefer my British version. It’s a question of taste, but I think overall my British RP version wouldn’t really be accepted by most audiences. It would be weird, different, unconventional. Most people in the USA would think it was weird and wrong, I reckon.
But some songs and genres are definitely British and British voices are more obvious → things like folk music, UK hip hop (does Rapping count? It’s basically talking), Britpop, merseybeat, punk – in fact any music which is uniquely or authentically British in some way, or in which the local identity is being emphasised.
Brits sing in a British accent when they’re really being themselves, when it’s traditional British folk music, or when they’re pushing the British identity in the music.
Some British musicians make an effort not to sound American. You can hear that in some of the Beatles’ output (although sometimes they’re a bit American sounding too) and definitely in punk bands, new wave bands, britpop bands and so on → any musical movements in which a British identity gets pushed to the forefront.
Some examples of British music sung in a British accent
Madness – My Girl
Me singing it with an American accent (sounds wrong!)
So, in summary, I’d say that although this seems a bit weird, it’s common for Brits to sing with American accents because of the conventions of pop music which has its roots in the USA, but there are also examples of Brits singing in their own accents.
There’s a lot more to talk about and to investigate here, so let’s go into a bit more detail.
This article from thrillist.com has some more comments (read some extracts)
I might be re-emphasising what I just said, but I think it’s worth reading these extracts from an article I found on a website called Thrillist.com
One of the most prominent academics on this case is Peter Trudgill. In 1983, the man published an oft-cited study that examined the disconnect between how so many British pop singers talk in real life and how they perform. He concluded that acts like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones incorporated American phonetics because they were so influenced by Yankee musicians — particularly blues acts. (Remember, the Stones got their name from a Muddy Waters track.) It was an attempt to ape their idols and break into the U.S. market.
Rolling Stones singing “Not Fade Away”
Trudgill noted the American-ness got less aggressive as time wore on, and the British Invasion acts became more comfortable with their native speaking voices. By the time the ’70s arrived, punk bands like The Clash were turning away from American affectations.
So, basically –> In the beginning, UK singers were copying their American idols, but later this influence lessened.
Here are a couple of examples of UK punk bands singing in obvious British accents, to illustrate what Peter Tudgill said.
Sham 69 – Hurry Up Harry
Peter & The Test Tube Babies – Banned from the Pubs
That’s one explanation, but seeing as we still have modern fakers like Adele, it’s incomplete.
Adele speaks with a cockney accent like Charlotte Awbrey but sings in an American accent.
Some people argue that the phenomenon is more a matter of technique. Billy Bragg, who’s normally pretty cool with singing like a Brit, once said, “You can’t sing something like ‘Tracks of My Tears’ in a London accent… the cadences are all wrong.”
Billy Bragg singing normally
Billy Bragg singing Tracks of My Tears by Smokey and the Miracles.
So the point here is that it is just easier to sing in an American accent and sometimes an American accent is just appropriate for the song.
A recent study by Andy Gibson, a sociologist in New Zealand, would appear to back Bragg up. Gibson found that Kiwis defaulted to an American singing voice across the board, and it wasn’t a conscious choice. He surmised it was just easier to sing in that accent. That’s partially because of the way we round off certain words when we sing, and partially because the world is so used to hearing American accents in pop songs, it requires more effort and concentration to sing in a different accent. Even if that “different accent” is your default speaking voice.
Clearly, researchers are still working on a definitive answer. But people do “lose” their accents through song, and it’s not some weird conspiracy. It’s just linguistics! Or Mick Jagger’s fault. You decide.
What are the phonetic features of this “American Singing Accent”?
Let’s break down “the American singing accent” vs my British accent
I’ve decided called it “the American singing accent” because it might not match perfectly with General American or with all American accents.
America is a diverse place and there are many diverse accents there. But it seems that there is a certain kind of American accent that we can hear in a lot of music.
I get the feeling that this accent comes from the people who sang the blues and gospel (basically that means black communities in southern states) and from people who sang country (mostly white singers from southern or midwestern states) but I’m not a musicologist.
Features of The American Singing Accent (my own made-up term)
Diphthongs are flattened to long single vowel sounds. This can help in singing, because it allows you to hold one note for a long time.
Common examples: I (often) sounds like aaaa My (often) sounds like maaa Try sounds like traaaaa Life sounds like Laaaaaaaf Time “Out” sounds like “aaaat” “Sight” sounds like “saaaaat”
/r/ sounds are often more rounded “Now you’re out of sight here” “Now yurrrraaaaatu saaaaat heRe”
It’s generally a bit more nasal “Tell me something girl. Are you happy in this modern world? Or do you need more?” “Tell me something boy. Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?”
“Baby” sounds like “Baybeeee”
I’m sure there are other features. Let me know in the comment section if you can think of others.
To be honest, the best way I can demonstrate this is to try and sing some more songs in different accents and see what happens.
That’s where we’re going to pause. This is the end of part 1, and we will continue in part 2, which will be available soon, possibly already.
In part 2 the plan is to explore this question further by doing some more singing. I’m going to take some songs which are normally sung in that American singing voice, sing them normally and then sing them in my accent and we’ll see how it sounds.
We’ll also hear some more examples of British singers singing in American accents, and also British singers singing in British accents.
So, a lot more examples in part 2 to illustrate what I’ve been talking about in this episode.
As ever, I’m interested in your comments. Perhaps you have examples of British singers singing in American accents, or British singers singing in British accents.
Or maybe there’s a song which you like, but you don’t really know what the accent is?
In any case, you can share your thoughts and YouTube videos in the comment section.
I hope you’re keeping well, that you’re not climbing the walls or going stir crazy if you are currently in self-isolation at home. If you’re cooped up with members of your family I hope you’re managing to make it work and that you’re not at each other’s throats. Maybe you’re a lovely lovely time, in which case I am happy for you. If you’re struggling then hang in there, this won’t last forever. And if you or anyone else you know is currently unwell, then I wish you a speedy recovery and what else can I say –> may the force be with you? Actually, that’s when the lockdown is supposed to be lifted here. May the 4th (although I suspect it will be extended) but anyway, “May the 4th be with you”.
Alright, that’s enough. I hope you have found this interesting and part 2 should be available now or very soon, so you can get stuck into that.
So, speak to you again in part 2 but for now –> bye bye bye!
Listen to a lovely bit of stand up comedy that will require quite a lot of breaking down in order for you to understand all the jokes like a native speaker, but there’s lots to learn in the way of language and culture in the process.
This is LEP episode 610. and it’s called British Comedy: James Acaster.
In this one we’re going to listen to a lovely bit of stand up comedy that will require quite a lot of breaking down in order for you to understand all the jokes like a native speaker, and there’s lots to learn in the way of language and culture in the process.
James Acaster is a popular stand up comedian from the UK who has won various awards, done Netflix specials, Edinburgh shows and who appears on panel shows and TV comedy programmes all the time. He’s now a very popular and well-known stand up in the UK.
I’ve got a clip of one of his performances from the New Zealand Comedy Gala in 2013 on YouTube.
I’m going to play the video in about two parts.
You have to try to understand it – not just what he’s saying, but why is it funny?
Then I’ll go back through the clip, sum it up, go through it line by line, breaking it down for language.
