Teaching American English Versus British English

September 20, 2012 · 11 comments

I’ve not spoke much before about teaching English abroad, but I have taught English in a few countries and the subject of American and British English comes up quite often, especially if I (as primarily British English instructor) come across students who have only been learning American English. I don’t think it’s a very advanced topic which should be left until they already have a good grasp of one of the styles as the differences aren’t that much or even that important, so it’s good to get them out the way early or even do a simple 1 hour lesson on the difference.

Of course if the students are learning English in Britain/Australia or English in USA, then it should be taught as per the local country. But if they are in their home country students should be taught to their (or the school) preference (not the teachers). If you refuse to do this (it’s certainly difficult to use a different version of English if you’re not used to it), then it would be more decent to find a student who wishes to learn your own than mis-teach the current student. Teaching English is one of the most common ways for travellers and expats to make some money to continue their travels living abroad so it’s good to know how to deal with this issue which I’ll cover here.

British and American flag

What do the students want?

Accents

Accents are an advanced topic and not something most students can mimic until their English is conversational at least. Even native speakers struggle to put on some accents correctly. It is not something worth focusing on, but if you can show the difference, either with your own demonstration or a video then that’s probably best. Students will eventually pick out the difference between countries, but it’s not worth focusing on unless they specifically want to learn for business reasons as an example. Bearing in mind that their are easily over a thousand if you really want to break them down, and dozens you can probably think of by your own it’s not something that students need to learn. This isn’t even taking into account other countries like Australia, Ireland, South Africa, etc.

Americanizing Spelling

This in contrast is one of the most obvious ways of showing the differences. Words ending in ise (British) or ize (American). Something that can frustrate or humour (should that be humor?) students as well as native speakers. American tends to be the more simple and spelt like it’s pronounced. The lack of u’s in American is also another thing to point out. The best way to teach differences is plenty of examples which can be obtained from text books or other online sources.

Pronunciation

Al-u-min-e-um or a-loom-e-num has caused a lot of humour at both sides of the pond laughing at one another. It also causes a lot of headaches for students that in my opinion should be familiarised with the differences. Many native people from both sides of the language get confused too. Ask for war-ter in a gas station (petrol station ;)) in the southern states and you’ll get a blank look half the time, it’s waa-ter there. As for Scottish, well I don’t even know where to start, och aye the noo maybe? I’d suggest dealing with specific regional colloquials as and when they come, you’ll be surprised by how much you know already just being a native English speaker.

All the Specific bits

I am only one person and covering specific language differences I feel is best done by a trained expert of a collaboration of efforts from both sides of the pond. This has already been done on a Wikipedia page which has far more detail than I could go into, so its well worth a look if you have a more demanding student who wishes to learn the differences.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Nomadic Samuel September 21, 2012 at 6:00 AM

As an ESL teacher based in Asia, I’ve found it interesting how the local perception is regarding British vs American English. In Korea, American English is certainly preferred whereas in Japan these is a preference for British English.
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AdventureRob September 21, 2012 at 7:56 PM

I’ve not been to Korea, so won’t comment on there. But Japan is a bit of a mixed bunch I found. I think British English is seen as the more cool one to learn though as it’s mostly been American influence only until recently (past 5-10 years) when variation has become a bit more common in Japan and the differences are being promoted. I’ve seen a few British English schools about though, probably equal to American, which don’t tend to advertise the American bit as much.

I think awareness of both is quite good for the students, but most native speakers forgive foreign speakers if they make a British/American mistake I would have thought.

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Brian Swanick September 21, 2012 at 8:33 PM

The most important thing you can teach, and something you mentioned in your post and comment, is awareness. Awareness is something you should be teaching in this type of setting and something that I think American education(anecdotal on my part) doesn’t touch enough upon. As a teacher or even just as a speaker like myself you can get caught up too much in the semantics of language, ignoring the ideas that it represents. Surely the point is to provide functional ability in the language taught but how many dialects, accents, and alternate spellings can we offer to students in a limited amount of time? Too many is the answer.

