It’s unfortunately common that many English as a second language (ESL) speakers use pronunciations that are pretty outdated or don’t match pronunciations of native speakers their same age. This is usually a side effect of learning from outdated teaching materials, as well as learning from older reference speakers. Both of these mean that there are millennial ESL speakers who speak like people their grandparents’ age! Luckily, this is quite easy to fix.
Even having a basic understanding of English phonetics will certainly help update your English pronunciation. Because there are so many varieties of English spoken around the world (and their pronunciations differ in lots of ways), this article will focus on features of a certain accent of British English. We’ll use Standard Southern British English (SSBE), or what is often referred to as RP (Received Pronunciation), General British or BBC English.*
Let’s get started.
1. Changes In The Vowel System
The major changes that have happened in the pronunciation of SSBE in the last 50 to 100 years are in the vowel system. Knowing a bit about lexical sets will help a lot here, but the basic idea of lexical sets is that all of the 20 vowel phonemes (meaning “distinct sounds”) that make up SSBE’s inventory can be grouped into “sets.” From there, these sets tell you how a vowel will behave in all similar words that contain that vowel sound. Pretty handy, right?
The sets themselves are monosyllabic (meaning “one syllable”) words containing only one vowel sound — the one in question. The following lexical sets have undergone changes in the last few generations meaning that, if you properly imitate them, they can make your English sound much more up to date:
This lexical set stands for all words which contain the phoneme /æ/. Historically, this vowel was pronounced with a relatively high tongue position, so much so that words such as man, bat, and tan, spoken by a speaker from Southern Britain in the 1950s, would sound more like men, bet and ten to modern speakers of SSBE. Nowadays, this vowel sound is produced with a very low tongue position, accompanied by a dropping of the jaw and spread lips.
Perhaps one of the funniest phonetics terms relating to English pronunciation (if such a thing can exist!) is GOOSE-fronting. Before we get to “What the hell is GOOSE-fronting?”, it’s important to note that this phenomenon is a key aspect of modern SSBE, as well as many other varieties of English.
So what is GOOSE-fronting? In general, “fronting” is a term that talks about how pronunciation movement changes from the back of the mouth to the front of the mouth. It can happen both with vowels (as in this case), as well as with consonants, which is usually associated with children’s mispronunciations as they learn their native language.
This is the case with this vowel. In the past, the GOOSE vowel, /uː/, in words such as fruit, music and new, was produced with a very high, back tongue position and very rounded lips, which made the pronunciation sound more “swallowed” in the back of the throat. However, in the last several decades, this vowel is produced with the tongue more forward and with more relaxed lips, actually bringing it closer to the pronunciation of the FLEECE vowel, /iː/, except with rounded lips. For a more in-depth explanation of GOOSE-fronting, see this blog post.
Meanwhile, the lexical set GOAT in words such as road, show and open has started to be pronounced with rounder lips in the last half-century in SSBE. Speakers in the 1940s and ’50s would have a very open, unrounded starting point for this diphthong (a “diphthong” is a vowel phoneme made up of two vowel sounds that transition from one to the other). Back then, the phonemic transcription would have been /əʊ/.
Now, modern SSBE’s GOAT vowel is becoming closer to the General American pronunciation of this phoneme, where it is not typically considered a diphthong at all, but a steady /o/. Note: There is definitely still movement from a mid, open vowel to a higher vowel in the pronunciation of this phoneme, but both parts are much rounder now than they have been historically.
It’s arguable that the lexical set CURE, typically represented with the transcription /ʊə/, is in fact on its way out of SSBE completely, having become a steady vowel and merged with the lexical set NORTH, transcribed as /ɔː/. Words like tour, sure and plural can — and indeed predictably are — pronounced as rhyming with four, shore and floral by SSBE speakers nowadays. In a way, this development is good news for foreign learners of English wishing to speak SSBE, as it means one fewer vowel phoneme to learn and distinguish from others!
2. Changes In The Consonant System
Before we jump into consonants, let me say this: There are several changes in SSBE pronunciation that are good to know about, as they’ll help you successfully navigate native speakers’ speech, but which are not necessarily ones that ESL speakers must (or perhaps even should) adopt. Most of these changes carry a social stigma, and when native speakers are asked about them, they will likely deny that they have them in their speech! Here are some of the popular ones:
L-vocalization is a common feature of modern SSBE, which describes the phenomenon of /l/ in a syllable’s final position losing the raised tongue tip gesture completely and becoming a vowel sound instead, like the word being pronounced as “bottow” (written phonetically as /bɒto/).
T-glottaling is another typical feature where the phoneme /t/, when not at the beginning of a stressed syllable, may be replaced with a glottal stop /ʔ/. A glottal stop in this instance is a sudden closure made at the glottis (the top of the voice box), which when the /t/ appears between vowel sounds, produces pronunciations that may sound like there is no consonant between them at all, so that water ends up sounding more like wa’er.
Finally, TH-fronting is the process of the “th” sounds being replaced with /f/ and /v/ sounds, making the words thin and fin sound identical.
Bear in mind that, unlike the changes to the vowel system, these changes in the consonant system are not yet universal or fully socially accepted as “correct,” so learners of this variety of English should be careful when mimicking them in their own speech. If you want to concentrate only on one aspect to update your pronunciation, then focus on the vowel system. These tweaks are what will make your English pronunciation sound more modern in an SSBE accent.
*I prefer to this geographically specific term, as it gives a slightly more narrow description that does not have an associated class status, nor generational bias, and which allows for more inclusiveness than the traditional terms.