You can then listen again using the video on the page for the episode.
Who is James Acaster? (Wikipedia) James Acaster is an English comedian originally from Kettering, Northamptonshire. (accent?) He has performed for several consecutive years at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and won two Chortle awards in 2015. He has been nominated for Best Show five times at the Edinburgh Fringe. Acaster has appeared on several panel shows, including Mock the Week and Would I Lie to You? He has a 2018 Netflix show entitled Repertoire, consisting of four hour-long stand-up comedy performances. He has also written a book, James Acaster’s Classic Scrapes, consisting of true stories, most of which were originally told on Josh Widdicombe’s show on XFM. He currently hosts panel show Hypothetical alongside Widdicombe and food podcast Off Menu with fellow comedian Ed Gamble.
He’s originally from Northamptonshire which is in the east midlands. He doesn’t have a strong northern accent or a brummie accent, although I do think he would say “podcast” instead of “podcast” and “bath, grass, laugh” with that short a sound too.
The main thing is that he drops all his “T” sounds and also “TH” sounds.
So, “bring them” sounds like “bring em”
“Sitting in a tree, eating all the apples” sounds like “si’in in a tree, ea’in all the apples”
“Theft” becomes “Feft”
He also says “Raver” instead of “rather”.
All very common features of local English – dropping Ts and TH sounds is common all over the country.
What is his comedy style?
Whimsical (unusual, strange and amusing)
Thinking of things in a different way, unconventional (quite normal in stand up)
Acting a bit cool even though he isn’t
Geeky looking, wears sweaters, clothes even a granddad might wear
Looks a bit like Jarvis Cocker
James bought some ‘ready-to-eat Apricots’ and he went on a lads’ night out
You get these bags of fruit in the UK (and elsewhere I’m sure) of fruit which is ready to eat.
It’s been cut up, washed, prepared. It’s ready to eat.
For example, you might get “ready-to-eat apricots”. That’s what James is talking about here.
Also, the expression ”You are what you eat?”
Play the clip:What’s the joke about apricots?
Stop and explain it
What kind of apricots are these?
They are ready-to-eat apricots.
How do you feel?
I feel ready. Ready to eat apricots.
In fact, you could say I was ready to eat these ready-to-eat apricots.
Maybe you’re not ready to eat apricots.
Maybe you just want some, which is why they’re in a resealable bag.
So, they should be renamed ready-to-eat-some-apricots.
A lads’ night out / You wouldn’t bring an apple to an orchard
James went on a night out with a bunch of lads.
For James, this was not an enjoyable night.
It wouldn’t be for me either. I’ve never been one of those guys who likes to go out on a lads’ night out.
Lets me explain what a lads’ night out is like.
Lads are usually English young men, together, doing male things and generally being aggressive, overly sexual, crude, rude and competitive.
Lots of alpha male behaviour
Taking the piss and general one-upmanship and aggressive, laddish, competitive behaviour
Spending time in bars and clubs that you hate but they think are brilliant (terrible, terrible music, awful people, loud, smelly, horrible)
Trying to pick up girls and the general lack of a moral code – cheating, lying, using alcohol – all in an attempt to get lucky with a girl. This includes cheating on your girlfriend if you have one.
Medieval-level sexual politics – being openly judgemental about women’s appearances, giving women marks out of ten, saying whether or not you would shag any of the women around, looking at their bodies and comparing notes etc.
You get sucked into it through peer pressure and become part of it even though you hate it.
One of the lads, who has a girlfriend and yet plans to pick up a girl at the club, when asked why he didn’t bring his girlfriend, says “You wouldn’t bring an apple to an orchard”
An orchard is a place where apples are grown. It’s full of trees and there are apples everywhere. You might pay to access the orchard and pick the apples.
You wouldn’t bring an apple to an orchard. Presumably because you wouldn’t need to bring one because there are loads there anyway.
How about bringing your girlfriend to a night club. Is it the same?
This leads James to kind of question the logic of that statement and go off an a monologue about bringing an apple to an orchard and how that compares to bringing your girlfriend to a nightclub.
To be an accessory to something (like a crime)
An apple a day keeps the doctor away
Play the clip:Do you understand all the comedy about the nightclub and bringing an apple to an orchard?
Stop and explain it
Going to a nightclub with a bunch of lads
One of them cheats on his girlfriend and you become an accessory to it, like it’s a crime and now you’ve become pulled into it. You’re involved in it, without intending to be, and you could go down, like you’re an accessory to a crime.
In this sense, you just have to keep a secret, you’re being expected to lie on behalf of someone else. The guy is a twat basically.
This lad says “You wouldn’t bring an apple to an orchard”.
But then James deconstructs this analogy in a brilliant way.
This is nuanced comedy which is subtly making fun of stupid lad culture in a clever and funny way, with some weirdness and surrealism.
Go through it line by line
One of the reasons I like it is that a lot of people might just say James is being weird and that he’s some sort of loser, but he’s absolutely right in my opinion and he’s just clever and not afraid to be himself and he embraces the slightly weird things in life, because let’s face it, life is weird.
Types of humour / how nuanced & subtle humour can be all about changing the context of the situation in order to reveal new perspectives.
This acknowledges the fact that there are many different perspectives or layers to any situation and a good comedian can make you realise a whole different underlying meaning by just changing one bit of perspective.
Despite the fact that I like this a lot and so do many other people, I’m sure plenty of others don’t find it funny because it’s not fast enough, there aren’t enough dynamic changes (he doesn’t change his voice a lot, a lot of the jokes are left to the audience’s imagination), it’s pretty low energy, maybe little things like (I can’t get into it – I just don’t like his hair cut or his shoes or something) and also some people just don’t really want to look at the world from a different point of view. Some people prefer more direct humour, perhaps with a more obvious target or more relatable things, like observational comedy or something.
As usual, I’m worrying that nobody will get it, but what’s the point of that? Some people just won’t get it because “you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”.
And it doesn’t matter. If you didn’t find it funny, that’s totally fine. At least you’ve learned some English in the process. :)
They say “you are what you eat”
A resealable bag
A lads’ night out
Check out the arse on that
Normal people perv solo
To outnumber someone
A dented suitcase
To cheat on someone
An accessory to a crime
Eloquent use of language
A little bit miffed
This godforsaken pisshole of an orchard
Who in their right mind compares women to apples?
Another saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”
Here’s another short clip of James Acaster, this time talking about Brexit and comparing it to a tea bag in a cup.
Should you take the bag out or leave it in?
James Acaster Brexit Tea Bag
Now explain that Luke!
Tea / Brexit
Should you leave the bag in or not?
If the bag stays in, the cup as a whole gets stronger. It might look like the bag is getting weaker in some way but it’s actually part of a good strong cup of tea.
If you take the bag out, the tea is actually quite weak, and the bag goes straight in the bin.
Do I even need to explain how that analogy works with Brexit?
Should the UK stay in or go out?
If the UK remains, the EU as a whole gets stronger. It might look like the UK is getting weaker in some way, but it’s actually part of a good strong union of nations.
If the UK leaves, the EU gets weaker and the UK goes straight in the bin.
Quite clever really.
You can watch James Acaster clips on YouTube.
