Language and accents

A signpost with English and Welsh names in Cardiff

Road signs in Wales often display both Welsh and English names

The way English is spoken can be very different across the country, and even native English speakers find some UK accents and slang hard to understand. These new sounds and words might be challenging at first, but you will get used to them.

Official native languages

English is spoken across the UK, but it is not the only native official language. You may also occasionally hear:

  • Welsh in Wales
  • Gaelic and Scots in Scotland
  • Irish and Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland
  • Cornish in Cornwall, England.

These other languages developed very differently to English and share few common words. They can sound beautiful, and it can be a joy to hear them. You will hear them most commonly in rural areas, but many young people are now taught these languages at school as a second language and they are seeing a revival.

Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you have to learn these languages. Wherever you go in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales you will find that English is the main language and that people speak English fluently.

If, however, you are interested in learning these languages, there are lots of resources available. For example, for Welsh try the Learn Cymraeg website or for Scottish Gaelic try the Learn Gaelic website. For a quick introduction to Welsh, read our article about Learning Welsh!

International languages

As well as these native languages, you will hear lots of other languages in the UK too. In London alone it is estimated that you could hear over 300 languages! As well as immigrant communities, the UK attracts millions of students, tourists and business visitors from around the world each year.

Accents and dialects

A person's accent is the way they pronounce words. In the UK you'll find a wide variety of accents. Even between cities that are close together, you will find real variation. For example, Liverpool and Manchester are an hour’s drive apart by car, but the accents are very different.

A person's dialect is their pattern of speech, reflected in the words and phrases they use, influenced by a particular region. You will often hear locals use dialect words to describe the same thing. For example, you might find a bread roll called:

  • a bap (in the Midlands and the North)
  • a barm cake (in Lancashire)
  • a cob (in East Midlands)
  • a batch (in Coventry)
  • a bread cake (in Leeds)
  • a muffin (in north-west England)
  • a tea cake (in Yorkshire).

To get used to these new accents and dialects, watch UK television programmes and listen to UK radio. You can explore UK accents on the BBC’s interactive voices map. But the best tip is simply to listen to the people around you – and don’t be afraid to ask them to explain if you don’t understand.

Slang and street talk

Slang means informal words and phrases, and learning slang can be a lot of fun. For example, you might hear people saying ‘Ta’, or ’Cheers’ to mean ‘Thank you’, or saying ’What’s on the box?’ to mean ’What’s on TV?’.

Find out more in UK slang for international students – an essential introduction to the slang words you'll hear in the UK!

The history of the English language

The English language reflects the unique history of the UK. Officially English is considered to be a West Germanic language that arrived with Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th century. The invading Normans in the 11th century brought French words into the language, and over the centuries there have been lots of other influences too.

If you trace the origin of lots of everyday words in English now, you'll find words from European languages such as Italian, Spanish, Scandinavian, and further afield from Asia, Africa and the Americas.

An interesting – and very funny – book to read is ‘Mother Tongue’ by Bill Bryson. This looks at how the English language was shaped by invasion, travel, immigration, fashion and the arrival of TV.

Learn English

Do you want to improve your English before you start your UK studies?

The British Council’s Learn English website is a free-of-charge resource for students of all ages and abilities. On the website you can watch films, listen to audio clips and try games, grammar exercises and reading tasks.

There are also lots of English language courses you could do – either in your own country or in the UK. Have a look at the Learn English section to find out more, or click here to find an English language course!