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US American English or British English?

April 05, 2006

"The English are polite by telling lies. The Americans are polite by telling the truth." Malcolm Bradbury.

Hello again.
Somewhere amidst the debate about native-speaker English is the issue of which variety of native-speaker English a school should teach. It’s one of those topics that causes heated argument for all sorts of largely irrelevant reasons. One argument is that US American and British are only two varieties of English: what about Australian, Canadian, South African and so forth? Another argument concerns the relative merits of the varieties: can one be said to be superior to the others? A third argument focuses on the variety that is most widely used worldwide. But, as I said...

... I think these concerns are all irrelevant.

What we have to teach our students is the English they need. For those students wanting to sit TOEFL or GMAT, for example, US American is more appropriate. If the students wish to study at British universities then British English is obviously the choice. But perhaps the real question is, does it make much difference?

On the surface, it looks as if the differences between the two varieties concern a few items of vocabulary, some spelling rules and some minor differences in grammar. And with the kind of influence exerted by US cinema, television, computer operating platforms, US American English often pushes British English aside. Examples? Increasingly the British talk about movies instead of films and apartments instead of flats/i>. But the real differences are culturally driven.

Britain is a relatively high-context culture in comparison with the USA. We use language much more indirectly with understatement and irony being commonplace. US American English is more direct and people seem comfortable about talking things up. I am always suspicious of any kind of hype but the Americans I know seem to find anything else abnormal. The subtler differences cause a lot of misunderstandings between us; as George Bernard Shaw famously remarked, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language”. What I’m getting at is that language itself only scratches the surface of the differences between cultures.

For a school the choice of which variety to teach will partly be determined by the teaching pool available. It is, for example, very easy for European citizens to move around Europe and work in any EU country whereas US Americans will require visas and work permits. Frankly, US American, or British, doesn't seem to me very important. But intelligent use of English, no matter which variety, is what counts. This means using simple words and avoiding jargon, contructing tight sentneces rather than losse and rambling ones and, most of all, being honest in the choice of words. Honest? Yes. Let's not talk about collateral damage when we mean the slaughter of defenceless civilians; oh, I'd better stop, but I think you will get my drift.

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