You can see his Netflix specials “Repertoire” on Netflix
You can read his book “Classic Scrapes” from any half-decent book shop.
Hello, you’re listening to episode 591, which is called London Native Speaker Interviews Revisited Part 1.
The plan in this episode is to revisit some videos I recorded 10 years ago…
We’re going to listen to the audio from one of those videos and break it all down in order to help you understand everything word for word, teaching you some lovely, descriptive and idiomatic vocabulary in the process.
This episode is a bit of a flashback to 10 years ago when I first started doing the podcast.
What happened 10 years ago Luke, in 2009?
Ooh, all sorts of things happened, but one of them was that I went into central London armed with my video camera, an Oyster card and a question to ask some members of the public: What is London really like?
What is London like? = tell me about London, describe London
I interviewed people in the street and edited the footage into a series of 5 videos which I published on YouTube, and the videos actually did very well! Part 1 now has 1.6 million views. Part 2 has 1 million.
You might be thinking – are you rich because of those videos? Nope. Not at all. I didn’t monetise them until after they’d got most of their views, or I couldn’t monetise them because of some background music. Anyway, that’s another story for another time – how YouTubers make or don’t make money from their videos.
I also published the videos and their audio tracks as episodes of this podcast in 2009. Some of you will have heard them and seen those videos.
I thought that this time it would be interesting to revisit those videos on the podcast because there’s loads of English to learn from them. When I published them on the podcast in 2009 I just published them with no commentary from me. It was just the video/audio with transcripts on the website.
But this time I’m not just going to play them again. Instead I’m going to go through the audio from the first video and kind of break it down bit by bit, explaining bits of vocabulary and generally commenting on things as we go. This is going to be a bit like one of those director’s commentary tracks that you get on DVDs, but the focus is mainly going to be on highlighting certain items of vocabulary and bits of pronunciation/accent that come up in the videos.
*Luke mentions his Avengers Endgame Spoiler Review, which you can listen to in the LEP App (in the App-only episodes category).*
If you want to watch the original video that I’m talking about here, you’ll find it embedded on the page for this episode on my website (A script is also available), it’s also in the LEP App (with a script in the notes) which you can download free from the app store on your phone – just search for Luke’s English Podcast App and you can just find it on my YouTube channel, which is Luke’s English Podcast on YouTube. The video is called London Native Speaker Interviews Part 1, or maybe London Video Interviews Part 1 (website), London Interviews Part 1 in the app.
So, let’s now travel back in time to 2009 and revisit Native English Speaker Interviews Part 1.
The theme of the videos is London – what’s it really like to live there? What are the good and bad things about living there?
So there’s a lot of descriptive vocabulary for describing cities and life in cities.
What’s London really like?
This question: “What is it like?” means “tell me about it” or “how is it?”. It does not mean: “What do you like about London?”
e.g. What is London like? – it’s busy
What do you like about it? – I like the theatres
It’s gone to the dogs = everything is much worse now than it was before
grimy = dirty
to recharge your batteries = to give yourself some energy, by doing something pleasant and stimulating
to shout someone down = to disagree with someone loudly in order to stop them talking
to take advantage of something = to use something good which is available to you
commuting = travelling from home to work every day
Amber & Paul join me to talk again about poshness, posh accents and posh celebrities. This episode is full of different British accents – posh, RP and regional differences. It’s also full of comedy and I found myself laughing out loud while editing this, especially the interview with the football player that Paul tells us about. I hope you enjoy it.
Can you identify which UK celebrities are posh and which are not? Let’s listen to some British celebrities speaking, check their Wikipedia pages and work out of these people are truly posh or not. You’ll hear samples of lots of spoken English in this episode and we’ll focus on accent and pronunciation.
This is episode 582 and it’s called “Posh or not posh? (Part 2) Guess the Posh British Celebrities” and in this one we’re going to listen to a lot of famous British people and work out if they are posh or not.
This follows on from the last episode in which I talked about what makes a person posh and what posh people sound like when they speak.
You should listen to episode 581 before listening to this I reckon.
In the last episode you heard me say that a really important thing is to listen to people speaking and to hear lots of examples of posh speech. In this episode you’re going to hear loads of different people speaking. Some of them sound posh and others don’t. So you’re going to hear a mix of different accents. I could probably break it down like this – posh RP, standard RP and regional accents.
We’re going to go through a list of British celebrities. Can you identify if these people are posh?
I’ll name the person. We’ll listen to some audio of them speaking and see if their accent is posh. We’ll look out for some little clues that kind of give it away. Then I’ll have a look at their Wikipedia pages to get some more info and find out if they really are posh.
Remember the 7 types of poshness we talked about before.
poshness of birth
poshness of wealth
poshness of accent
poshness of education
poshness of excellent taste – the fine arts, fine wine, fine food – anything with ‘fine’ before it
poshness of exuberant vulgarity (e.g. over-the-top excessive and showy expressions of bad taste – bling)
poshness of assumed superiority
The key things in the Wikipedia biography are: educational background (private schools, boarding schools, single-sex schools, prep schools) and family background (any connections to nobility). Also we’ll pay attention to the way they speak.
So it’s basically – poshness of birth, poshness of education and poshness of accent that we’re looking at here.
Remember that hardly anyone has all the traits of being posh. For example, I expect that most of the people in my list don’t score very highly in the “poshness of assumed superiority” because most of them are humble actors but maybe some of them actually are arrogant enough to assume that they’re better than everyone else. Anyway, the main things we’re looking at are birth (family connections) education (which school) and accent.
Again, it’s not very fair to judge people, and I’m just trying to help learners of English to be able to identify certain things about people from England.
As we go through these video clips which are on YouTube, the focus for me is on just the way the people speak. We might have to skip past some of the language (vocabulary) while doing this. Normally when I use audio like this on the podcast I break it down word by word so you can understand everything. There might not be time for in-depth analysis like that. We’ll focus on the accent, I might explain what’s being said a bit, and then we’ll check the Wikipedia page for that person and move on.
So, are these people posh or not? Let’s go.
Videos & Speech Samples
Prince Harry (duh)
Jack Whitehall (and his Dad)
Any other UK celebrities you can think of? Add a video in the comment section.
Today I’m doing an episode on the theme of British accents and culture by focusing on the notion of ‘poshness’ in people. I’ll explain everything I think you need to know about what the word “posh” really means, and then I’m going to go through a list of famous British people, give some details from their Wikipedia pages, perhaps listen to some samples of them talking and you’ve got to work out if they are posh or not posh.
I’ve decided to name this game “Posh or not posh?”
This will probably take several episodes, so to be honest I might not actually get to the “Are they posh or not?” quiz until part 2, but we’ll see.
As I’m talking about how posh people speak you’ll probably be wondering what their accents sound like so I’ll do some posh accents throughout this episode, and you’ll have a chance to listen to lots of speech samples of people – some posh, some not, in probably the next part of this episode.
The reason I’m doing this is to help you understand what ‘posh’ really means, and how to identify poshness in people.
The thing is, that as an English person, when I meet another English person I can work out in just a few minutes quite a lot about them based on the way they speak, look and behave. Now, perhaps I shouldn’t because you’re not supposed to jump to conclusions about people or judge a book by its cover, but in my experience English people are able to identify things about each other, like social background and so on, and probably make certain judgements about each other by noticing clues that non-native speakers of English often are not aware of.
