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Learning Englsh - British or American Variant

Written by: Sidney Beck

Teaching English for many years to non-native speakers has taught me that it may be interesting even for native speakers  (whether using British or American variant) to understand what makes their two variants of the language so different or so similar. Unless they are specialised professionals like teachers, lecturers, speech therapists, or authors, native speakers on both sides of the Atlantic spend practically no time reflecting on their own language. So this article may give insights into what we say and why we say it. Those insights arise most readily from the views of non-native students of one variant or another of the language. It should be borne in mind that a reference in this article to the US variant always includes its Canadian adjunct; and likewise a reference to the British variant always includes the speech of Ireland.  

From many years of teaching large numbers of Russians and other foreigners, I can set down what they think of the two variants of English. Knowing what they regard as assets or problems of the English language can be the key to getting them to make use of their untapped energy and interest in learning English. Here are their main comments in order of usefulness.

US English (the US variant ) is easier to learn than British English (the British variant), because it is widespread, simplified, and it is spoken slowly. 

It widespread, and is the most common language in use in the United States, despite the rapid growth of interest in Latino and Asian languages. And it is easier to learn for the following principal reasons - 

 (a) The  US variant has simplified spelling of many words, such as “color” and ”theater”, which originally had spellings influenced by the French language; and (b) it also avoids cumbersome phrases like “inasmuch as” (because), “notwithstanding “ (except for), and “I have got” ( I have), among many others. We can surmise that this simplification of the language is rooted in many chapters of linguistic and political history, but largely because of the ethnicity of immigration to the United States.

For a century from 1850 to 1950, the United States received predominantly immigration from non-anglo ethnic groups, especially from Italy, Russia, and German-speaking countries. So much so that in relatively recent times a plebiscite in Pennsylvania decided by only a slight margin to choose English rather than German as the official language of the state. The large Germanic population there today is referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch. With such a large proportion of the population speaking as learners the rate of fluency was almost certain to be relatively low.

While not purporting to be a complete explanation, this extremely condensed history, along with several other factors, helps throw some light on the observable fact that in the United States English is pronounced more slowly than British English, making it easier to learn.

Slower pronunciation is not the only advantage offered by the US variant. The computer and internet are linguistic tools without parallel in the past or in teaching generally. Through their influence, the rules of grammar and spelling which are offered instantly to students around the world are the rules of the US variant. It is calculated that 85% of the speech heard on the internet is in the US variant. As time goes by, the world is learning the US variant faster than the British variant, and of course, students of the language want to be abreast of today’s trends, not simply well-versed in classical thought.

Having examined some of the qualities in the US variant of the language, we may now compare the qualities of the British variant.

The British variant is historically much older than the US variant and it is antiquated, using lots of old fashioned vocabulary like lords /marquee (big tent)/ acres/furlongs/and dialect words like  “a settle” ( a sofa); as well as the almost defunct subjunctive mood in verbs. The British dialects are equally as old as English itself and help identify the heritage of any person speaking.  For this reason, the British variant is known for its trait of strong dialects, unlike the US variant,  in which dialect is usually unimportant. There are many such British dialects, perhaps four or five main ones, and a dozen or so minor ones. All are still regarded as culturally very important and not in any danger of dying out. Some are even protected by the law.

 The dialect of southern England, especially around London,  is associated with social and economic success and status. Its speakers include many of the top people in banking,  business, politics, acting /tv, and of course royalty.  Rightly or wrongly, this southern dialect spoken with certain accents is widely felt to be most desirable. For this reason, it is widely taught in language classes and recorded on self-teaching CDs. In its highest form, this dialect is referred to as  Received  English or sometimes as  BBC English.

The British variant is best for classical literature, much of which is actually written by world-famous southerners like  W Shakespeare,  J Austen, G Eliot,  T Hardy,  and C Dickens, to name only a few. One significant trait in their writings is that they deal with society and the geography of the southern region of England. Because of the high standards of writing by these authors, the language, the dialect, the lives of southerners and southern England have become known and respected across much of the world.

In terms of grammar, the British variant is usually more grammatically correct, especially in conditional sentences. But a close examination of the more recent UK government announcements (assumed to represent the best form of the British variant) shows a gradual abandonment of irregular verb forms so that many “strong” verbs are now treated as “weak” verbs. We may observe that lean/leant has morphed into lean/leaned. Likewise burn/burnt has been replaced by burn/burned. Many other examples are to be found in respected newspapers such as The Times.

In the pronunciation of the British variant, most speakers retain the final sounds of “ing” and  “t” (as in “walking” and “shut (up)”), whereas in the US  variant these final sounds have evolved to “in” and “d”, ( as in “walkin” and “shud (up)”). Since the British variant insists on retaining these final sounds, this gives the variant a clipped sound and it appears to be faster spoken than the US variant.

It is the retention of such traits (which in many widely-used languages have sometimes disappeared) that has consolidated the British variant as the most commonly used language in the European Union. Its main features of grammar and pronunciation and even dialect retention lend a texture of permanence to the British variant, despite some minor changes in recent decades. As the EU grows in importance, its economic power equaling that of the USA so does the importance of the British variant.

These many different aspects of the twin variants of the English language arise from the frequent questions and comments by students learning the language. By paying attention to what they say about one variant or another it is possible to structure lessons so that their concerns become a springboard for addressing their own interests.