Frequently asked questions

Why does England have as many as 37 regional dialects and accents?
As late as the 1930s there was relatively little communication between towns, even those quite close by. This meant that very localised dialects developed. Most agree there are around 37 dialects in England today.

The English are very proud of their local accent as they see it as a means of retaining their identity. Gone are the days when the Queen’s English was regarded as the one perfect and desirable English accent. Mind you, this is still used as a social marker and it maintains its own prestige value.

When the British spread out to colonise other countries, everyone had to adapt in order to be understood by those around them. No single dialect dominated, so all speakers came to use a vocabulary of general words. This is why there are relatively fewer regional dialects and English accents in countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Reference: The Guardian,
Are words spelled with a ‘wh…’ pronounced the same as words spelled with only a ‘w’? An example is the words ‘what’ and ‘watt’.

The answer is both yes and no. It all depends on the regional variety of English being spoken and the care taken by the speaker.

The phonetic symbols show how this works. A /hw/ sound is spoken differently to a /w/ sound. A /hw/ is evident in the ‘Queen’s English’, as in the word ‘what’. However, even within England the/hw/ is not used in many regional accents, or else it is very weak. The /hw/ is not used at all in Australian English. These speakers simply use a /w/ for both words ‘what’ and ‘watt’.

Try it out for yourself. With the word ‘watt’ /wat/, you start your voice as soon as you begin to say the word. To pronounce the word ‘what’ as /hwat/, round your lips as for /w/ but blow a little puff of air through them before you start your voice. Make the air puff both weak and short. You should have to listen quite carefully to hear it.

The big question is: Should you learn to use the /hw/ sound in your own speech? The answer for most is that it’s probably not worth the effort. Most listeners will be unaware of it and even good speakers may neglect it. If English is your second language, and you are learning many other English sounds, you will have far more important sounds on which to focus.

I’ve noticed I can’t hear any puff of air release on /p/ in words spelt with an /s/ before /p/, such as in ‘spare’. Am I doing something wrong?
You’ll be glad to hear you’re doing nothing wrong. It’s quite correct that in words such as spare and inspire there is no noticeable puff as you release the /p/. The /s/ sound is itself a letting out of air; the /p/ simply closes this air off before you move into the vowel.

The Rule for pronouncing clear Stop consonants (p/b, t/d, k/g) says ‘AIM to release all Stop sounds evenly and equally with an audible puff of air’. This is an expedient instruction. That means, you follow the rule by aiming to release all Stops with a puff. Where your mouth cannot release the air at fluent speed, it won’t. The native English speaker’s mouth won’t do so either.

No /p/ air puff after /s/ is a perfect example of something that happens by default. But what about the other Stop where two lips close, the /b/? Does it behave the same way?

If you were to pronounce the two nonsense words ‘spee’ and ‘sbee’, a speaker with good aspirated ‘puffs’ will create a subtle difference between the two when speaking the words deliberately. Their attempt to release both Stops with a puff will allow you to hear a difference (the /b/ will sound duller than /p/). However, at fluent speed this difference will disappear and no air release will be noticeable after either Stop. This is no doubt the reason why English has no words spelt with both ‘sp…‘ and ‘sb…’ clusters; you could not tell two such words apart.

This is the theory but, fortunately, you don’t have to worry about actions that happen by default. Your instruction is to do what every English speaker ‘thinks’ they are doing i.e. releasing every Stop sound with a puff of air. By aiming to release the ‘sp…’ words with a puff, your mouth will create the precise, correct result.
Do we now have two English varieties: English and American?
English is spoken with countless different accents. Within Britain alone, there are a large number and they can vary between towns a few kilometres apart. Then we come to accents such as Australian, South African and New Zealand English. Are they all British accents as well? To answer this we have to leave the linguists behind and simply ask ‘What does an average citizen regard as British English?’ The simple answer is ‘Any accent that doesn’t sound American’.

