7 Reasons the UK is the Best Place to Learn English
There’s no shortage of different ways to learn English.
You could use software like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone. You could watch lots of English-language TV and hope it sinks in. You could even set up a weekly Skype call with a language exchange buddy elsewhere in the world. But none of these things is as fun or as effective for improving your English rapidly as travelling to an English-speaking country and learning there, where you’ll have the opportunity to make new friends, learn about a new culture and practise your English in live situations with native speakers. The question is, where to go? The UK, USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia and even Malta have English language schools where you can practise English in lessons and in your time off. In this article, we take look at why studying in the UK is the best way to work on your English language skills and enjoy yourself at the same time.
1. More accents per square mile than anywhere else in the English-speaking world
There’s one point that frequently gets raised as a disadvantage of studying English in the UK, and that’s the accents. For a relatively small country, the UK packs in a remarkable number of distinctively different accents, and that’s even the case despite the fact that British accents have homogenised over the past fifty years due to the influence of television.
One of the most distinctive accents is the Liverpudlian accent, which you can hear in this video. Compare that to the relatively gentle Scottish accent of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon here, or this man’s Somerset accent and you’ll see how different English can sound within the same country, and that the idea that there’s such a thing as a ‘British accent’ is a myth (when people refer to this, they usually mean BBC English, the kind of accent associated with the upper-middle class in the Home Counties, traditionally used by BBC newsreaders). And it’s not just British accents you’ll encounter in the UK, either. You’re likely to meet fluent English speakers with accents from all over the world; not just Americans and Australians, but people speaking English as their primary language with an Indian, German or Jamaican accent.
Why is this helpful? Because when you use English in the real world, you won’t be encountering people who all have the same accent. If you learn to understand English only when it’s spoken a particular way – whether that’s a Sydney accent, a Cork accent, an Alabama accent or something different again – you’ll seriously limit the number and range of people you’ll be able to understand and communicate with. It’ll also cause you difficulties if you’re planning on taking the IELTS test to demonstrate your English proficiency, as this uses English spoken in a range of different accents in the listening test. It’s best to start as you mean to go on, being exposed to as diverse a range of accent as possible so that unusual pronunciations don’t bother you.
2. The birthplace of the English language
Britain is where the English language was born – everywhere else just borrowed it (or had it thrust upon them). Understanding Britain better helps you understand the English language better; the history that shaped, the other influences that it drew loanwords from. For example, studying English in Britain, you can travel to Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon, or the reconstruction of his theatre, the Globe, in Southwark in London, and learn more about the man who contributed over 1,700 words to the English language in his poetry and plays (or the first person to write them down, anyway).
Or going further afield and further back in time, there’s Whitby, famously the setting for part of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but also the location where a cow-herder named Caedmon composed the first poem ever recorded in the English language (then Old English), an event that is commemorated by a Celtic cross outside the abbey.
Or for more recent literary inventions, you might travel through King’s Cross station in London, and see the entrance to Platform 9 ¾, as imagined by JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In the adjacent St Pancras station, there’s a statue of Sir John Betjeman, a poet and lover of Victorian architecture who fought to save the station from being torn down in the 1960s. In Waterloo station, there’s a statue of Paddington Bear – currently surrounded by pots of marmalade in tribute to his creator, Michael Bond, who died recently.
The point is that Britain is densely populated, not large, and has grown and changed with the English language for over 1,500 years, so that the language is embedded almost everywhere you turn in a way that isn’t the case in most other countries. It’s no surprise that seeing the UK is in its own right a lesson in its language and literature.
3. A rich history and culture, and none of it too far away
Britain’s small size isn’t just an advantage for exploring its linguistic and literary history; there’s a whole lot more history and culture to see that’s mostly a manageable train ride away (unless you decide to study in the far north of Scotland). From London to Stonehenge, the White Cliffs of Dover to Windsor Castle, the Roman Baths to Hadrian’s Wall, there are countless sights to see and you don’t have to get on a plane to visit any of them.
In fact, it can be hard to avoid British history; most towns will have a medieval building or two still standing, and if you look at a road map, you’ll see the sites of historical battles marked, whether that’s the English Civil War, the conquest of Wales or from the ongoing wrangles over the border between England and Scotland.
A good summer school programme will incorporate visits to famous sights nearby (and maybe a coach trip or two to those that are further afield), so that you get to explore British history and culture while you’re visiting. And it doesn’t all need to be so highbrow, either; alongside the monuments dating back hundreds of years, your visit to the UK could easily include a trip to the Harry Potter Studio Tour or shopping in Harrods.
