British English verses American English. Why study English? Mandarin (672

Why study English' Mandarin (672 million), Hindi (400 million) and Spanish (390 million) all have more or about the same number of native speakers as English (425 million). (1). So why do an estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide either speak or study English (1) rather than study the languages of two countries that should become superpowers in the near future and a third language that over a tenth of the people living in the United States (today's only superpower) speak' The answer probably lies in the final sentence, in that most people of the world's only superpower speak this language (2). This may be oversimplifying things a little as the rise of English probably dates back to the days of the British Empire, where English started replacing French as the 'world language' during the 19th Century (2). However, given the extent that the US has dominated the world, in business, science, communications and in politics since the end of the last world war. English is the natural choice to be the 'global language' (2). Now that we might know a reason why so many people are interested in learning English, the question of what English you should learn arises, American English (AE) or British English (BE).

Main differences between American English and British English

AE is the more conservative phonologically and is more uniform in its pronunciation, dialect and accent than BE (3). As one would expect from a country where English has been spoken for the longest time, BE has developed a wide array of regional accents, variations and dialects and is more likely to shift more in time than AE (4). We will discuss differences in spelling, pronunciation, meaning and grammar between BE and AE.

'The Americans are identical to the British in all respects except, of course, language'

Oscar Wilde


At the end of the 18th Century, spelling of many English words was not standard (5). It took the publication of influential books, especially dictionaries, to standardise spelling (6). For example, most current BE spelling follows the spelling of Samuel Johnson's dictionary published in 1755 (7). On the other hand, much of the characteristic spelling seen in AE was introduced and in part created by Noah Webster when he published his Dictionary of American language in1828 (8). Webster felt a 'clamor of pedantry' had engulfed the language (8). This desire to simplify English spelling is still seen in words such as color (BE colour, dropping of u) (8), defense (BE defence, s instead of c) (8) and center (BE centre, er instead of re) (8). Some of the simplified words Webster suggested however did not gain widespread acceptance, e.g. ile for isle and definit for definite are some alternate spellings that weren't adopted (9).


Pronunciation can vary a great deal even within AE or BE, so in some respects; it is disingenuous to talk about differences in pronunciation between the two. However, some differences can be talked about, as long as this is kept in mind. Pronunciation varies two major ways, in accent and stress. An example of a difference in accent is that AE is still largely a rhotic language (10) whereas BE is not. Rhotic means that R is always pronounced, not just when immediately followed by a vowel. For example, in AE the r is pronounced in water whereas in BE it may be said wata (no R) (10). On the other hand, an R is sometimes said to intrude in BE where 'idear of it' would be said rather than 'idea of it') that would be said in AE (10). There is often a difference in stressing of words, particularly of words of a French origin (11). In AmE, such words have a final-syllable stress whereas BE would stress an earlier syllable. Examples of this include ballet and caf' (11). Other stress differences include other 2 syllable 'ate words, like donate and castrate where the first syllable is stressed in AE and the second syllable is stressed in BE (12). As well as these two examples, there are numerous words where the stress differs that does not fit a pattern. Words like this would include caffeine, kilometre and aristocrat (12).

'Two countries divided by a common language'

George Bernard Shaw


Many words have developed different meaning depending what side of the Atlantic you reside on. Many words now appear to be synonymous or at least familiar to both, especially for English people, possibly through the mass exposure of AE through the media (13). Some BE words have replaced or are replacing AE words and vice versa (for example, avocado, BE, has replaced alligator pear, the old AE word) (14).

Grammar and Syntax

Grammar and syntax also differ, although maybe in more subtle ways than the other areas of differences we have discussed. For example, in AE, people tend to use the present perfect tense much less often than speakers of BE (15). Use of prepositions can be different between AE and BE, with at used when telling the time in BE (at the weekend) whereas in AE on not at would be used (on the weekend (15). Syntax can also differ. When writing the date, BE speakers would write 3-11-2006 whereas it would be written 11-3-2006 (16).


A common debate when you met foreigners overseas whose native language is English is whose English is better, yours or theirs. Putting ego aside, the correct answer would be neither, rather they are both as good as the other, just different. When teaching, it would be wise to acknowledge this as well. Educate students on differences of spelling, pronunciation etc between different dialects of English but try to be consistent in your teaching and stick to your own accent. In some cases, students may wish to learn a particular English dialect, especially if they were interested in doing business with people from that country. However, once their English has reached a certain level, they should be comfortable in understanding all English accents. Remember variety is the spice of life.

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