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Feature Photo: philliecasablancaPhoto: **Maurice**

Thought traveler was always spelled with one l? Think again.

Most Brit and American teachers are all too aware of the differences between our deceivingly similar languages.

We share a sarcastic disdain for each other’s pronunciation of ‘tomato’ and have long argued about the difference between ‘biscuit’ and ‘cookie’ or ‘chip’ and ‘crisp’. There is always a right or wrong answer- it just depends on who’s being asked.

Pettiness aside, these inconsistencies pose a few questions when faced with a class full of ESL students, particularly when those students are schooled in British grammar and combine this with phrases learnt from American TV shows and movies.

So which ‘English’ should you teach?

Often teachers are hired based on their nationality. I found my niche in Buenos Aires teaching Business English to students dealing regularly with Europeans, whereas international companies with New York headquarters opted for my American friends.

Photo: walkadog

The best advice is to stick to what you know. As a British native, I teach British English but I allow students (especially beginners) to use American conjugations and pronunciation if they find it easier to do so.

Try to resist the urge to make generalizations about whether something is right or wrong.

I once had students bring in American advertisements to prove me wrong on a grammar point I had made and it’s not a good way to gain their trust!

Never underestimate your students’ ability to catch you out – many take great pleasure in doing this. Keep it simple and make it clear that you are teaching only one style of English.

As a starting point, here are six of the most common differences you may encounter whilst teaching:

1. Regular or Irregular?

The most notable difference between American and British grammar is their inability to agree on whether verbs follow regular or irregular conjugations.

The past tense and past participles of the verbs learn, burn, dream, smell, spill, leap, lit, spit and saw amongst others, are all irregular in Britain (learnt, burnt) but regular in America (learned, burned) and many others follow similar patterns.

Confusingly, despite having regular past participles, irregular adjectives may still be used in American English. ‘Burnt toast’ for example.

American English is generally easier to teach owing to its greater concentration of regular verbs, however it could be argued that if you teach the irregular patterns then students will understand both.

2. Realize or Realise?

Any Brit who has inadvertently subjected their writing to an American spell-check will already be familiar with their annoyingly similar yet different spellings.

After hours spent agonizing over whether to use a ‘z’ or an ‘s’ or whether travelling is correctly spelt with one ‘l’ or two, I lost all memory of what I was taught in school.

The main differences are that American English omits extra letters and favours phonetic spellings – ‘traveller’ becomes ‘traveler’, ‘colour’ becomes ‘color’, ‘centre’ becomes ‘center’ and ‘recognise’ becomes ‘recognize’.

I let my students use whichever spelling they are familiar with but I always check for consistency – whichever method they prefer, they have to stick to it!

3. Use of the Present Perfect

The present perfect is one of the most difficult tenses for foreign students to grasp, a problem unaided by its different uses overseas.

Whereas Europeans would say, “I’ve already eaten”, an American may simply use the past tense and say, “I already ate”, a phrase that is deemed grammatically incorrect in England.

When teaching, particularly with beginners, it’s best to give clear examples that clearly follow the grammatical ‘rules’.

For this reason I teach students to use the present perfect with prepositions such as ‘already’, ‘yet’, ‘never’ and ‘ever’ and would disallow the use of the past tense.

4. Use of Modal Verbs

In the UK we tend to use more modals than our American peers. On numerous occasions I’ve overheard American teachers dismissing expressions using ‘shall’, ‘shan’t’ or ‘ought to’ as out-of-date, unaware that they are still used in England.

Students benefit greatly from a few pointers on modern language usage (I would definitely discourage the use of ‘how do you do?’, for example) but make sure you are aware of international variations before you make these statements.

If unsure, simply state: ‘In America, we say it like this…’.

5. Numbers and dates

These basics are the bane of early language learning, as anyone trying to master their telephone number in a new country will agree.

Most significant is the order of dates – 25th January 2009 would be expressed 25/01/09 in the UK but 01/25/09 in America.

Numbers may be pronounced differently too – ‘twelve hundred’ is more common in America than in England, where ‘one thousand two hundred’ is preferred. Similarly the Americans often drop ‘and’ when reading numbers – ‘two thousand and three’ might become ‘two thousand three’.

Students often struggle to distinguish these differences in conversation and benefit from exposure to as many variations as possible.

Photo: ronocdh

6. Vocabulary

English speakers have plenty of disagreements over vocabulary, with each country, and often region, renaming common items.

