The case for and against RP

19 Oct

“Since being in hospital, the only people I have heard speaking in the UK prestige model of “received pronunciation” are some of the consultants and surgeons.  Everyone else in the hospital is from everywhere else.”

In a recent post, about the need for native speakers to be trained in how to speak to non-native speakers, I made the point that very few of the non-native speakers will have encountered anything like the variety of dialect and accent that exists in the UK, let alone all of the variations of standard English that exist around the world.

The 2015 Ethnologue entry for English gives population figures of 335,000,000 L1 speakers of English worldwide, and 515,000,000 L2 speakers.  Yet estimates of received pronunciation speakers in the UK suggest only about 2% of the population, or just over 1.25 million people, actually use this form.  In other words, 0.15% of the global English speaking community uses RP.  Which begs the question of why we bother teaching it?

Proportion of RP Speakers

It is a staggeringly small proportion and the prominence of RP as a model owes a lot to historical views in the UK relating to class and status, as well as the historical nature of the education system and the dominance of the public schools (the term used in the UK to refer to private, fee paying establishments).

Unlike every other variety or dialect of English, RP does not relate to where you were born or where you grew up.  RP is a class and status marker and became desirable partly because of that, and partly because of its adoption by the BBC as a broadcasting standard.  There is an excellent and accessible piece by the British Library on RP, which goes into the history and evolution of RP in more detail.

It is the reasons why RP was chosen by the first general manager, Lord Reith, as the standard for the BBC that gives us our clue as to why it is so widespread in ELT:  “Reith believed Standard English, spoken with an RP accent, would be the most widely understood variety of English, both here in the UK and overseas. He was also conscious that choosing a regional accent might run the risk of alienating some listeners.” (British Library).  In other words, Reith wanted the BBC to be understandable and accessible to the broadest possible audience and was concerned that using dialect would make programmes accessible only to certain speech communities.  RP, with it’s relatively unmarked patterns, fit the bill.

Ultimately, shouldn’t this also be what our students should want?  To be understood by the broadest possible audience?  I have encountered negative attitudes to non-RP accents and speech in the classroom, including one student who flatly refused to do a listening activity with an African English accent on the grounds that he was never going to go to Africa and it wasn’t a useful model for him.  Fair enough, but this does miss the point slightly.

In Sound Foundations, Adrian Underhill distinguishes between Rapid Colloquial Speech (RCS) and Careful Colloquial Speech (CCS), where an example of RCS would be two native speakers talking informally to each other (for an example, see the transcript and audio via the link) and where CCS is a slowed down, clearer and, well, careful version of the language.  “An internationally available example of careful colloquial RP,” he says, “is that of newscasters and announcers on the BBC World Service.”  Just to be clear, Underhill does not say that CCS is the same thing as RP.  Features of CCS are that the speaker slows down, enunciates clearly, and makes sure that word boundaries are discernible; these are not features of accent.

CCS then, is a productive target.  As with the BBC, we want to be understood by as many people as possible, and so we should adopt a form of speech that carries the greatest degree of intelligibility, or what might also be the lowest common denominator.  As an example of that, RP is a useful productive model.

For RCS though, Underhill suggests “that this style of pronunciation is useful as a target for learners to aim at in their listening skill.”  Which begs the question, why isn’t it used for such?


Without the benefit of asking coursebook authors, editors and publishers; I suspect the answer is probably pragmatic.  Firstly,  the listening tasks don’t only function to develop listening skills, they also function as pronunciation models so that students can consistently link the way they hear a word to the way they say a word.  Secondly, if you do decide to feature alternative dialects and accents, which do you choose?  How would you determine which are most useful to the learners?  Thirdly, what additional input is needed?

The Dialect Blog, which looks at the way English is spoken everywhere, has some great input on Jamaican English and was the source for the You Tube video below, which is the story of “The Night before Christmas” read in the Jamaican patois.  Watch it and then think about what you would need to teach for that to be comprehensible to a group of learners.  Or alternatively, if you have a group of over confident higher level students, play it for them and ask them to transcribe it…..

It is probably going to have to be up to the teachers, responding to the needs of their learners, who decide when and how to incorporate non-RP speech into their classrooms.  The British Library, which has been previously referred to, hosts a collection of 71 sound recordings from around the UK with notes on the dialect.  Some great examples include:

These are all interviews, some have dialect notes, some have transcripts, some have neither.  The sound quality can vary, particularly with the older recordings.  Most are about five minutes long.

