Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Trans-Atlantic Negotiations in the English Language Classroom

A great number of British people think that the way that the language is spoken on the British Isles is "proper" English and is the source language, the Holy Grail of English. In actual fact that is not true, and the way that the language has evolved in America leaves American English (AE) with correlates to the earlier form of English that existed when the Pilgrims hopped onto the Mayflower, many of which are not heard these days on Albion's crowded shores.

Most Britons will be shocked to find, for example, that fall is what they commonly said in 17th century England, not autumn, and the modern American use of mad for angry has a similar history. More shockingly, that ultimate Americanism "I guess" can be traced back to Middle English! Retentive features are especially true of certain grammatical structures, the most obvious and most often heard example being the older form of the past participle of the verb to get: gotten, a form which has long since disappeared in British English (BE). In BE, the verb is formed as get, got, got as opposed to the AE get, got, gotten. Similarly the BE use of the present perfect tense (I have eaten, I have seen) is very common, and considered "correct," while is frequently replaced by the simple past in AE. This is most frequently found in simple questions about the state of things now: Have you eaten? (BE) Did you eat? (AE) Have you seen the film? (BE) Did you see the movie? (AE). It is interesting to note, then, that AE preserves so many notable traits of 17th-century English — including pronunciation and original use of much vocabulary — not found in British English. Out goes the British claim that their version is "the original."

In the world of teaching English as Foreign Language this can present problems, but it is the grammatical features which cause the greatest grief in exams not, as some might suppose, the spelling differences. There are lots of books and internet pages devoted to the differences between AE and BE vocabulary, and most of them are trite lists, of limited use for actually learning anything. I suspect that the average Brit is more aware of the orthographical differences than the average American, and the loss of the letter u in the words colour and favour amongst others fills us Brits with grief, the replacement of -ise with -ize is painful, and the reversal of the letters in theatre to become theater is comedy, not drama.

However, it is in the world of idioms and phrasal verbs where the greatest potential for misunderstanding lies. Many local idioms, of course, are all but incomprehensible to those living outside of those communities where they are used, but that is more to do with the codes we use to identity ourselves within a community — territorial, work-related, generational — and so the whole point is not to be easily understood by "outsiders" but to maintain exclusivity and to use language to define a sense of separateness. This is less of an issue between AE and BE language cultures than within them where each culture has to negotiate its own path. It is when we get to the level of language for general, shared comprehension that we start to run into problems.

Slang expressions, which pepper every dialogue in everyday life anywhere, developed differently in Britain and the US because of the way that communities and experiences developed, with divergent geography, flora and fauna and work patterns playing a major role. But it is much more likely that British kids will imitate American slang rather than vice versa, for the simple reason that American kids mostly will be unaware of British slang while British kids are exposed to bucketfuls from their American cousins via TV, music and films. This isn't to say that British idiomatic use of language is entirely unknown in the USA. The British music industry has played a fine ambassadorial role in the US ever since the Beatles scuttled over the Atlantic fifty years ago, likewise the current (and annoying trend) of British actors being cast as the baddies in Hollywood and TV movies, as have British-made films — or movies — which had a 14% share of the market in 2010. It would, however, be unusual to hear American kids ape their British counterparts as a result, while the contrary is not uncommon.

In a way this means that the Brits have to learn American as a second language. They usually do this without too much difficulty — though not always. I, for one, once watched a US-made movie set in Louisiana and I needed to read the Portuguese subtitles to understand about 75% of what was being said. This was a very disturbing experience because I knew they were talking English — but not as we know it, Jim.

This is all very well, commenting on how many Brits (especially kids) are able to negotiate trans-Atlantic English, but what about those many millions of students of the English language who are taught British English in school, but exposed to American English outside it?  How do they cope? Many English language course books for the European, African and South Asian markets use BE for preference. Although these students of English are exposed to a significant amount of BE through films (not movies!), music and TV, they probably experience more AE than BE. The chances of the English language they use being a subtle mixture of both forms is very high, and it makes the  choice given by major EFL examining boards like Cambridge University ESOL, where the candidate can choose to answer in BE or AE as long as they are consistent, to be a very difficult choice indeed. The evolution of a particular hybrid form of English is becoming more apparent, especially in Europe.

I would be the last person to admit anything other than the superiority of the British version of the language, but I do wonder if there is a mismatch between the English that is taught actively by teachers and through the course books, and the English that is experienced passively by the students. I'm not sure I want to follow where my own logic is taking me, but a reality check reminds me that languages evolve constantly and I think I sometimes get a glimpse of where English is going next.

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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday November 3rd 2011, 6:51 AM
Comment by: Mark A. L.
I appreciate your even-handed approach to this matter. It gives me a real elevator--I mean, a real lift. :)

You may have heard about an exchange between a rude American traveler and a fastidious English hotel desk clerk.

Traveler: Hey, buddy, where's the elevator?

Clerk: Do you mean the lift, sir?

Traveler: Look, pal, I know what I mean. I mean ELEVATOR. I'm an American. We INVENTED the elevator.

Clerk: Yes sir; but WE invented the language.

Kidding aside, you have an excellent point, Fitch. Increasing globalization is surely creating hybrids of various dialects of English, and spawning new ones. A prescriptivist approach is a simple one, while it is much harder to identify and recognize the diversity of stable dialects of English, but the latter may be a more realistic approach for the long term.

There is also the question of intent. Are we seeking homogeneity so that "standard" English is as portable as possible? Do we find that homogeneity is actually necessary for comprehension? Or are we simply enforcing cultural hegemony? Perhaps it is only reasonable that an English test for speakers of other languages should require the local dialect, and it could be seen as quite progressive that Cambridge offers the American option. I think most of us, wherever we are, would probably fall back on the same "consistency" standard for an academic paper from an international student. Still, it does seem to serve a student poorly who has attained a high level of fluency in "Anglo-American English" (or East-Indian-American, or Anglo-Kenyan, etc.).
Thursday November 3rd 2011, 2:06 PM
Comment by: Dan S. (Edina, MN)
An interesting and enlightening bit of information that made me smile. It was also difficult to read, what with so many instances of AE (10) and BE (13) being tossed about. I would have preferred spelling them all out, tedious as that may have been to write. But you do make excellent points.

We who use American English are as proud of our heritage of language as the British are of theirs. Further, I would venture that any native speaker in nearly any language would have a similar feeling. But I also believe that the truth of daily speech would reveal that few of us - anywhere - actually use the language as properly as our own textbooks command. And in certain regions of the country, it is much more of a private language that is heard. Knowhatimsayin? Ayuh, I do.
Sunday November 6th 2011, 10:54 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I'm a native American English speaker, but I too would have some difficulty with films made in the deep south. It's not just the vocabulary, but also the accent, or the dialect.

But then, I have difficulty with many Brit dialects or accents, too. Maybe it's just me!

One thing about British preferences that amuses me regarding spelling, is that for using French spellings (our, tre, que, etc).

I do prefer the simple Americanized forms! :) (for lack of a good smiley icon)
Monday November 7th 2011, 6:26 PM
Comment by: Jason Hall (Vancovuer Canada)
Interesting article. I teach English (well, technical writing) in British Columbia and sometimes remark to students that I can identify an American tourist in Vancouver, not on their accent, but based simply on their frequent use of the progressive present tense. I have noticed that it's in particular use with black Americans and no doubt has seeped into the everyday language of all Americans. When asked to cite an example, I usually start with the McDonald's slogan "I'm lovin' it", which to my ears sounds distinctly American.

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