In many cases the most revealing clues are the linguistic ones – like speech patterns, accent, choice of words. So, I want to help you to understand this whole subject and to notice these clues so that you understand this whole thing like someone from the UK.
I don’t want to teach people to be judgemental, or encourage you to make assumptions about people based on the way that they speak – but I do want to just help you learn how to identify certain cultural and linguistic clues that you might otherwise be unaware of.
In the process you’ll learn details about upper-class society in the UK, what makes a person truly posh (or not) how posh people really speak, and you’ll learn more about some famous UK celebrities and the ways they speak English.
I should say too that I don’t believe being “posh” is automatically a good or bad thing really. It depends on the behaviour and attitudes of people as individuals, and it’s not fair to make generalisations about everyone. So I’m not saying being “posh” is a bad thing, even though posh people are sometimes disliked by people in the UK for various reasons. I’m also not saying that “posh” people should be looked up to for any particular reason. I’m just trying to help you learn what “posh” English really sounds like.
What does “posh” really mean?
So first we need to clarify exactly what “posh” means and what makes someone truly posh. I have mentioned this word quite a few times before on this podcast, but anyway, here it is again.
“Posh” when referring to people
Collins Dictionary Definition
If you describe a person as posh, you mean that they belong to or behave as if they belong to the upper classes. I wouldn’t have thought she had such posh friends. He sounded so posh on the phone.
Not just ‘rich’, there’s a lot more to it than that, as we will see later.
Some of you might be thinking of Victoria Beckham at this point, because her nickname in the Spice Girls was “Posh Spice”. (Ginger Spice, Scary Spice, Baby Spice, Sporty Spice and Posh Spice) The press in the UK gave her that nickname because she had an air of sophistication and class about her, and she liked to wear quite chic clothes, but in terms of her background she wasn’t posh at all. Now you could argue that she is now more posh than she used to be, in some senses of the word, because she has achieved quite high status and is probably very rich and quite well-connected in the fashion world and so on, but there’s more to it than that, as I’ve said, and so she still isn’t truly posh. You can hear it in the way that she speaks.
The same applies to David Beckham, who although he is rich, successful, high-status (in the sense that he’s a successful celebrity footballer), well-connected and brushes shoulders with royalty and so on, is not really posh either.
So that’s the word “posh” for people. Upper-class, basically. That doesn’t really explain it though because now we’re into the whole concept of the class system and what upper-class really means – if indeed it still means anything these days, since we’re living in an era when, arguably, class distinctions don’t really exist any more, although I don’t really agree with that, or at least you can still see traces of the class system running through society in terms of power and the attitudes we have about each other. I’ll come back to this stuff about poshness in people in a moment.
I also want to say that we can say that ‘things’ are posh too, not just people.
“Posh” when referring to things
If you describe something as posh, you mean that it is smart, fashionable, and expensive.
[informal] Celebrating a promotion that my wife got at work, we went to a posh hotel for some cocktails. That’s a posh car. They’re having a posh dinner party in the house over the road.
We also use the adjective for anything which is fancy or high-quality. E.g. I’ve got a posh new laptop.
Back to poshness in people now.
What is upper-class?
How do we define upper class or high class? It can be a question of perspective.
“Posh” can be used to just describe people who you think are of a higher class than you, and this makes it a little bit subjective because what is posh for one person isn’t necessarily posh for someone else.
For example, if you live in a hole in the ground and you see someone who lives in a cardboard box, you might say “Ooh, you’re a bit posh aren’t you, living in a cardboard box! Oooh! Look at you with your fancy lifestyle”.
Similarly, if you live in a little terraced house in a slightly rough part of town and you meet someone who has a detached 3-bedroom house in the countryside, you’d say – “Bloody hell you’re pretty posh”. And if you live in a 3-bedroom house in the countryside and you meet someone who lives in a huge stately home like the one in Downton Abbey you could say “Wow, you’re really posh”, and that person visits the Queen and thinks “This is a bit posh isn’t it?” So it does depend on your point of view to an extent.
But, it’s not just your living conditions though. There are other indicators of poshness. You could be homeless and yet still very posh indeed. It’s also not about being rich. You could be penniless and still be posh.
7 rules of being posh
American writer, resident in the UK for nearly 30 years, Guardian columnist Tim Downling @IAmTimDownling identifies 7 rules of being posh
After 25 years of living in Britain, US-born Tim Dowling believes he has finally worked out the class system. Here’s what he has learned
“There is no one kind of poshness. There are actually seven distinct types: poshness of birth; poshness of wealth; of accent; of education; also, the poshness of excellent taste, as well as the poshness of eccentric and exuberant vulgarity (e.g. over-the-top excessive and showy expressions of bad taste – bling); and, finally, the poshness of assumed superiority. Some of these are inextricably linked, and some quite naturally overlap, but almost no one is possessed of all seven.”
I think The Queen possesses all seven qualities. (How, Luke? Pray, tell us.)
Just to restate and slightly redefine:
1. poshness of birth [This relates to your family connections to the aristocracy, which has a clear hierarchy of status – the higher you are in the family, the posher you are]
2. poshness of wealth [the richer you are, the posher you are]
3. poshness of accent and register [the way you speak]
4. poshness of education [the school and university you went to]
5. poshness of excellent taste – the fine arts, fine wine, fine food – anything with ‘fine’ before it
6. poshness of eccentric and exuberant vulgarity (e.g. over-the-top excessive and showy
expressions of bad taste – bling) (in contradiction to point 5)
7. poshness of assumed superiority
I might add poshness of eccentricity to that too, marking it out from point 6.
How do you know if someone is posh?
What are the indicators of poshness?
Applying the 7 Rules/Indicators
I think the seven types of poshness described by Tim Downling are pretty good actually.
For example – let’s apply it to my family. I had a friend once who was convinced that I was posh. He was actually quite disdainful about it. He was from a working class or lower middle class background, and lived in an urban area in a terraced house. I knew him from college and we were in a band together. He used to come to my place for band practice. My family at the time lived in a house in the countryside outside the city. He had a car. Our house was quite big, admittedly. 4 bedrooms. I don’t think I’m that posh, but I can see how some people might think I am, like this friend of mine – let’s call him Ian.
Ian thought my family, my house and my life were posh – but I reckon that was just from his point of view.
Also there’s a bit of politics involved and if you’re left-wing in the old fashioned “up the workers” kind of way, you would view the upper-classes as the elite establishment who serve themselves at the expense of ordinary working people. This kind of attitude runs through some people, who sort of sneer at things they consider to be of the upper or upper-middle class.
I also got the impression Ian was a bit resentful of these things, and the fact that my parents were approachable and nice, and I always felt a bit bad when he tried to make fun of me for being posh – because I didn’t see it that way at all. I thought he’d got me wrong.
Here’s what he thought made me posh:
My family didn’t speak with a brummie accent. We spoke with RP. They were also quite cool and groovy parents who shared similar tastes as me.
We had different words for some things. He called it the living room or sitting room, we called it the lounge. He called it the settee or couch, we called it the sofa.
