I’ve seen some interesting conversations about British and American English on social media recently, including on my Facebook page, so I thought I would put all my thoughts together in a post, along with some answers to common questions, which you can find at the end.
Let me start by telling you that I’m British. I’ve spent most of my life in Nottinghamshire but I also spent twenty years in Cambridge and four years in the North East. Even in Britain, there are lots of regional differences so, actually, the term “British English” is misleading because we don’t all speak the same way. There are many different accents and dialects in Britain.
It’s also important to know that there are other varieties of English as well. There’s Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Irish and South African English. English is also an official language in the Caribbean, some African countries, India and many more places. In fact, there isn’t really any such thing as “standard English” at all!
A lot of learners worry about the differences between British and American English. They think, “It’s difficult enough learning English! Now you’re telling me I have to learn two different English languages?!” Let me assure you that the differences are not that huge. British and American people can communicate very easily with each other, with only the occasional moment of confusion and sometimes amusement!
I’ve found many funny stories online about misunderstandings. When Americans say “pants”, British people think they’re talking about underwear! Or people can’t find the right floor in a building because we number them differently! But the rest of the time, we understand each other perfectly well.
In fact, British and American English are so similar that I’ve read half a novel before I realised that the author is American, and that was simply because they wrote “color” instead of “colour”. The differences are perhaps a bit more obvious when you watch a film or TV programme because of the pronunciation and idioms. I watch a lot of US films and TV shows so I’ve learnt quite a lot of American English that way.
I love US sitcoms (comedies) but from time to time, I don’t understand a joke. Occasionally, this is because they use some slang that I don’t know. More often though, it has nothing to do with it being American English. It will be because there’s a reference to an American celebrity I’ve never heard of or a news story that I don’t know about.
When I lived in Poland, I shared a flat for a year with a girl from the USA and we had fun compiling a list of all the differences we could think of. We ended up with a little British-American dictionary! One thing I noticed during that time was that I usually understood her but she didn’t always understand me. I don’t think there were many British shows on US TV in those days but perhaps there are more now.
I remember clearly one occasion when I did misunderstand her. We were talking about going to the cinema to see a film (or “going to the theater to see a movie” in US English). I asked her which day she preferred and she said, “I don’t care!” For a few seconds, I was offended! I thought she wasn’t interested and was trying to end the conversation! Then I realised she meant “I don’t mind! Either day is fine!”
Don’t forget that many people learn English so that they can communicate with other non-native speakers. It’s possible that you might use English every day but never speak to a British or American person. English is so commonly used all over the world that it has become an international language. So instead of worrying about whether to learn British or American English, perhaps you should focus on “international English” so you can communicate with the whole world!
Now here are the questions I see and hear the most often and my answers.
What is the difference between British and American English?
The first thing you might notice is the pronunciation. For example, English speakers don’t pronounce the “r” in words like “car”, “girl” and “computer”. Americans say the “t” in words like “water” almost like a “d”.
The next thing to notice is that there are a few words which are different. Some of the most well-known are flat (UK) and apartment (USA), lift (UK) and elevator (USA), sweets (UK) and candy (USA). There are also a few words that mean different things in different countries. Chips in Britain are hot fried sticks of potato (fries in America). Chips in America are thin slices of fried potato which you eat from a plastic packet (crisps in Britain).
There are also a few spelling differences. For example, British people write colour, centre and grey but Americans write color, center and gray.
Finally, there are just a few small differences in the grammar. The most obvious one is that British people use the present perfect more often (Have you finished yet?) than Americans (Did you finish yet?)
How can I tell the difference?
Look or listen for the things I mentioned above. If you are watching a film, listen for the letter “r”. If you are reading, see if you can find any vocabulary or spelling clues. But don’t worry if you can’t tell the difference. It’s fun and interesting to know these things but they don’t matter much as long as you understand what you hear and read.
Why are they different?
Over 400 years ago, the first British people settled in America. At that time, there was no difference in the way we spoke. But languages change all the time. British English changed in one way while American English changed in another and they gradually became more different over time. Interestingly, because of TV, films, music and the Internet, British English is now being influenced by American English in some ways!
Which one is better?
One version of English isn’t better than the other. In fact, it really annoys me when British people say that their English is the only correct way to speak, despite being British myself! Somebody did this recently on my Facebook page and then used an American hand gesture emoji without even realising it! British English isn’t purer or more standard than American English because both versions are evolving all the time and none of us speak old English any more.
Which is easier to learn, understand or speak?
This completely depends on which one you are more familiar with. If your teacher is from the UK, you’ll probably find British English easier. If you watch a lot of US movies, you might find American English easier.
So which one should I learn?
It depends why you are learning English. If you want to live in the UK, learn British English. If you work with American companies, learn American English. Or maybe just choose the one that you like the most. I recommend that you choose one and focus on that one but don’t ignore the other. You never know who you might meet in the future and you are likely to hear both varieties of English on TV.
Is it OK if I mix British and American English?
Again, it depends on your situation. If you live in the UK or America, you should probably try to stick with one variety. Also, if you are doing a high-level English exam, it’s a good idea to be consistent. I don’t know what the rules are for exams in your country, but in the Cambridge English exams, both are accepted. In general conversation, don’t worry about this question. Most of the time, people will understand you, even if you mix the two.
What about Canadian, Australian and the others you mentioned?
I personally can hardly tell the difference between American and Canadian English, although I expect they can! Canadian English sounds very similar to American English but the spelling is more like British English. Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and the Irish all have different accents and a few of their own words too.
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