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British English versus American English, which one is best?

British English versus American English, is one better than the other?

This EBC TEFL course Madrid is accent tolerant. We don’t mind which English flavour you use, as long as you use it correctly and consistently.

British English versus American English always sparks a lively discussion. We get some great debates our TEFL course between the British and American students. We treat them as language equals but people will be people.

In this article I cover: consistency, vocabulary, English as a living language and, teaching implications and classroom problems. There’s also an addendum of relevant reader comments.

I’m British but I lived in the USA (NewYork/New Jersey) for about 10 years. I have to say as a bit of a non-sequitur that I liked it so much, I became a citizen.

As an English speaker, it took me a while to learn a new English. It took time to figure out why street vendors were always asking me to “check things out.” I had no intention of borrowing anything from them 🙂

The English spoken in the USA is different from the English spoken in the UK not only in pronunciation but also in vocabulary and in some cases, word meaning as well. Luckily the basis for both English flavours, the alphabet, is the same except for the letter Zed or Zee.

George Bernard Shaw probably got it right when he quipped:

“The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.”

So which one is best? From a partisan viewpoint the answer is a foregone conclusion. Brits will say that Americans don’t speak proper English and vice versa. There’s nothing worse than national pride when it comes to language.

Forgetting the fact that there are people in both countries who sometimes cannot understand what their fellow countrymen from other regions are saying, are there any pointers to indicate that one flavour is better than the other?

Consistency

Let’s start with consistency. Is one flavour more consistent than the other?

My first focus would be spelling. In certain respects American English spelling is more consistent with the way that we say words. The classics would be color versus colour, center versus centre, words ending with “iz” versus “is” constructions, etc.

British English is much older than American English and these differences are mainly the fault of the French who invaded England in 1066. At the time the English were not impressed but the French did bring a little extra in the way of culture and cooking and a lot in the way of enriching the English language. The estimated number of new words added to English by the French is about 10,000. With these new words came the French spelling, the “re”, “ou”, “is”, etc. constructs.

English came to North America via the first British settlements that eventually, via George Washington, became the United States. During the 1700’s English was still an open language and even the British did not have formal standards for spelling. In the 1750’s Samuel Johnson established what was adopted as a standard British English dictionary and about 60 years later Noah Webster established what was adopted as the standard American English dictionary. As America was keen to distance itself from Britain and Webster wanted to rationalise certain forms of spelling, the Americans adopted what some Brits refer to as “wrong spelling”.

Both sides could claim the same.

Both languages have spelling standards so in this respect they are both consistent.

Pronunciation is not so obvious when it comes to consistency. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Americans will pronounce the “ato” sound in tomato and potato the same way. Brits don’t
  • Brits will pronounce the “ine” sound in machine and iodine the same way. Americans don’t.

These are two simple examples but they both highlight pronunciation differences that are not consistent with spelling. However, all Americans/Brits will pronounce words within their flavour of English in a similar way. There will be regional differences but even with the regional accent, the sound produced will be understandable.

Vocabulary

Now we get into the fun area.

In the main, British English and American English are very similar, even with differences in spelling. In today’s world, American spelling is probably winning thanks to Microsoft’s spell checker.

There are vocabulary differences and some can cause embarrassing situations if you only know one flavour. Knickers, suspenders and fanny come to mind. In the US, men wear suspenders, in the UK women wear suspenders. There’s a whole world of fun in some of these differences. Brits can knock their friends up in the morning but this could be considered inappropriate in the USA. I’ll leave you to research knickers and fanny.

There are also more mundane differences as well like: lift (UK) vs. elevator (USA) / lorry (UK) vs. truck (USA) / solicitor (UK) vs. lawyer (USA) / petrol (UK) vs. gas or gasoline (USA) / trainers (UK) vs. sneakers (USA) / drawing pin (UK) vs. thumb tack (USA) and quite a few others.

Despite the fact that there are different meanings for the same word and that there are some genuine differences in vocabulary, again both languages are consistent within their own rules.

English is a living language

Both the British and Americans continually add new words as things change. When new words are added, they fit the constructs and can be classified within the general English language system: noun, verb, etc.

The two key dictionaries from either side of the Atlantic are Merriam-Webster (USA) and Oxford (UK). Both dictionaries accept the differences between British and American English and make references to both in their word definitions.

Teaching implications and classroom problems

Some may see this article as frivolous, some may not. Regardless of this, the differences between American and British English can raise issues in the classroom that the teacher must resolve. Some will take the form of a personal attack.

“You can’t spell properly.”, “You can’t pronounce properly.” or “You don’t know how to say things in English.” are some of the criticisms that will be aimed at the teacher.

These problems may surface after a change of teacher, specifically from one speaker to the other, British to American and vice versa.

“Color/Colour”, “iodine/iodine”, “elevator/lift” are three simple examples that highlight where the problems come from. The differences in spelling, pronunciation and vocabulary may raise doubts in the ELLS minds about the new teacher’s knowledge of English. Your students are not joined at the hip with English like we are. It’s something new to them. The nuances and subtleties of English are light-years away from their comprehension. They are as far away from understanding these differences as we would be when faced with learning a new language that we know nothing about.

They will certainly know that Americans and British have different accents but they will not understand the aforementioned differences unless they are taught.

The teacher must explain that the two flavours of English are different and whenever necessary highlight where these differences are. The teacher must also be consistent within the rules of the English flavour they are teaching: spelling, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.

To avoid disputes over meaning and spelling, always have either a Merriam-Webster or Oxford pocket dictionary on hand. Both dictionaries will show the different spellings and meanings of words. Dictionaries solve many classroom problems as they are independent arbiters of disputes regarding spelling and meaning. If you also understand the phonetic code, they resolve pronunciation issues as well.

Conclusion

So which one is better? My viewpoint is neither. They both serve a purpose and they are both consistent within their rules. They can raise classroom issues but these can be dealt with as described in the previous section.

Is one set of rules superior to the other? I don’t think so. Both have their own consistencies and inconsistencies.

Is one easier to use than the other? Now it gets interesting. American is very slightly easier to spell thanks to Mr. Webster’s spelling rationalisation. British and American pronunciation styles both have their inconsistencies. For example: both have odd pronunciations for place names like Leicester (Lester) Square in London or Conetoe (Caneeta) in North Carolina.

Is one easier to listen to than the other? Yes and no. There are people who prefer one over the other and people who don’t care. Enunciation when speaking can be good or bad, it depends on the speaker not on what flavour of English they speak.

The only conclusion I can get to is that the British versus American English competition is pretty much the same as the Coca Cola versus Pespi competition. There will be people who’ll drink either because they like cola drinks and those who prefer one over the other.

Neither one is better. They’re the same but different 🙂

“Vive la diference” as all we English speakers would say, but make sure that your students are aware of the differences as well.

Addendum

Relevant comments made after publishing:

“It’s hard to say with one is better or the best. As a non-native English speaker and a teacher (I acquired American English) I believe it might be easier for learners to get to speak and use American English rather than British English. Yet for higher levels and those willing to sit IELTS and similar tests, I would say both American and British English are needed, because the test material may appear in a variety of styles.” Reza Matin

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