The ‘problem’ with American English

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I’m supposed to be on vacation between Christmas and New Year, but this tweet from Everyday Language caught my eye and… here I am.

In the world of ELT, the differences between British English (BrEng) and American English (AmEng) can be problematic. When it comes to the ‘version’ of English they would most like to learn, the vast majority of countries and regions have their own preferences. In Poland, for example, BrEng rules the roost, while in a lot of South American countries it’s a case of AmEng or GoHome. A predilection for one form of English over another can even affect a teacher’s job opportunities: a substantial number of the students at my language school in Russia would specifically request an English (note: not even British) teacher in order to learn ‘English as spoken by London biznesmeny.’ I hate to disappoint my former students but, as a 22-year-old Arts graduate hailing from rural Shropshire, I hardly spoke the kind of English they were so desperate to learn.

Distinguishing between British English and American English is particularly important in my current job. ELT course books typically choose one English and stick to it – it suits the demands of the market, and it suits the learner (better to avoid inconsistencies between spelling, etc.). For the most part, it’s easy to spot where an author might have slipped up: the odd ‘parking lot’ or ‘humor’ here and there is easily spotted and edited. However, there are plenty of little things that constantly trip me up – the date format being one of them. Not only do I have some close American friends, but also outside the office I’m more likely to listen to Radiolab than Radio 4, or get my news from The New York Times before The Times. As a result, I don’t always get the ‘right’ preposition of time, and I don’t automatically reach for the present perfect.

In other words: I’m a linguistic hybrid.

But these days, who isn’t? The ubiquity of the internet hasn’t just freed our minds – it’s freed our tongues, too. Wherever we are in the world, we can be exposed to any number of World Englishes just by turning on our device. So why do we – as teachers and publishers – often strive so hard to maintain our (inaccurate) binary view of English?

I believe that, as a language-teaching community, we should do more to break down stereotypes of ‘superior’ versions of English, and support English in all its many forms.

So where do we begin?


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