How to Learn British English Like a Champ – The Ultimate Guide
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British English is unique.
There are lot’s of differences in English used in Britain compared to other English speaking countries like American and Canada.
There are 3 main areas of British English that make it unique and different: The accent, the vocabulary and the spelling.
Let’s explore these 3 areas deeper.
The British Accent
British people pronounce words vastly differently to Americans.
They also stress certain sounds differently than American English speakers.
However you must remember that there are multiple variations of the British accent. You cannot generalize the British accent and put it under one label.
Depending on what type of Brit you are communicating with, you will hear vastly different styles of English spoken.
The Geordie accent
The Geordie accent can be heard in and around Newcastle in the north-east of England.
This accent was influenced by Saxons and the Danes who arrived from Germany and the Peninsular of Denmark.
Many of the Geordie words used in England today are very similar to Danish words.
The accent is called Geordie based on the boy’s name George. The word ‘bairn’ in Geordie refer to a child who lives in this part of England and sounds rather like the Danish word ‘barn’ for child.
Another example of Geordie language is “Wey aye!” which means “I’m in agreement” in English or “Howay!” in Geordie means “Come on!” in English.
The Yorkshire accent
The Yorkshire accent can be heard in and around the City of York and north of England.
This accent (or dialect as it can also be called) has connections with the Saxons and the Vikings who settled in this part of England.
Yorkshire phrases include “How do?” which means “How are you?” in English or “I’m chuffed t’bits” which means “I’m very proud of myself” in English.
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The Midlands accent
The Midlands accent is a strong accent and used in and around Birmingham and Coventry.
This Midlands accent can also include ‘The Brummie’ accent as it is spoken by people growing up and living in Birmingham which is about 80 miles north of London. It is seen as the working-class accent originating from a highly industrialised area.
This accent uses elongated vowel sounds for example the ‘a’ sound in ‘bath’ in English sounds like ‘bahth’ when pronounced with a Brummie accent or ‘grass’ in English sounds like ‘grahss” when spoken by someone talking with this particular accent.
Another example is ‘alright’ in English but sounds like ‘olroit’ when spoken by a local from this area.
The Cockney accent
The Cockney accent was and is still used by working class people living in East London and is spoken with pride by those people living in this part of London.
The H sound is often dropped so “ospital” and “oliday” when spoken using a Cockney accent mean hospital and holiday in English.
It is well known as “Cockney rhyming slang” which started in the middle of the nineteenth century in East London and started by salesmen in this part of London. An example of Cockney rhyming slang includes “I want to rabbit with you in the nuclear” which means “I want to talk with you in the pub” in English.
The West country accent
The West country accent can be heard in the counties of Devon and Cornwall in south-west England.
This accent can be traced back to the Middle Ages and Saxon times. This accent has connections to jobs in farming and the sea which were and are the main industries of these counties.
Examples of a West country dialect include “Ideal” which means “very good” in English or “Alright me’ansum” which means “Hello, how are you?” in English.
Received pronunciation is based on educated speech which is used in Southern England as described in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.
It is also known as the standard English accent as spoken in the south of England. It used to be called “The King’s English” and is connected with people who had influence, power, money and education and was used first at the end of the 18th century.
Received pronunciation is also known as “The Queen’s English” or BBC English.
An example of Received Pronunciation
Here are some characteristics of received pronunciation:
Received pronunciation includes the use of elongated vowels when the ‘a’ sound becomes more like ‘ahh’ sound for example in the word bath when received pronunciation makes bath sound more like ‘bahth’ and is sounded by moving one’s lips horizontally rather than by dropping one’s jaw.
Also, received pronunciation (also know as “Posh” English), includes the use of elongated ‘o’s’ when the ‘o’ sounds more like ‘oh’ when used using received pronunciation.
The RP accent also ensures every consonant is pronounced slowly and clearly. February is an example of how when spoken with using received pronunciation it sounds like ‘Feb-ru-air-ree’.
British Idioms and Slang
The second component of British English that makes it unique and special is some of the idiomatic expressions and slang used by Brits.
There is a lot of culture, history and sports that have influenced the formation of British English and sometimes it is hard to understand these expressions.
If you are intermediate level and want to learn British English, start with getting familiar with popular British expressions like this:
British English: Chuffed t’bits
Meaning: I’m very proud of myself
British English: Bob’s your Uncle
Meaning: There you go/It is that simple
British English: Load of Cobblers
Meaning: A lot of nonsense/rubbish and comes from rhyming slang
British English: By hook or by crook
Meaning: To use any means possible to do something
British English: Treading on ice/swim in deep water
Meaning: To put yourself in danger or trouble
British English: A waste of space
Meaning: A person who is not worth bothering about
British English: Making a mountain out of a molehill
Meaning: Someone who makes a small problem into a big problem.
British English: A piece of cake
Meaning: A job or piece of work which is easy to do and complete.
Here is a fun YouTube clip on popular British slang
Here are some British English expressions and their American English equivalents:
British English: A drop in the ocean
American English: A drop in the bucket
British English: Can’t see the wood for the trees
American English: Can’t see the forest for the trees
British English: Gone pear-shaped
American English: Gone South
British English: Queue up
American English: Wait in line
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There are many unique British spelling examples which originate from a mixture of Latin and French.
