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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 5; Issue 2; March 03

Readers Letters

To Seth Lindstromberg
US versus UK English

Dear Seth,

I read with great interest your column on the differences between UK & US English - an area of mysterious fascination for many people! As you rightly note, there are many, and occasionally considerable differences between the two.

However, I think that in many ways the worry that learners have about the difference between the two is largely unfounded due to the largely minor nature of most of the distinctions between the two as you pointed out: indeed, George Bernard Shaw's assertion that Britain & America are separated by a common language is becoming increasingly false as "Americanisms" leak East, and less often, "Britishisms" leak West, with other Englishes adding to the mix in greater or lesser amounts.

As a result, learners get very worried about such things. As a British teacher largely based in Britain, I often encounter students who believe that one is somehow better than the other, and that they wish to study English in the UK for this reason. It takes some time to persuade them that the difference between the two is largely lexical, that neither version is better, and that they should use the one which they find easier.

(This is especially true of pronunciation. Just occasionally, for students who find my ( standard southern British English) pronunciation difficult to emulate I present them with alternatives. For example, the long /a/ of car and apart is sometime hard to master, so I suggest that my students pronounce the /r/ as in US English, or the short /u/ of cut and up can be difficult, so I explain that in the north of England this sound is largely non-existent, being replaced by the /u/ of book.)

In general, however, I find that the EFL world, from dictionaries to course books to teachers, tends to encourage this worry that students have, which I think is largely unnecessary. Does it really matter that an American might say pants instead of trousers? (or vice versa?) When I was growing up I never wore trainers, but "daps". This term is still current in the south west of Britain, but I would never consider teaching it my students. I'm sure that my Scottish colleagues would be unlikely to worry much about teaching "wee" rather than "little". The only exception to this would be if the learners are studying, or planning to use their English in an area with a powerful dialect.

Let's face it, a Londoner and a New Yorker have more language in common than a Londoner and a Geordie, and yet nobody (in EFL) worries about the difference between London and Newcastle. As a point of fact I no longer teach British and American differences, unless my learners specifically ask for it. It is about as relevant in most cases as teaching text message language, thankfully a less permanent fad!

Thanks for looking this over,

Sam Shepherd
Flat 6, 9 Lascelles Terrace,
Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK BN21 4BJ

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