As American English is prominent internationally, any English accent is now commonly perceived as ‘sounding’ either British or American. For example, a typical outsider is unable to distinguish between the many USA accents and Canadian accents. Like it or not, they all fall into the ‘American’ category. In the same fashion, our everyday definition of ‘British’ English covers all accents such as those in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

How British and American English differ

Let’s work with the idea that there are two broad categories of accent, British and American. This means we should be able to slot every Regional and local accent into one of the two. Fortunately, we can do this very easily.

The most obvious feature that sets British and American accents apart is the way a printed letter ‘r’ is treated when a word is spoken. This is the overriding feature we all identify.

In British English, an ‘r’ following a vowel in a syllable is silent. The ‘r’ in words such as park, perk, pork and paper is not pronounced. Instead, the speaker holds the vowel for the ‘time’ the missing ‘r’ would have taken. Park is therefore spoken as paak with a long vowel.

American English pronounces every ‘r’ sound strongly, no matter where it is in the syllable. Park is pronounced parrk with a strong resonant ‘r’. The vowel almost seems to disappear as the ‘r’ quality is so prominent.
But where did this pronounced American ‘r’ come from in the first place? It came from the many Irish immigrants that settled in the USA. To this day, the Irish accents have a gentle, pronounced final-‘r’. Yet we don’t say they sound American! I hope you’re starting to see why we have to classify accents in terms of how they are commonly perceived. The academics will simply have to live with it.

Which English accent is best, and why?

Officially, the British Oxford accent is taken as the reference for the accent called Received Pronunciation. This term arose from the fact that in days gone by only those with this accent were deemed suitable to be ‘received’ by the King or Queen. It’s also commonly called the ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘BBC English’. The difficulty is, how many of those in England actually speak this way? Not all that many. But old perceptions die hard and there is no doubt that, for clarity, absolutely nothing beats the best spoken British. This, despite the fact that American English may be heard more frequently, and be more familiar, in many foreign lands.

You can, of course, choose to learn a Regional English accent, if all your dealings are with local speakers. However, the advantage of training towards Standard Neutral (British) English is it will give you greater clarity in any environment.

And what of American English? There’s absolutely no doubt if you are dealing with the Americas that American English is the way to go. Beyond that, the best choice is for you to consider the dominant influence of the English being spoken around you. South Korea has an American English influence, while India has a British English influence. As with all things in life, ‘best’ depends on your particular circumstances.

Benefits of speaking with a clear British-based accent

For practical purposes, those wanting to improve their English accent must choose between either British or American English as a first step. All training programs will start from one or the other as their base. To misquote Shakespeare; To ‘silent r’ or ‘not to silent r’, that is the question.

So, why choose British? Standard Neutral English is a universal, clear British English that blends perfectly with any foreign or Regional accent. Training towards it gives the speaker a ‘soft’ or mild version of their original accent. This gives their speech its greatest chance at clarity. As adults, very few people are able to eliminate their first accent entirely. Maximum clarity is therefore the ultimate goal.

If you want to be understood every time you speak, then rest assured Standard Neutral English won’t let you down.

Can anyone learn to use a different accent?

It’s probably better to start with how you can’t learn a British, or any other, new accent. Your brain is hardwired from the age of 9 to 11 years to produce only the sounds of your native accent. After that, any change requires serious re-programming of your brain-mouth connection. You can’t do this by simply trying to imitate a good speaker, or viewing short video clips, even if they do throw in a few instructions.

Changing your accent is a skill. Like any skill it takes detailed instruction and a great deal of targeted repetition. After all, you wouldn’t expect to pick up and play a violin well by following a few short video clips. You may be able to play some notes, or repeat a few words accurately, but you will never be able to either play, or speak, fluently with this approach.

How can I speak fluently in my new accent?

There are no easy short cuts but Time-Online has been designed with the serious student in mind. Perhaps you’ve tried the short approaches on offer and found they don’t actually work? If your aim is to speak English clearly and fluently, an intense Time-Online course will give you your best chance at success. You still have to put in the hours of practice but you’ll have all the tools you need.

The many techniques and Masterclass videos train you how to make each sound correctly; and how to shape your mouth into the correct ‘holding posture’. After that, you simply tune in to the many hours of audio exercises and off you go. You can do these while washing the dog, cooking the dinner or travelling to work. The key is repetition, repetition and more repetition.