Our house was just bigger, which meant that we had more money – but only because my Dad had managed to get a good job at the BBC, perhaps because he went to Oxford University…
Hmmm, those things do make me sound a bit posh. But he got into Oxford because he worked really hard when he was younger, because his parents just brought him up well and because he’s clever. Nobody else in our family went to Oxford except my Dad and his brother went to Cambridge, but my grand parents and great grandparents never went to Oxford or anything. My Grandad was a civil engineer who served in WW2. I think Ian’s Dad hadn’t gone to university for whatever reason.
But Ian would do that “ooooh, in the lounge! Why don’t you lie down on the sofa in the lounge then!” all that stuff.
I don’t think he was right in thinking that I am posh. I’m not. I went to a state school not a private one. I didn’t speak with a proper posh voice – just RP with some brummie (video footage shows I had a brummie accent at the time!) because I wasn’t actually born in that area – we moved there from West London when I was 9. So I might have sounded posh to him, but not really posh! There is a difference between my RP and posh RP (hopefully we’ll hear some of that later). And, crucially, there is no old money in our family – no landowners, nor the slightest hint of a connection to the nobility. The fact is, although he would sometimes comment or make fun of me by going “oooh, the lounge – aren’t you posh! Ooh, you’ve got a gas AGA stove in the kitchen!! Ooh look at you”. None of that mattered to me at the time. I was more interested in how he played the guitar and what kind of music he was listening to. I probably was from a slightly higher class than him – perhaps I’m middle or upper middle class and he was lower-middle class or something, but it’s ridiculous isn’t it – to split hairs like this. I think mainly it was the environment I grew up in and the lack of certain working class tropes, like the kinds of brands they’d buy and even the way they’d talk to each other. And our house was full of art on the walls and books and stuff. I just felt like it was mainly my parents who had education and were interested in literature and things.
These distinctions are quite petty, but I have to say – they are undeniable. There were differences between us, but I like to think they don’t really matter. That probably confirms that I’m from an upper-middle class family. I don’t know!
I’m not in touch with Ian any more by the way.
All this can get pretty complicated, and I wonder if things are similar in your countries. I can’t really imagine what it’s like in China, Russia or anywhere else for that matter.
But to keep it as simple as possible, for me, genuine poshness is associated with truly upper-class people. You can act posh, sound posh, look posh, even smell posh, be considered posh by other people, but the only true sign of poshness is your family background. Family connections.
True “Upper-class” really means having connections to aristocracy, even quite remote connections. The more family connections you have to the aristocracy the posher you are.
These connections need to be hereditary ones, meaning things you’re born into. As long as you’ve got that, everything else you do doesn’t matter. You can speak like anyone else, look like anyone, live like anyone, have no money left and still be super posh if it’s in your blood.
Levels of aristocracy
Aristocracy = Royalty and The Nobility
The aristocracy is the genuine upper class, in terms of inherited social status, or poshness by birth.
The Royal Family is the direct blood relatives of the monarch. So this includes the King or Queen, Princes and Princesses. Dukes are also part of the royal family. Well, the Royal Dukes anyway (like The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip). There are also Noble Dukes too, who aren’t royalty. They’re nobility. Complicated isn’t it? Yes, it is a bit.
There’s a level below royalty too, which is still a part of the aristocracy. That’s the nobility.
There are 5 levels of nobility or peerage. Peerage means the system of inherited titles of nobility. Again, something you’re born into.
The ranks of the peerage are (in descending order)
marquess (pron: markwiss)
viscount (pron: /ˈvaɪkaʊnt/)
There’s also the word “Lord” which you will have heard of. The term Lord is used in several ways. The general word “Lord” is another way of referring to a member of the nobility, like a baron. You’ll have heard this in Downton Abbey – the main character is known as Lord Grantham, but his real title is The Earl of Grantham. So “Lord” is just a term of address for anyone in the nobility.
But also a “Lord” is a political title given to someone who sits in the House of Lords, in Parliament.
Most of those Lords in Parliament are given their title by the government – they’re selected because of their expert knowledge, so they’re not nobility.
If you have someone in your family with one of those peerages or titles – Lord, Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount or Baron it means you have connections to the nobility, which is part of the aristocracy.
I wonder how many aristocrats I have listening to this podcast. Perhaps you have connections to aristocracy in your country (of course you might use different titles and stuff).
If that’s true and you are connected to the nobility, then “Hi! You’re really posh!”
Here in France where I live at the moment, there was a revolution of course, which ended the reign of the royal family when the country became a republic. But there are still noble families here and some very posh people. I taught a few of them at University. Some names came up in my register that were clearly very posh – usually in French these are names featuring the name of a place somewhere in France. I even had one guy who was a Windsor, and I’m not kidding – he was half-English and was related to the royal family on his father’s side. He was some kind of aristocrat. He told me that he knew Prince Harry and that he lived on a barracks in Westminster. That was both interesting and awkward because I didn’t find out until the end of the course, and one of the topics we’d covered was monarchy in the UK.
It was an English class at university, but this guy was basically bilingual. He still took my class though. I knew he was posh because he told me he lived in Westminster (when he spent time in London) and almost nobody lives in Westminster – in Zone 1 of London, except the Queen, the PM, some civil servants, some soldiers, and various super-posh people. So we’d spent some time dealing with arguments both for and against the abolition of the royal family in the UK, just as an exercise in academic writing and debating skills. I wonder how he felt. He said he enjoyed the class, which was nice.
There’s actually a list of peerages (hereditary titles), where all the family connections are published. It’s called Burke’s Peerage and you can get it online www.burkespeerage.com/
There are a few listings for Thompson – knighthoods mainly, it seems. Apparently knighthoods are listed in there. A knighthood is an honorary title, given by the Queen. It does not make you part of the nobility though. Really, a knighthood is just a title (Sir or Dame for a Damehood) and doesn’t give you any advantages really, although I’m sure it helps book restaurant tables and so on!
It seems so complex because there are loads of complex volumes and lists. I’m not in there, and neither is my Dad – OF COURSE.
If you don’t have those connections, you’re not really, truly posh. But you might be described as posh because you might have some aspects from other categories or people might just judge you to be from a certain background.
A few other signifiers of poshness:
Education – The school they went to, especially if it’s an exclusive ‘public’ school. Boarding schools. Top university educations from Oxbridge Colleges.
Wealth – especially in the form or property and land – possibly farmland, a stately home in the family for example.
Habits and lifestyle – cricket, golf, tennis, horse riding, polo, hunting, fine art, theatre, ballet, opera, gastronomic food. They’re not exclusive to posh people, but you often find posh people are into those things, definitely the ones involving horses. They’re very horsey, posh people.
Speech – certain words, a certain accent.
Here are some features of how posh people speak. It’s a combination of accent and choice of words.
It’s actually pretty complicated – there are several types of posh speech, I have to say.
Old fashioned posh (like the old BBC accents, The Queen’s accent) – you could call it old fashioned heightened RP.
But there’s also a modern posh accent that upper-class young people might speak – like Prince Harry, Kate Middleton or the guy in the Gap Yah video (more on that later). Modern posh young people might actually borrow certain words or features of colloquial speech from lower class culture, but there are still certain aspects of pronunciation that will reveal their poshness – particularly certain vowel sounds.