Instead, provide them with the awareness that there going to be different accents, dialects, and alternate spellings that they will come across. If they remain open to those different perspectives then they will have developed their language skills beyond what was taught in the classroom.

Very interesting topic!
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AdventureRob September 22, 2012 at 7:43 PM

Thanks very much for the input Brian. I didn’t quite word the need for awareness as well as your comment, but that’s essentially it. It’s difficult to learn the difference between alternate spelling and incorrect spelling, but that’s a long term part of the process I guess.

My wife is foreign and has no problem understanding my accent now we’ve been together a long time, but a few others throw her off completely. But that’s not surprising considering how spread out native English speaking countries are. I know a lot of students are especially thrown out when they hear anything but American English, as that’s what most films (from Hollywood obviously) are presented in. Although the Harry Potter movies have done wonders for getting British English out there.

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Brian Swanick September 26, 2012 at 4:03 PM

I often forget about the influence of things like movies and music have on us. I’d be really interested reading about the impact that seemingly unrelated influencers have on foreign cultures. I ran into a few German guys a couple years back and they were telling me how they almost exclusively watch American television…much more than I do. How I Met Your Mother and South Park were two of their favorite shows–think about how THAT would influence the view Germans have about American culture! A little scary.

That said, with so much content available for us to consume across cultures via the internet, there’s opportunity out there for people to gain insight naturally about accents and dialects without having to try, really. Good point about the Harry Potter films.

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AdventureRob September 28, 2012 at 3:54 PM

A lot of peoples opinion’s of a country is made up from what the media tells them about it whether its from their own country or from the country being mentioned. People who go out and research countries are actually quite rare. Those who travel to countries get a better idea (one of the many benefits of travel!) and form their own opinion are in the best position I think, but this is usually too expensive for most.

People have a good idea of culture from the countries that sell their media/products abroad. As a Brit I knew a lot about America from cartoons, movies, TV shows like friends and South Park, etc. I knew a lot about Japan from video games, and a bit about China/Hong Kong when I liked martial arts movies. I couldn’t have told you much about European countries though, as the media that comes out of there doesn’t stretch as far (certainly not aimed at children anyway). It’s all part of learning I guess.

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Bex September 22, 2012 at 9:10 PM

I teach in Europe and there’s been a preference for British, which surprised me. I’ve taught a lot of businesses and assumed American English would be seen as the ‘corporate’ language.

Excuses for British have been mixed or people genuinely being uncertain as to why they prefer it. But my favourite is ‘it’s real English’. This usually came from the Spanish who have the same prejudice against South American Spanish as the Brits do about AmE.

Before I came to France, however, most people preferred American Accents. The French often have a preference for English accents although they much prefer American grammar!

But I’ve had a few quick overviews with students about the differences and try to mention things as we go so they have options or won’t be confused when I used certain words or pronunciations out of habit… Like Schedule.
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AdventureRob September 24, 2012 at 12:44 PM

That doesn’t surprise me at all. Europe gets a lot more custom from Britain than America (buying and selling, availability of teachers, no need for visas, etc), and the same with holidays, much more likely to come across Brit’s than Americans. It’s all down to being neighbours I think rather than choosing the best corporate version of the language, I imagine its much easier to get American learning materials, especially movies). Indonesia and surrounding islands prefers Australian and most of Asia prefers American (South America has a strong preference to American too).

I’ve always thought American accents are easier to understand, and it is usually spoken slower which makes it easier to understand for new learners.

Thanks for comment Bex.

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Bex September 25, 2012 at 6:08 PM

Oddly enough, a lot of it comes from students who work with Americans more than Brits. But, that having been said, a fair few of those have mentioned Texas.

I think there’s a geographical/historical links too.
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Vi September 24, 2012 at 12:34 PM

It is interesting how my English sounds :) It is probably mix of British/American with some aussie and kiwi accent :D
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AdventureRob September 25, 2012 at 11:06 AM

I think a lot of long term expats change their accent too, or people who travel a lot as children. Thanks for pointing out another complexity I didn’t even think of!

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