Then it’s over to you to be brave and try out your new speech with other English speakers, as often as you can. In the end, you can only chalk up success when you’re able to think and talk at the same time. All in your perfect new English accent, of course.
Are ‘elocution’ and ‘accent change training’ the same thing?

Don’t sigh loudly if I say both yes and no. Is a Model T Ford and a Ferrari the same thing? Well, yes and no. You can see the problem. In a nutshell, elocution is the old fashioned term for changing accent. There are two reasons it has fallen out of favour:

  • Modern training techniques are vastly different to those used in the ‘old days’. Much like car engines are vastly different now. As an example, the ClearSpeak Method is based on professional speech pathology principles, with techniques designed to give students the best chance of success. The ‘old’ approach relied almost entirely on asking a student to repeat after a model like a parrot. This alone will never result in fluency with a new accent. They had no idea of concepts such as holding postures to create the right shaped ‘cave’ in your mouth (see Masterclass video for /a/ at SHOP).
  • The second reason is a change in cultural attitudes. In ‘the old days’, Received Pronunciation was spoken by the social elite in Britain. The origin of this term is that members of the upper class would be ‘received by the queen’, no doubt at tea parties, balls and other fun activities. Elocution training was sought by those aspiring to enter this level of society. The film My Fair Lady is a classic example of the message: You won’t be accepted into high society unless you speak like us.

To what extent is this attitude still true in the UK today? I won’t venture an opinion as I may have to dodge some rotten eggs! Let’s just say that English speaking societies are much, much more inclusive these days but that clearly spoken English will always be an asset.

Wrapping up, I suggest you put the old ‘elocution’ term firmly to rest. ‘Accent change’ is the new name of the game and you’ll be quite proper whipping this term out at your next dinner party.

How do you make the /r/ sound in the best spoken English?
How do you make the /r/ sound in the best spoken English? Different English accents seem to do quite different things.

There are several different /r/ sounds and English accents around the world make use of them all. More surprising is that all are found in accents within the United Kingdom itself. The problem is they’re all written with the same alphabet letter ‘r’. Here are the possibilities:

Flapped /r/ Tap your tongue tip once against your upper tooth ridge. Found in Scouse as spoken in the Liverpool area. Think of the Beatles.

Trilled /r/ Your tongue tip flaps rapidly back and forth several times on your tooth ridge. Scottish English is the best example of this.

Resonant /r Curl your tongue tip upwards and aim at the centre roof of your mouth. Do not touch the tip against anything. The ‘gentle growl’ is like a vowel sound. Received Pronunciation, or the Queen’s English, makes use of this.

Retroflex /r/ Think of it as a strong resonant /r/. Your tongue tip curls both up and back, as though pointing at the back of your head. This is typical of Northern American English, which was heavily influenced by Irish settlers. It’s a feature of Irish English and Northern Irish in particular. However, the Irish don’t ‘growl’ the /r/ nearly as strongly as the typical American speaker.

There is one more /r/ sound that is worth a mention. It’s called a velar /r/ and is what you will hear in French. You friction air between your soft palate and the back of your tongue. It’s a feature of Welsh English as well but it’s never spelt with an ‘r’ in English accents. Think of the mythical Loch Ness monster. Other English speakers substitute a /k/ if unable to imitate this sound correctly.

Okay, those may be the possibilities for ‘r’ but which one is used in the ‘best’ spoken English? It depends on the variety you are speaking.

American English uses the retroflex /r/ and this is correct for these accents.
British English regards the resonant /r/ as the best for general English. Most speakers accept this implicitly although the politically correct might protest!
Standard Neutral English uses resonant /r/ as well, as it is simply a less distinctive version of British RP.

So here’s the bottom line. Unless your aim is to learn a specific regional accent, the best /r/ to use for British English is the resonant /r/. A ClearSpeak Method tip for learning this is to first aim for the retroflexed /r/. For those using the Method, this technique is called Over-the-top. Once you have the feel of this, and can hear its strong ‘growl’, relax back down into the gentler resonant position. Just be careful you’re not left with too much growl or you’ll sound American instead!
When are you too old to change your accent?

