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How Important is the Difference Between American English and British English for EFL Learners?

How Important is the Difference Between American English and British English for EFL Learners? | ITTT | TEFL Blog

This summative essay will exam the importance of teaching the differences between American English and British English for EFL learners. I will examine the intention behind teaching these differences, and when these teachings should be applied, and to what effect and purpose. This essay will focus primarily on the problems of pronunciation and spelling, which are the two main differences. I am a British citizen, born and raised in London, England, and currently teach at a public high school in Tokyo.

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

Spelling

The most prominent differences in spelling would be the use of “u” in words in British English, such as color (color), flavor (flavor), humor (humor) and changing “z” to “s” analyze (analyze), organize (organize) and recognize (recognize), amongst other changes such as British “tire” (tire). For pronunciation, I will focus on the British received pronunciation accent, although I acknowledge that many accents may even be closer to American dialects. The main problem here being the use of vowels, particularly the changing of vowel sounds such as “water” as /ˈwɔː.tər/ in UK English and /ˈwɑː.t̬ɚ/ in US English or “bath”; /bɑːθ/ in UK English and /bæθ/ in American.

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Challenges for Beginners and Intermediate Learners

Firstly, I will say that for beginners and intermediate learners, the differences are menial and do not need to be taught or even referred too. The more complex the language is made, the more intimated and demotivated the students will be, especially in young learners in compulsory learning. In these cases, it should be up to the individual teacher to choose which English they are comfortable teaching. However, as learners become more advanced, the importance of teaching different accents and spellings becomes more important.

a bunch of books

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What do Students Think?

Out of interest in this very topic, I asked two of my students, both aged 16 Japanese and fairly high level, what they knew about the differences. Their response was along the lines of “We understand there is a difference, but it's too difficult to know, so we ignore (it)”. This didn’t surprise me, as most differences are menial to learners in the grand scheme of things until they are living in a foreign country or are frequently interacting with native speakers. For my own experience, all the textbooks I have used in my classrooms have used American English, and so my Japanese native teacher will occasionally ask me to explain the difference in spelling or pronunciation. One prominent time this happened, I was asked to say “glacier” in British English (/ˈɡlæs.i.ər/) and then American English (/ˈɡleɪ.si.ɚ/). The students appeared stunned before the teacher quickly moved on. When I initially started teaching, I was adamant that British English is the “proper way”, but quickly became flexible when I realized that there are much bigger problems that students are facing.

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Grammar

Since grammar does not change between the two, I would argue that the differences between them only need to be alluded to at a university level, or for anyone that plans on living or studying aboard. But even then, the world has become so connected and understanding, that Americanisms are understood by most English-speaking natives, regardless of where they are from. Vice versa, many British aspects are understood by Americans. I believe that in the future, America’s influence will continue to grow, and it will become even more dominant. Even as I type, auto-correct and spell check are attempting to change my language to American, and these same tools will be available to non-natives too.

Interesting Experience for Adults

I have found that to non-compulsory learners such as adults, they find the differences between them more fascinating than educational. Recently I taught a small group of lawyers that in England we use “graveyard” whereas an American would say “cemetery”. I told them that either is fine and would be understood by any native listener. Throughout the lesson, they simply switched between the words seamlessly, not taking any bias to the words. I feel this is fine and should be encouraged. I also feel it’s important not to dissuade students of any level from when they pronounce words in American English, providing they are using accurate vocabulary, then it shouldn’t matter to teachers.

I have neglected to mentioned ESL learners in this essay as it would only be natural for them to take on the English around them, which would be picked up over time through immersion. However, in classes, the native pronunciation of the country should be taught.

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In conclusion, the difference between American English and British English will be ever-present and obvious to native speakers, from pronunciation, word choice, and spelling. But it is my personal belief that there is no place for teaching the differences in beginner and intermediate and should only be taught at high levels to EFL learners. Teachers should not take bias or view one as “correct” or “incorrect”, but rather should teach what the students will understand, and what they are comfortable with teaching. It should be the responsibility of the learner if they are interested in the differences to seek out this knowledge, and then a teacher should be able to help them.

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