If you want to learn British English, learning some of these variations will be useful.
Here are some key illustrations on how British English uses different spelling compared to American English
In British English we use -re at the ends of words (as opposed to -er in American English) and here are examples of British English words with -re at the end.
Theatre, centre, metre, centimetre, millimetre, manoeuvre, litre, sombre and fibre
British English use -our at the ends of words (as opposed to -or in American English) and here are some examples:
Colour, harbour, behaviour, neighbour, flavour, humour, glamour, labour and endeavour
British English use -ise at the end of words (as opposed to -ize in American English) and here are some examples:
Realise, recognise, agonise, advertise, organise, criticise, capitalise and apologise.
British English use -ce at the end of words (as opposed to -se in American English) and here are some examples:
Defence, pretence, licence and offence
British English use double vowels of -ae- and -oe- (differently to American English) and here are some examples:
How can I learn British English?
Watching films is one of the best ways to learn English, not only because they’re full of interesting vocabulary, idioms and accents but it’s also fun!
Since English-speaking films are available almost everywhere (or at least with subtitles) your choice of resources are endless. There really is something for everyone, despite your taste.
If you want to learn English fast , watching films in your spare time is one of the most effective ways to dive into the language, without being too tiring after a long day.
Here’s a list of the best films to learn British English fast – including that charming UK accent!
1: The King’s Speech, 2010
What better way to start learning a language than by watching a King do it? This film is about King George VI (Colin Firth), who famously had speech training to correct his stutter. This film includes a few swear words, so perhaps it’s not the best choice for children, but his accent is perfectly classic and his speech trainer does have some useful advice for anyone who wants to learn British English.
2: My Fair Lady, 1964
An oldie but a goodie, My Fair Lady is a musical about a snobby phonetics professor (Rex Harrison) who decides to train a flower girl (Audrey Hepburn) to speak ‘proper’ English so she can mingle with high society. Expect lots of singing, idioms and hilarious accents. This one also has some good speech techniques using candles!
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3: Mary Poppins, 1964
1964 was a good year for films! I’m sure you’ve heard of Mary Poppins – it’s a very popular children’s story about a nanny (Julie Andrews) with seemingly magical powers.
This film features scenes in both cartoon and in film so is great for all the family. However, we recommend you do not use Bert’s character as accent inspiration as Dick Van Dyke is now infamous for his terrible British accent…
4: The Italian Job, 1969
A classic Sunday afternoon film, full of quotes which you’ll often find people saying after a few pints of beer. The Italian Job is a witty and comical gangster film featuring the wonderful Michael Cane. Don’t be put-off by the title, you will learn British English!
5: Notting Hill, 1999
Who doesn’t love Hugh Grant? Gloriously nineties and ever so cute, Notting Hill is a romantic-comedy about a bookshop owner (Hugh Grant) whose life is thrown upside-down after a famous American actress (Julia Roberts) steps foot in his shop.
Naturally, as Notting Hill is a very romantic area, an affair begins to blossom. This film is especially good for hearing the difference between British English and American English whilst being pretty easy to keep up with if your listening skills still need practice.
6: City Lights, 1931
This one is definitely an oldie, so old in fact that it’s silent, so maybe it’s not the best if you need listening practice! It is perfect for reading practice, especially if you’re interested in old-time phrases, idioms and music.
Charlie Chaplin plays a tramp who falls in love with a blind flower girl does his best to help her financially. It’s very sweet, very romantic and quite slow-paced compared to more recent films, but perfect if you want to relax and swoon a little bit.
7: The Theory of Everything, 2014
Based in Cambridge, England, this film is about the life of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) – world-renowned physicist and cosmologist. Aside from being a beautifully-shot film, The Theory of Everything is understandably emotional and inspiring and makes you want to read more of Stephen’s work.
Oxford and Cambridge are beautiful cities, and you’ll definitely want to visit after watching this. Warning: some of the language is too scientific and specific even for us native English speakers!
8: This is England, 2006
Another film which is not the best for children, but certainly worth watching anyway is This is England. This story is set in the 1980s and follows the story of a young boy (Thomas Turgoose) who lost his father in the Falklands war and finds friendship and respect amidst a group of skinheads.
There’s plenty of history, British slang, idioms and accents for you to enjoy with this one, and a great insight to working class British culture.
9: Diamonds are Forever, 1971
We couldn’t have a list of best British films for learning English without mentioning James Bond! Diamonds are Forever is another classic, with plenty of elegance and wit to entertain almost everyone.
There are many James Bond films to choose from, and they seem to be working on another one now so just be warned, you may fall into a 007 hole when you start this one!
On the plus side, James Bond films are always quite international, so there’s a range of cultures and non-native speakers speaking English alongside James (Sean Connery) and his perfectly quaint English accent, which is good practice in itself.
10: The 39 Steps, 1935
We can’t forget about Alfred Hitchcock, so here is one of his classic Thrillers to end the list. If you like foggy London scenes, spy stories and painfully British accents, then The 39 Steps is for you. Hitchcock films are appreciated worldwide for their craft, so be sure to take note of that alongside the talented actors and beautiful cinematography.
We’d love to hear if you watched any of these films and what you thought of them!