4. Transport links to explore Europe
Most other English-speaking countries where you might choose to study English are very large, a long way away from their neighbours, or both. Not so for the UK. The Eurostar means that from anywhere near London, you can hop on the train from St Pancras (saying hello to Sir John Betjeman on your way) to Paris, Brussels, Lille or any connecting station in a couple of hours. Beyond Eurostar destinations, discount flights open up the entire continent of Europe at affordable prices.
It’s no wonder that plenty of students choose to combine brushing up on their English in the UK with a longer tour of Europe – flying to Britain for a week or two of English lessons, then using their newly honed language skills to communicate through English as a lingua franca all over the continent. It can be a great way to combine an educational experience with a summer holiday, and all without a long-haul flight (at least until the time comes to go home again).
If you’re thinking of studying in the UK for a longer period, for instance a month, you can even take the opportunity to split it into two and enjoy a relaxing holiday in between, before returning to Britain raring to get going again. That means that you can combine working on your language skills with relaxing on the beach, visiting famous cultural sights or even catching up with international friends.
5. The world’s longest tradition of teaching English
The history of English language teaching is relatively recent. Until the 20th century, few people felt the need to learn English in order to be educated; the world’s lingua franca was French, the language of music was Italian (as it remains, to a certain extent), parts of academia were conducted through German, and if you really wanted to prove your intellectual merit, you learned Latin or, for bonus points, Ancient Greek. Despite the fact that the British Empire covered a quarter of the world’s population – about 410 million people – the English language was by no means as dominant.
That changed with the rise of the USA, the fall of the British Empire, and the First and Second World Wars. The booming of the US economy post-war made English the language of business and commerce. The fall of the British Empire meant that former colonies no longer imported their rulers from the UK, but took them from their own populations; yet English was still used as the language of administration. In countries such as India with a multitude of local languages, it made sense to retain English as a lingua franca; only now it wasn’t used for British colonial administrators to speak to each other, but for communication between countries and among their populations.
And that meant it needed to be taught somewhere. That place was the UK, where language schools have been operating for longer than anywhere else on the globe, with all the resulting history and experience to show for it.
6. Study alongside people from all over the world
Because the UK has the rest of Europe on its doorstep, people from a huge variety of different countries come here to study English; Oxford Royale Summer Schools has over 100 different nationalities attending our summer school programmes, for example. And that means that you’ll be studying English alongside people who speak a huge variety of different languages as their first, second or even third language.
That’s a significant advantage in learning English. One, it means that your class will be taught through English. Your teacher won’t be able to teach you English solely with reference to (say) Spanish, because most people there won’t be able to speak Spanish. Instead, your teacher will teach you English without relying on another language as a crutch.
Two, it means that you won’t be relying on another language as a crutch either. You’ll be surrounded by interesting people from different countries, and over the time that you spend on the course, chances are you’ll want to befriend them. If you’re learning alongside students from all over the world, even if one or two of them have the same first language as you, you’ll mostly need English in order to communicate. And if there’s one thing that will motivate you to learn English faster, it’s wanting to be able to have proper conversations with new friends.
7. Lively, interactive teaching style
Inspired by the British education system, which values student contributions and a lively classroom with lots of interaction, especially at university level, British language schools take the same attitude towards teaching English. The principle is that learning a foreign language by rote doesn’t work, for the most part. While it can be useful for verb endings, no one ever had to hold a conversation in real life by chanting I am, you are, he/she/it is, you are, we are, they are at them.
Instead, what helps people learn a language, retain what they’ve learned and be able to use it in real-life conversations is practising the language in a situation that is as much like real life as possible. That’s why in English language lessons like those taught at Oxford Royale Summer Schools, conversation is central to studying, and students will be encouraged to practise their English in all kinds of realistic settings: giving presentations, taking part in class discussions, debating and even just having a good chat – provided it all happens in English, of course.
That has two consequences. One is that when you’re out of the classroom, you’re actually able to communicate with people, without the fear that everything will go wrong if they deviate from the scripts that you’ve practised in role-play. You’ll have the confidence to have a real conversation, knowing that you’ll be able to get your meaning across even if your grammar isn’t (yet) perfect. The second is that it makes learning English a whole lot more fun. And if you’re giving up your summer holiday to learn it, that should be a top priority too.