When are you too old to change your accent?

The simple answer is you are never too old and you can ‘soften’ an accent at any age. An 85-year-old may have no more difficulty than a 20-year-old. People differ depending on their underlying ability to learn new things and their level of motivation. Regardless of age, the desire to change is critical.

Worried about those round shoulders? How many times have you told yourself to sit up straight? If you’re like me, hundreds. But don’t ask me the result as I bet you can guess. Sitting up straight is not difficult to do but remembering to do it comes down to motivation and consistent practice. Forget listening to short pronunciation videos. You’ll soon discover you are wasting your time. Changing accent as an adult calls for a major ‘re-programming’ of your mouth-brain connection.

Okay, so let’s say you’re all fired up and your brain cells are ticking over at a satisfactory speed. Will your age make a difference to changing your accent? Yes it will, but I’m not sure this will give you much comfort.

Research shows that accent becomes ‘fixed’ between 9 and 11 years of age.  If a typical child migrates before this age, their English will likely show no influence of their original accent. They will learn to speak with the English accent spoken by the kids and teachers around them. Kids work hard to fit in. Right? That’s where the motivation idea comes in again.

Sadly, if you migrate after the magic age, you are likely to retain some flavour of your first accent, even if only a tiny bit. But is that so bad? Most speakers are content to keep that little bit of their identity. The key is they don’t wish to sound as though they’ve just arrived off the latest plane when they’ve been a local for 10 years.

At the end of the day, if the 11-year-old you is long gone, the only way to test out those brain cells is to give accent change a try. Now the big question is, have you got the motivation?

I’m told I mumble but opening my mouth wider doesn’t seem to help. Why not?

I’m told I mumble but opening my mouth wider doesn’t seem to help. Why not?

There’s more to mumbled speech than meets the eye. Oops! That should probably be ‘meets the ear’. Saying someone mumbles is like saying there’s bad weather outside. Right, but what exactly is going on? With mumbled speech, there are two main culprits.

  • Mumbled speakers very often shorten all the vowels in their words. This gives the impression their speech is rushed and indistinct. At its worst, we call this ‘cluttering,’ as one word seems to tumble into the next. This is an entire topic in itself so I won’t cover it here.
  • The mumbler slides over many consonants and often leaves others out entirely. But all consonants are not equal when it comes to creating clear English. As they say in the classics: Some are more equal than others.

The key to clear English lies with the Stop Consonant sounds. This is the set of sounds where you stop the air in your mouth before exploding it out. They are /p/ /b/ /t/ /d/ /k/ and /g/ as in ‘Two puppy dogs bark at a cat in my garden’.

The secret lies in how you let the air out. Did you notice that word ‘explode’? The best and clearest English speaker explodes their Stops out with a very definite puff of air. This gives a ‘hissing’ and ‘popping’ quality. In fact, those who’ve never heard English before say it sounds as if the speaker is spitting out their words.

So why is this ‘puff of air’ so important for clear English? English has many words that contrast meaning by changing just one of these Stop sounds. If I don’t let out enough air at the end of the words ‘bat’ and ‘bad’, you may not know which word I’ve said. Therefore, if you’re a mumbler, opening your mouth will not help if your Stop sounds aren’t clear.

So how do these work? Strong air puffs call for firm mouth contacts. Firmly released Stops take a fraction longer to make (and require a fraction more care) than weak puffs. Your speech is automatically clearer and less rushed; syllables can’t ‘run into each other’ anywhere near as readily.

The ClearSpeak Method places great emphasis on Stop sounds. It recognises that these form the foundation and framework of clear English. Watch the Masterclass video on Stops at SHOP if you’d like to learn more.

Still a bit sceptical? Take a look at any TV news interview. Why does that BBC announcer sound so much clearer than their guest with a broad regional accent? Notice the announcer’s hissy puffs and how these help separate one word from the other.

Summing it all up, the answer to mumbled speech is to stretch out your vowels and think Stops, Stops, Stops. Oh, and don’t forget you have to open your mouth at the same time.