A Journey through the English Language.

You’re presumably in the U.K. to learn English – but what is English? Years ago, when I was an English Language teacher in different countries, our bosses insisted we teach ‘BBC’ English, because it was thought it was somehow ‘better’ English.

That’s wrong. If students from any country comes to England to learn BBC English and then goes off to work in, say, Glasgow, Glaswegians will understand them, but will the students understand the Glaswegians? If they don’t, then they’ve learnt the wrong type of English, haven’t they!

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of snobbery in Britain about accents. Until recently, and even now, two accents were thought to be the ‘best’ – RP = Received Pronunciation, and ARP = ‘Advanced Received Pronunciation.’ Both share one characteristic – when people speak using either of these two accents, you cannot tell where they come from, for these accents are acquired in ‘public’ schools. The English are, as I expect you will have noticed, crazy, and so a ‘public’ school actually means a private (and usually very expensive) school. Prince Charles uses ARP – you will notice he says ‘awf’ not ‘off’.

ARP is, how shall we say, ‘aristocratic.’ If you speak with an RP accent, you are probably from an educated family background and were sent as a child to a public school where you learned to speak with an accent that gives no sign of where you come from.

ARP and RP have one significant advantage in my view – they are both understood by everybody, native speakers or not.

I prefer SEE – Standard Educated English. Anybody can learn this and you don’t need to be a native speaker. Your own origins will be apparent in the way you speak, but there will be very few grammar mistakes and your vocabulary will include no words in dialect. As an Englishman I know that ‘bairn’ is a North-Eastern and Scottish word meaning child, but I don’t think an educated South Korean or even an American will understand it so this is not a word to be used between SEE speakers.

BBC announcers now use SEE. Do not be trapped into thinking that an announcer seems to be a Pakistani or an African – they’re not, they’re as British as I am. And, ironically, some of them speak SEE and others speak RP. When I listen to the SEE speakers, I can usually tell where in Britain they have been brought up, but if they speak RP, I have no idea. All I know is that they went to an expensive school. And I didn’t. I speak SEE and everybody notices I come from one of the parts of London most people prefer not to go to. But you will understand each word clearly if you listen to announcers. That’s why watching the news each day is vital for learners of English.

I’m going to try to be objective now and not let any prejudices cloud my judgment.

What are the clearest forms of English?

In my opinion, they are ARP, RP, SEE and two others. The English of educated speakers from Edinburgh and from Lancashire can be understood by everybody. I can give you two examples of ‘Lancastrian’. Stan Laurel – the thin little man in the Laurel and Hardy film - was a Lancastrian (Oliver was American) and so is a good friend of mine from Lancashire.  I hate to say it but he speaks far more clearly than I do. And Gordon Brown, our Scottish Prime Minister, speaks very clearly, although I’m not sure if he’s from Edinburgh.

In future articles, I shall take you on a journey through the English language which I hope will entertain you. Don’t be too angry when I admit that we have stolen many words from your languages!

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