So modern posh people, like William and Harry, can sound really similar to middle class people like me, but they give themselves away with certain little clues in word choice, pronunciation and just a general attitude too. It’s parodied really well in a YouTube video called Gap Yah, which I’ll deal with later on when we look at some examples of speech.
I need to do more episodes that cover these types of speech in more depth. The best way for you to notice these things is to listen to a lot of samples of people speaking in these ways. So what I should do is other episodes that feature: William, Harry and Kate, comedy clips parodying modern posh people (like the video called Gap Yah) and perhaps clips from Made in Chelsea. Also, episodes with some old fashioned posh RP – like clips from Downton Abbey, The Crown, or comedy parodies of old upper class people speaking. That’s a lot of content! You could also check these things out online.
But here’s an overview of some general features of posh heightened RP.
Heightened RP, or “posh RP” – or RP with certain features.
To a large extent it’s clear English with every sound clearly enunciated. You will probably love it, just saying. Usually learners of English love hearing “posh” English because it’s clear (which really means it matches the old fashioned English that was used to make old learning materials for decades) Mostly posh English is just like normal RP and you might not notice a big difference with my accent, but there are little features that mark out posh speech from just standard RP.
These things are probably very difficult for learners of English to notice, but an English native speaker would pick up on them almost immediately.
Some features of posh speech:
Consonant sounds at the ends of words are not dropped, like ‘t’ or ‘d’.
No glottal stops – dropped T sounds
Imagine Tom Hiddleston as Loki in the Marvel films.
But having said that I can definitely imagine a posh guy in a pub ordering some drinks and intentionally dropping his Ts in order to sound cool, or when talking to a mechanic.
“Yah, can I get another couple of sparkling waters, yah, thanks Toby”
“Right, yah so you reckon the carburetor is fucked. Ok chaps. Well let’s bloody well make it unfucked, pronto! hayahyahyahya!”
TH sounds are pronounced fully not as /f/ or /v/.
Thirty three thousand months of Thursdays thinking thoughts”
So far, so normal RP…
Tripthongs are flattened. E.g. power – shower – riot – hire – fire – gap year – layer – mayonnaise – player.
“I’m terribly grubby after playing some rugger. I’m not much of a player – more of a spectator really. Never was particularly good at sport, you know. Had a bloody hard time at school I must say. I always found it so awfully competitive. But look I’m going to go off and have a shower I think. We’ve just had a rather good shower installed in the 8th bedroom in the north wing actually. I think it’s a power shower as a matter of fact. I tell you what, if Daddy saw me like this he’d be bloody furious. Not the done thing at all, hohhoh. It would be somewhat… awkward let’s say. He does get, exceedingly ticked off at that sort of thing. Rather an angry fellow you know, my my my my father, you see. He’d probably do something drastic like get me fired from my job again and I’d have to get hired somewhere else. So this is a podcast is it? Jolly good. It’s an absolute riot this internet stuff. I did a bit of English teaching on my gap year actually. Oh yeah, it was bloody great fun actually. Anyway, I must dash…”
Certain words -e.g. These adverbials: terribly, awfully, rather, not at all, exceedingly, somewhat, frightfully.
Calling their parents Mummy and Daddy (especially the girls).
Saying “yah yah yah” and “you know” quite a lot.
Other posh signifiers
Obviously posh people are going to wear expensive brands, but the posh look is probably like this: Hunter boots, or boat shoes, chinos, corduroy or stonewashed jeans, a checked shirt, with a boating sweater on top, perhaps a polo shirt, a rugby shirt, possibly a blue blazer, an old-school tie, a wax jacket or a puffy jacket, possibly a puffy waistcoat, possibly a flat cap but not necessarily. Women might wear a fur waistcoat. Floppy hair. Dressing like they’re either going to spend the day on a boat, or spend the day hunting in the countryside.
Formality and smartness
You can imagine posh people dressing up in expensive evening wear but also having some eccentricity (like affectations) and scruffiness.
Double-barreled surnames – surnames with more than one part, especially if the pronunciation and spelling of the names are really different. Politician David Lloyd George, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, astronomer Robert Hanbury Brown, actors Kristin Scott Thomas and Helena Bonham Carter.
Not trying to be posh.
Genuine posh people have nothing to prove and therefore can be pretty eccentric.
To be honest, posh people are just as likely to behave badly as non posh people. The image of the “hooray Henry” is a well-known one. It’s basically a sort of posh hooligan of sorts. Hooray Henries might populate towns like Oxford and they’ll get drunk and do stupid things. Some very posh schools have secret members’ clubs that involve nasty initiation rituals, eg the Bullingdon Club which was famous for smashing up restaurants and then throwing down money to pay for the damage. Former PM David Cameron was a member, so was Boris Johnson and various other members of the Tory party establishment.
It does depend on the individual, and there are some extremely charitable and wonderful posh people, but at it’s worst the attitude of posh people is one of disdain for the lower classes and an assumed sense of superiority.
Where are posh people to be found?
In Chelsea, Sloane Square, Kings Road, Oxford, Cambridge, Home counties, Henley on Thames, Ascot, Wimbledon.
More Categories of Poshness
Let’s go through some categories of poshness again. Which one is the most important (I think you’ve got it by now)
The school – but non-posh people get into top schools all the time.
The wealth – but plenty of non-posh people are rich and some really posh people are broke.
The lifestyle – anyone can fake it and live like a posh person without being truly posh.
Relationships with family – pressure from parents to live up to high standards, perhaps distant relations with parents due to growing up with nannies or in boarding school, monetary support from parents.
Politics – the majority of posh people vote Conservative, although occasionally some are socialists.
The accent – anyone can fake that too, and many people do.
Eccentricities – this is quite a good indicator. You might find that truly posh people are a bit odd. Think of Prince Charles talking to trees and wearing timeless clothes.
Owning land – often posh people own large areas of land and might be involved in agriculture.
But ultimately – it’s about family connections.
How do most people feel about posh people? Do we like posh people?
As you might expect – it’s complicated, it depends and it’s a matter of perspective.
There are attitudes towards truly posh people, and then attitudes to people who act posh but aren’t.
Also it’s a case of how people behave, rather than which social class they belong to.
Quite a lot of people don’t like the aristocracy because of the associations with a lack of democracy but it depends if they have personality. E.g. it’s possible to disagree with the concept of aristocracy, but to get on with an aristocrat.
We like eccentric, down-to-earth, kind and jovial posh people but there’s a feeling that many posh people, such as the people in the reality show “Made in Chelsea” are snobbish, arrogant, small minded, privileged, selfish, judgemental, elitist, patronising, superficial and cut off from reality. But maybe the thing about the people on that show is that we all know that in many cases they’re not fully posh, just the product of social climbing. It’s not just a question of disliking people who have money, there is something about the attitude and the behaviour too.
Also there’s a sense of injustice that these people enjoy high-status lifestyles and privilege not because they’ve earned it, but because Daddy paid for it. People argue that these people live in a bubble and don’t understand the struggles of most ordinary people, and also that they look down on other people and consider themselves superior.
