So does it really matter? Surely in today’s world such differences only cause minor misunderstandings. With the rise of Internet technologies and an ever growing global economy, does anyone actually speak a pure form of their own English anymore? Certainly in the future, compromise may be the key. Who knows, in the future we may well see a world standard of English!
Many English speakers have found Americanisms slowly creeping into their language, (particularly in British English), causing a hotch potch of styles. Certainly, English may be the international language of communication – but which kind?
Indeed, many students don’t realise that they actually regularly mix standards of English. Take a typical essay sentence:
She emerged from the elevator in the computer shop and went to make an inquiry regarding the despatch of her colour monitor. (American, British, American, British, British)
He opened the boot and took out the grey garbage bag, and then parked his car in the lot. (British, British, American, American)
Such a mix of varieties would be enough to make a traditional English teacher’s hair go white, but is it so far from reality?
Which is better?
As a teacher, a favourite question continually asked by my students is “Which is better, American or British English?” My answer is always the same, “It depends!” These days, we can also add the Australian variety, as where I live in Asia, learners are exposed to more Australian English than in other parts of the world and are more likely to study there than in the States or the UK. Although admittedly the difference between Australian and British English is very small and mainly vocabulary based.
Certainly in academic terms we would be expected to choose one type of English over another for consistency, and a school curriculum will favour a particular standard, whatever that may be.
With so many varieties of English, course book writers and publishers are in somewhat of a conundrum as there has to be a particular standard of English which should be followed throughout the book. Consequently, commercially produced course books from leading ELT publishers often feature both British and American varieties in the same series. e.g. Headway and American Headway.
So what factors can influence whether foreign learners are better off learning a particular standard of English? Put simply, excluding any demands that the curriculum might make, it depends on what is more appropriate; taking into account their current and future academic, employment or social needs and their geographical location.
If someone is working for a US owned company or one whose client base is predominantly American then the company will probably require American English in its written communication. Similarly if you are studying to be a tour guide in an area frequented by British tourists, it makes sense to concentrate on that standard. If a learner is going to study in Australia then familiarising themselves with Australian English beforehand is going to benefit them in the long run. Similarly, if someone has a British or American partner, the same principle applies and if a student comes from a European country like Sweden they are more likely to be taught British English, due to its close proximity and economic importance within that region.
Healthy competition amongst language teachers
When I have managed language schools, it was apparent to me that there was often healthy competition between teachers of different nationalities, regarding the quality or importance of their particular standard of English. Some of them were very protective, as each variety has its own special identity. As the renowned linguist David Crystal states, in his Encyclopaedia of the English Language (p310), “Each country where English is a first language is aware of its linguistic identity, and is anxious to preserve it from the influence of others. New Zealanders don’t want to be Australians, Canadians don’t want to be Americans, and Americanism is perceived as a danger signal by usage guardians everywhere”
Language schools abroad may favour one particular standard of English over another (usually based on its geography or appropriacy), and therefore sometimes, understandably, give preference to that particular nationality of teacher.
Personally though, I like to keep an open mind, as there can also be advantages for both students and teachers. Students get to be exposed to more varieties of English, providing them with a more well rounded education and improving their listening comprehension by exposing them to different global accents. Teachers are also made aware of the differences in varieties, increasing their own knowledge base.
Provided teachers teach what is in the course book and do not interfere with the main objectives of the course, does it really hurt to explain to a student the differences between rubbish and garbage for example, or that lay-by in Australia is the equivalent to hire purchase in the UK, when they come across that particular word in the book?
The Standards of English
It is interesting to note how many regional standards of English there actually are, if we take into account English spoken as both a first and second language.
1. British and Irish
4. Australian, New Zealand & South Pacific
6. West, East and South African (Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya,)
7. South Asian (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh)
8. East Asian (Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Hong Kong)
Ref: The Circle of World English, p111, Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal (Cambridge University Press 1995)
In conclusion, it is worth noting that when all’s said and done, EFL teachers and linguists will continue to debate on this emotive subject. However, the (minor?) differences between our varieties of English should be put into perspective; we all speak the same (but different) language after all!