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British vs. American English Upon each of my travels outside the
Upon each of my travels outside the United States boundaries, I have been confronted with the notion that I do not speak English, but American. I find this distinction made supremely by Europeans, who characteristically learn British English. While it is easy to highlight certain differences in speech patterns and structure, I believe the differences between British English and its American counterpart, to be deeply rooted in the cultural distinctions between the Americans and the British dating back to the North American struggles with identity as British, or the distinction as Americans in the 1700s. For the teacher of English as a foreign language, it is equally important to understand the cultural characteristics of your students, as it is the culture of the language you aim to teach.
There is general agreement that there is no ' 'correct' ' version of English, but that consistency with a particular version is important when teaching the language (ESL Library Weekly). While consistency is paramount in any sort of education, it would be a disservice to English language learners (ELL) to teach in a mixed British-American style, but also to avoid noting similarities and dissimilarities between the two. For example, in American English, British grammar is acceptable, and sometimes preferable, but it is wise to instruct the students that the reverse is often untrue. The ESL Library Weekly uses the following example to illustrate an aspect of the 'principal differences' between these versions of English:
British English: American English: I've lost my key.I lost my key.
'...What is important...is that language educators learn to cross...artificial boundaries that divide us and recognize the common concerns, themes, and issues that unite us' (Tedick). To an American, either form of above example is correct. To the British, the American version is grammatically incorrect. However, there are two important ideas at play here for both the student and teacher of English as a foreign language (EFL). For the foreign language student, the biggest question is usually, 'will I be understood'' In this particular case, whether or not the British accept the grammar rules followed in the example above, the message can be clearly understood'there is a key missing. This certainly sounds simple, but the complexity of differences grows when adding differences between speaking and writing, which can almost be considered different languages, and a plethora of words with divergent meanings. KryssTal offers many examples of words such as this. Sometimes, given the context of a sentence, in combination with body language, the same word, with different meanings in the varied versions of English can be understood. Examples include jam (UK) and jelly (US), biscuit (UK) and cookie (US) (KryssTal). However, words such as fag, homely, and rubber, have very different meanings in both languages, and could be considered very offensive. In England for example, it would appropriate to ask a 7 year old for a 'rubber'; to American ears however, a 'condom' was requested from the 7 year old, which makes the inquiry remarkably inappropriate. So while there may not be a 'correct' (ESL Library Weekly) version of 'Standard English', teaching authentic language usage specific to the version of English learned is a necessity, as is the student's diligence in learning the culture of the language. According to Smith '...a word or phrase in your own language, with all its connotations, conveys so much more than a dry definition' thus, making it 'futile' to try and offer exact definitions between British and American English. Thus, the knowledge of culture, again, becomes paramount to using any language.
George Bernard Shaw said ' 'The British and Americans are divided by a common language'' (KryssTal). For the culturally conscience teacher, why is it that Americans accept most of the British grammar rules as correct forms of standard American English, but have their own separate set of rules as well' This is where the historical struggle for American identity becomes an important part of not only learning American English, but understanding the American culture. Despite roughly 3,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean (about 1,800 km I believe'but let us remember another cultural difference, Americans don't use the metric system!) between the former Mother Country and her insolent North American colonies, it took almost two hundred years before Americans finally recognized themselves as such. During the colonization of North America, while the English settlers certainly dominated, the people here were influenced by many other factors both culturally and linguistically. The English citizens brought their language, but so too did the Irish, Scots, and Scots- Irish that came as well, and those were just the English speaking peoples. Americans, as they became in culture and language, existed as a blend of the old with the experiences of the new. This in turn morphed the English language into American. Language is much more than a set of words and rules, language both creates and is created by the culture using it. If the development of language is 'an evolving process', just as learning a language is, then it is important to recognize what Smith calls the 'factors of language change...inheritance, innovation, and isolation...' 'It is the effect of these processes over the last 400 years that gave rise to the differences between American and British' (Smith). American English is often considered to be 'improper British English' but it is not.
It is the language of a people that in general, were willing to expatriate themselves from England in hopes of finding in America greater freedoms of opportunity not found in their homeland. The language too, expresses that notion. While, Americans accept British grammar, we too have created our own phraseology and grammar rules as uniquely American as the development of the nation. Hence, the divide between the British and Americans, actually quite similar in culture, truly can be found in the common language we share as described by George Bernard Shaw.
Grasp the subject, the words will follow. To learn a language is not to memorize rules and words, it is to embrace another culture, another system of beliefs and attitudes. Even when the words are the same, their usage can exist on different plains. The differences between British and American English are many, but they are both versions of the same language: It is up to the teacher of language to help students make the distinctions.
'Speaking a second language is like having a second soul.'
1.Cato the Elder, Roman orator and politician, 234-149 BCE