Also, people tend to dislike those people who are social climbers – perhaps people who aren’t truly posh, but who are desperate to raise themselves in social status and class, and perhaps who are very snobbish about people lower than themselves – as an expression of their class aspirations.
E.g. Hyacinth Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances. She’s middle class, or perhaps from a lower class family in fact – but she is desperate to appear upper-class. Ultimately, she’s fake and she’s a snob.
But honestly, I think what people really don’t like is if people are faking it and acting superior when they’re not, or if people are just being mean in some way – e.g. assuming they are superior to everyone and talking down to people.
When a person is genuinely posh and has proper connections to nobility, you might find Brits are a bit more sympathetic to them. But people who are trying to show off their wealth and who have aspirations to being seen as posh, but aren’t actually posh – we dislike that! They don’t know their place! Don’t get above yourself!
It must be the same in your culture. Don’t we all dislike it when people are fake, condescending, conceited, disrespectful and snobbish, regardless of their social background? Equally we will like people who are charming, respectful, amusing, kind and so on, regardless of what their background is.
Class is hard to explain to people who haven’t had exposure to the culture, grown up here, met all kinds of people, you might not have the same feelings about this subject. It’s also related to politics. A lot of the time people visit the UK and are absolutely charmed to pieces by people that the rest of the country might dislike.
E.g. A lot of Americans just fall over themselves when they hear a posh British accent. Even someone who isn’t really posh – but who just speaks with RP, like me, is immediately given something like noble status by many Americans. Like “Oh my gaad I love that Briddish accent you sound so regal and sophisticated”.
Foreign people are often fond of the stereotype of British people as being very posh – as if that’s normal. But it’s not really normal. E.g. the image of the gentleman in a suit with a top hat or something, or the family from Downton Abbey who spend a lot of time drinking tea and talking in quite a formal and polite way. Most of us aren’t posh and we see genuinely posh people as a bit weird and disconnected from real life.
Are those stereotypes about posh people true?
Partly, but I think that most truly posh people also face plenty of challenges and hardships of their own.
There’s also a certain amount of upward snobbishness and generalisation going on. People from middle class backgrounds might resent upper class people. E.g. fox hunting
Some of the dislike of posh people is jealousy, but not all of it.
It’s not really fair to generalise. We should judge people on an individual basis. I’m sure plenty of upper-class people are really great.
We shouldn’t judge all posh people by the people we see in Made in Chelsea.
It’s probably not fair to tar them all with the same brush. Just in the same way we shouldn’t generalise about any group in society.
E.g. you wouldn’t say all working class people are hooligans just because of the actions of some football fans on TV.
Nevertheless, a lot of people take the piss out of posh people, resent them for their privilege, and even hate them for the fact that they’re rich because of old fashioned elitism and the so-called Eton mafia.
So, now that you’re armed with your new knowledge about posh people, do you reckon you can spot a posh person?
End of part 1?
How posh are you, Luke?
poshness of birth
poshness of wealth
poshness of accent
poshness of education
poshness of excellent taste – the fine arts, fine wine, fine food – anything with ‘fine’ before it
poshness of exuberant vulgarity (e.g. over-the-top excessive and showy expressions of bad taste – bling)
poshness of assumed superiority
I might add poshness of eccentricity to that too, marking it out from point 6
Examining British communication style and debunking a few myths about how British people communicate. This episode is based on a famous infographic called “What British People Say vs What They Really Mean” or “The Anglo-EU Translation Guide”. It contains lots of thoughts about how direct and indirect cultures communicate with each other, and some samples of business English, with a few improvised scenarios too! Transcript available.
In this episode I’m talking about an infographic which is often shared online called “What British People Say vs What They Mean”. In the infographic there are three columns. One with sentences typically spoken by English people. The next column has what, apparently, British people really mean, and then the third column shows us the perceived meanings of those sentences by foreigners. It is supposed to highlight the indirectness of British English speakers and the how people from direct cultures often misunderstand us.
I’m going to go through the graphic line by line, discussing the language, talking about the indirect communication style of British people and discussing to what extent this infographic is true and how much is a stereotype.
This relates to several conversations I’ve had in episodes in the past, namely the ones about cultural differences with Amber & Paul, British humour with Amber and the one about language & culture with Alex van Walsum.
This chart often pops up online. You might have seen it. It’s shared on Facebook or Twitter, and people send it to me by email. People send this to me all the time, often accompanied with the question “Is this true?” It’s probably the infographic that I’ve seen more than any other. A while ago I shared it on my Facebook page and it got a big response with thousands of people seeing it and loads of comments.
The chart is anonymously written. It may have first appeared in an article on the Economist’s website. Apparently some people say it originated in a Dutch company that had dealings with the UK, which is interesting because the Dutch are known for being very direct in their communication, so through their eyes the Brits might seem excessively indirect. The infographic is sometimes entitled “What British People Say vs What They Mean” or the “Anglo-EU translation guide”.
Basically the chart presents a list of utterances, which it presents as typical things the British say in business situations, and then two other columns which represent what British people really mean when they say those things, and then how other people actually understand them to mean something quite different.
I think it’s based on communication and cultural differences between the UK and European neighbours. The underlying cultural difference is that in the UK we have an indirect communication culture, particularly with regard to saying negative things, and tend to signal their disapproval, disappointment, disagreement or offence in other ways – either by minimising the negative part, or using euphemism, which may be hard to understand to the untrained ear.
In my experience as an English person living in France, I find that it is definitely true that we have slightly different communication styles as a result of our cultural differences. But they’re just slightly different really.
One example of a difference between France and the UK is that generally in the UK our first interaction with people – especially people in service positions, e.g. if you’re going to the post office to collect a package which you’ve been told is there even though last time you went they claimed it definitely wasn’t there. So you have to go back and kind of complain and make them look again. In the UK my normal way of doing it would be to approach the situation in a nice way, using friendliness as a social lubricant to help things go more smoothly. Like “Sorry to bother you again! I went to the other post office and they told me the package is definitely here. Could you have another look for me? Thanks!” You kind of talk to that person like you understand how you’re personally putting them out, but between the two of you there is a friendly understanding. You’re nice to the person, even though technically they’re wrong and you’re sort of making a complaint. That’s how it goes much of the time – not every time of course. Often when Brits are unhappy with a service they will complain about it very directly. But many times you’ll see or hear Brits being pretty friendly when dealing with people in impersonal situations.
Now, that might actually be perceived not as a nice, informal gesture – but as fake, and two faced because in fact you’re actually not happy with the situation and you don’t know them personally, so why are you being all chummy?
In Paris, your first interaction would typically be a bit more formal and also a bit less friendly. If you’re all nice and friendly and you smile, you might be perceived as weak. That’s not to say that French people don’t smile – of course they do, but in that kind of service situation where you are making a complaint you’re likely to be serious and with a straight face. You can be completely straight about it and bring your unhappiness to the table. It’s normal to dig your heels in and argue a little bit before things then turn into a more amicable arrangement. It usually ends well, but there’s a bit of conflict at the start, for example saying “no” or “it’s not possible” at the beginning, before deciding later to ‘make an exception’.
I refer you to the episode with Alex Van Walsum who sums this up really well.