As an instant, no preparation procedure, I would suggest a three listening strategy:

  • First listening:  tell the students who they will hear and what they will be talking about.  Ask them to find one interesting “fact”.  Feedback on any content the students manage to uncover, but then move the conversation to process feedback – how difficult was it to listen to?  What did you understand and where did you have problems?  How much was accent and how much was vocabulary?  If the recording has dialect notes, you may be able to provide some vocabulary items at this stage.
  • Second listening:  Ask the students to take notes.  After the second listening, ask the students to work in small groups to try and reconstruct a version of what the speaker said.  This obviously doesn’t have to be a verbatim transcript, but should broadly reflect the content and attitude of the speaker.
  • Third listening:  Students check their reconstruction.  If you have a transcript for the recording, students could listen and follow the transcript at the same time.

I would then recommend some form of content follow up.  For example, Nicola from Plymouth (as above) talks about life as a teenager.  How is her life different to teenagers in your country?

A further possibility might be for learners to record their own interviews, using their mobile phones.


Another way to find authentic speakers talking about pretty much any topic is to search for videos including the phrase VOX POP and your topic.  e.g. Environment vox pop, christmas shopping vox pop.  A vox pop is an on the street interview between a reporter and member of the public.  They are usually quite short and may feature two or three people giving their opinions on the same topic.  The search term “street interview” also brings up similar results.  You could develop these into listening exercises as above, but as they are quite short, you could just use them as a lead in to your topic, asking students if they agree with the opinions.  While this is a primarily content led way of using the videos, it does also serve to expose and familiarise students to non-RP voices.

Finally, here’s the Night before Christmas.





7 Responses to “The case for and against RP”

  1. Sandy Millin Monday 19 October 2015 at 20:24 #

    Hi David,
    It’s interesting to hear why Lord Reith selected RP as the standard accent initially, and thanks for pointing me towards the Dialect Blog – fascinating!
    I’ve got a couple of posts about different British accents which I used with my students in Newcastle:
    Hope they’re useful!

    • David Petrie Tuesday 20 October 2015 at 12:32 #

      Brilliant! Thanks for sharing these!

  2. sueannan Tuesday 20 October 2015 at 10:43 #

    While training at the moment, I have a trainee from South Africa, one from Sweden, and a dip teacher from Italy. We value all of their accents, and it doesn’t seem to matter to the students at all.

    • David Petrie Tuesday 20 October 2015 at 12:31 #

      Hi Sue,
      I think teacher accents do play a role in familiarising students to different speech patterns. It would be interesting to listen to the students next time you’re observing to see if any of them have picked up some of those patterns! But teachers always use CCS, or at least very rarely use RCS, so perhaps that makes them more intelligible – do the non-native speaker teachers modify their own speech so as to try and provide a more RP model? (not that they necessarily should, just interested if the RP model also has a psychological impact here…)

  3. Maria Rosa Moretti Saturday 24 October 2015 at 00:41 #

    I´m a teacher of English from Argentina. Our national Curriculum Design states that we should teach English as “lingua franca” accordingly we shouldn´t bother about teaching a specific accent. But in my opinion we teachers should always be a model of the language to our students as they are exposed to it only in class. That model should be clear, intelligible, and careful. I guess whether we use RP or CCS wouldn´t make a big difference. Personally I´m fond of RP.
    Introducing another question to the debate I believe she should expose the students to the widest variety of accents/pronunaciations as possible so as to get them familiarized with those variations which are the result of a global use of the English language.

  4. Julia Davis-Coombs Monday 26 October 2015 at 10:16 #

    Very interesting; I have shared this with my friends and colleagues on two platforms. As a post-grad student of French (quite some years ago now), I participated in a class for improving spoken language which included activities similar to your suggestions above: we watched recordings of French news broadcasts, transcribed and learned them and then ‘presented’ them with the videos’ sound turned off. These included both standard French as used by the journalists and the more colloquial and regional variations of interviewees. As I recall, it was very effective.


  1. RP – Received Pronunciation | - Tuesday 20 October 2015

    […] The case for and against RP – an interesting article that argues the question of why we still bother teaching received pronunciation to our students. Estimates of received pronunciation speakers in the UK suggest only about 2% of the population, or just over 1.25 million people, actually use this form.  In other words, 0.15% of the global English speaking community uses RP. […]

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