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British vs. American: Which English Accent to Choose?

British vs. American: Which English Accent to Choose? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

British English versus American English always sparks a lively discussion. I have read some articles so far as to compare these 2 languages and gather the information from the online resources.

Table of Contents

Personal experience

The history of English

Vocabulary challenge

Teaching implications and classroom problems

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This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Zahra J. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Personal experience

I am Iranian and have many American and British friends and I have been living abroad for about 6 years. As an English speaker as a second language, it took me a while to learn what is British and what is American English. As I have done some friendly interviews, 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 flavors, the alphabet, is the same except for the letter Zed or Zee.

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 color, center versus center, words ending with "is" versus "is" constructions, etc.


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The history of English

From the historical point of view, 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 1750s 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 rationalize 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. Americans will pronounce the "ato" sound in tomato and potato the same way. Brits do not. Brits will pronounce the "ine" sound in machine and iodine the same way. Americans do not.

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 flavor of English in a similar way. There will be regional differences but even with the regional accent, the sound produced will be understandable.

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Vocabulary challenge

Regarding the vocabulary, 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 flavor. 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. thumbtack (USA) and quite a few others.

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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 the British have different accents but they will not understand the aforementioned differences unless they are taught.

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

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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.

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