If you’re nice and you compromise from the start they’ll walk all over you without even realising it. So there’s conflict at the beginning until the thing finally gets resolved, and later on a relationship of trust might develop from the problem being fixed, but it comes after. I’m not saying in the UK we’re never direct or angry in that situation, or that in France people are never nice at first, I’m just saying in my experience it pays to be more formal and tough at the beginning or you’ll be taken for granted. Whereas in the UK my approach would be a bit different.
Sometimes this difference gets the better of me. I might go to a restaurant and say “Do you have a table for two at 8?” and the guy says “It’s complicated” or “No, it’s not possible” and I smile and say “OK, that’s a pity, thanks for your help!” and then leave. But what I often don’t realise is that “No, it’s not possible” is just the starting point. What you should do then is wait and just not take no for an answer. Wait and say “Is there anything you can do?” and dig your heels in a bit. Often, after a bit of digging, you might get a result. But you have to push through a little barrier first in many cases.
The point is that the words we use and the messages we convey are often quite different, and messages are often subject to various cultural codes which allow the people involved to truly understand what is being said vs what is the intended meaning, or illocutionary force of something.
Or more simply, in indirect cultures we don’t always say exactly what we mean, and it depends on the other person to decode the intended meaning of our messages. This is more common in some cultures than others, and this kind of indirectness does have a social function. If you’re from a direct culture, you’re less likely to be able to decode the messages and that’s where the misunderstandings happen.
That brings us to this chart of what British people say vs what they mean.
This chart essentially targets this cultural and linguistic point quite specifically, and while there is truth in it, I think the chart is not completely accurate.
Nevertheless, let’s go through what Brits say vs what they mean and see what we can learn.
One of the most important problems with this chart is the lack of context and the fact that these are spoken phrases written down, so none of the intonation is included. Intonation and context are vital in the way these messages are delivered and understood.
Without the context and intonation, this chart makes Brits look incredibly devious and two-faced. It also makes other people seem pretty dumb and naive.
On balance, what do I think of this?
It’s exaggerated. Brits are not as stuffy, awkward or unable to say what we mean as this seems to suggest. It’s slightly old fashioned too.
Also it’s not really fair on foreigners who aren’t that stupid.
I think it originally came from the Netherlands (who we do most of our business with in the EU) and they’re known for being a very plain talking, direct culture. So, this is perhaps from the dutch point of view, which exaggerates things further.
There is a point being made too, which is that the English say the opposite of what they mean, which is not true. Direct cultures tend to view indirect ones as being two-faced, hypocritical and even duplicitous. We do speak indirectly, perhaps downplaying negative things and attempting to use tact and diplomacy but it doesn’t stretch to being deceitful. For the English it’s a way to keep things nice and to sugarcoat our formal relationships. It’s a respectful distance which has been in the culture for a long time. We might be a bit indirect by dutch standards, but we know what we’re talking about. We understand what each other means, because we know the codes. So it’s a functional communication system, and just another way to share ideas while getting on at the same time.
Another point is that you could argue that it’s specifically English, rather than British because there is a slight cultural difference between the English and the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and even Cornish people, who might be more direct. Anyway, I know plenty of English people who are perfectly capable of being direct and saying exactly what they mean.
Also, there may be a class issue here. I think this relates to certain kinds of middle class or upper class English people, who tend to communicate like this, especially in a formal situation. There are certainly plenty of English people who are very direct in their communication style.
The situation is also important. Most of these phrases are used at work where diplomacy is important. In social situations these same people might be extremely direct, for example with friends who you make fun of and speak to without any kind of filter.
The sentences are out of context, so it’s not obvious how the phrase is intonated or what other phrases are used around it. Written down like that it has no nuance and can make the Brits look like pretty awful. So, this graph is designed to make people laugh and illustrate a tendency for Brits to be a bit indirect, but it is by no means a flawless guide to British communication style.
It’s a bit black and white. In fact there are plenty of UK individuals who are more direct than this, and EU individuals who are indirect. It’s a bit “them and us”, a bit ‘black and white’ and therefore a bit unfair.
It’s not just Brits. There are plenty of other cultures or individuals who also communicate like this. Canadians, for example, are well-known for having a polite and indirect communication style.
While there is definitely an underlying point being demonstrated by the chart, taking it on face value makes British people seem insincere and sneaky – which is a common criticism of us by European people with direct communication styles. Whereas us Brits see our communication style as diplomatic and avoiding conflict and essentially all about being nice, other people think we are not being honest, straight or sincere. We just don’t want to be too negative or nasty, but we come across as being unsure of ourselves, weak or untrustworthy. Equally, from the other side, Brits think the French can be wilfully difficult, stubborn and problematic because of how direct they are with negative comments. We also find the Germans – who tend to state things exactly as they are, to be cold and humourless with their ultra-pragmatic approach which doesn’t involve much small talk or ‘window dressing’. It’s tricky isn’t it!
In English we like to sugarcoat things. Not every culture does that. Some do it more than us.
Of course it doesn’t always go like that and most of the time communication happens without problems and it’s all fine. For example I have had many many exchanges with people from many different cultures including those from direct cultures and they’ve been absolutely lovely, but then again I am quite culturally aware and able to minimise this sort of thing by recognising the importance of saying exactly what you mean. I imagine that when people from other countries do business with Brits who are not used to cross cultural communication that sometimes there is friction and it’s often related to these cultural differences.
Also, it could be related to writing style in emails where this kind of thing becomes so much more obvious. I can imagine foreign people receiving English emails and wondering what exactly the person means – like the example of my wife and the castle.
For example, apparently when the German company BMW took over the British car manufacturer Rover, it took ages for BMW to fully understand the extent of the problems at Rover because all the British staff minimised the problems or spoke in slightly vague euphemisms. The Germans were not able to decode the embedded negatives within the Brits’ responses.
E.g. “We’ve had a few slight issues on the production line. Staff have expressed some preference for a longer break during the afternoon shift.” How big are those problems on the production line exactly? It would probably be worth investigating them further rather than assuming they are just “a few slight issues”.
Overall, I think there is truth in this chart, which is why it’s such an enduring success online, but it’s not totally true. The truth is that Brits put a positive shine on things as a social lubricant (sugarcoating) and it works within indirect cultures, whereas direct cultures say things as they are which can make them seem unfriendly or cold hearted yet ultimately more sincere. Neither approach is better than the other, they’re just alternatives.
Really, it’s about context. With indirect cultures, the indirect style probably feels more natural, with direct cultures it’s the other way around. The problems arise when the two cultures get together and then misunderstand each other. For the chart, more perspective and context is required to really understand what’s going on, and to avoid knee-jerk reactions. I say knee-jerk reactions – these are sort of quick, instant responses that happen without thoughtful consideration (like when a doctor taps your knee and it jerks forward without you thinking about it). Those things might be to conclude that Germans have no sense of humour, French people are willfully difficult and don’t want to work, English people are hypocrites who don’t say what they mean.
Simple binary comparisons of language without context like this can foster unbalanced opinions which can lead to or reinforce resentment and things like that. The final point is that despite our communication style, we’re still just as fair-minded, honest, trustworthy, narrow minded, dishonest and untrustworthy as anybody else! Don’t jump to conclusions and never let cultural differences cause you to make fast judgements about people without seeing the whole picture!