A British duvet is an American comforter, a lift is an elevator, and the boot of a car is a trunk. The list is endless.
With vocabulary, I try to teach as much as possible without baffling the student. The more words they know the better.

When dealing with a special case then I refine my selections – a student moving to the UK will obviously benefit from English phrases and colloquialisms whereas a salesperson who deals with US representatives would need to familiarize themselves with American speech.

Teaching slang is always a popular lesson choice but be careful of words with double meanings. ‘Fanny’ springs to mind, as do ‘fag’, ‘rubber’ and ‘pants’. You have been warned!

Community Connection

Thinking of teaching overseas? Have a look at the insiders guide to teaching in Asia, the top ten places for teaching English abroad and how to get work teaching English as a second language. Still dubious about the impact of English abroad? Check out this article about whether English should be the world’s international language.

Language Learning


About The Author

Zoe Smith

Zoe has lived in Buenos Aires for 9 months and is now preparing to spend the next year exploring Australia. She is a freelance writer and ESL teacher who dabbles in photography, humanitarian work and foreign languages.

  • AdventureRob

    Good tips, it’s confusing enough as a native let alone as a 2nd language.

    I do wonder why you put ‘Try to resist the urge to make generaliZations about whether something is right or wrong.’ when you are a Brit though ;-) Ironically I pick this up in this sentence critiquing what is right or wrong.

  • Mauro Paim

    I am not sure the author has a degree in language teaching but often what happens in Brazil, for example, is that in their training, teachers are taught about the existence of Global English. In Global English there are no boundaries as those put forward by the writer of this article. What there is, however, is the existence of a World English where ESL students learn that English is now a language known and spoken by the wider business and cultural community and accordingly loses this or that ethnic flavor. Cheers!

    • Sarah Menkedick

      I think the idea of Global English sounds great, but actually, there are differences between British and American English and they’re not simply “ethnic flavor” or “boundaries.” They’re actual linguistic differences which students of English need to deal with. For example, saying “at the weekend” is viewed as grammatically incorrect in American English – if a student who has studied British English says this during a job interview in the U.S, he/she could be viewed as having a poor understanding of English. Therefore, I think it’s pretty important to acknowledge the differences in different types of English.

      • Mauro Paim

        Academics aside, I loved the article. Yes, I acknowledge that there is a monumental difference between the Englishes and I think it is wonderful, by the way. Yes, we should let our students know that those differences are significant in many ways. It is the diversity in the world that makes our lives worth living. Now, I wax philosophical…

  • Megan Hill

    I’m not an ESL teacher, but this was a fascinating read!

  • Benny the Irish polyglot

    Excellent post!! :) Brought me back to all the years of English teaching! Thanks for all the technical reminders.
    I’m Irish and generally ended up teaching British English since most of my work was in Europe. Fortunately, the grammar and spelling are almost the same, but pronunciation was what wound me up. If I didn’t pronounce “up” as “ahp” they didn’t have a clue what I was talking about…
    Despite the big difference in accent, I was almost always hired especially because of this, to give a school a more “international” feel of boasting native teachers from all around the world. It’s important for the students too. Just understanding one English may not be so useful to them; even when not speaking to natives. Non-natives talking amongs eachother in travels etc. in Europe use words like “rubber” for what Americans call an “eraser” etc.
    I’m currently working as a translator, and although I’d usually write something along the lines of British English for my clients (all European based), I’ve found that they prefer that I go for the more neutral option when possible. for example, -ise is wrong in American English, but -ize isn’t wrong in British English; just less common.
    In Irish English we have huge influence from Irish Gaelic and it changes a lot of sentences subtly. Of course, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African and Maltese English also have their own particularities too. :)

  • Hal Amen

    Really entertaining and informative read, Zoe.

    Another major stumbling block would be prepositions, which are already difficult for language learners (especially those coming from non-Romance backgrounds). “Call me *on* 555-5555″ will always sound ridiculous to me :)

  • Kate

    Great post. I teach English here in Buenos Aires, too.

    I would like to point out one thing. Texts are generally written from the British perspective and so US teachers must always say something like, “Well, the Brits know what they’re doing, but in the US, we say x, y or z.”

    Either way, I think it’s important to emphasize the differences without disparaging the other version of the language. Keeping students interested is my #1 priority and we never do that by insulting the language, whatever form it happens to take!

  • Sarah Menkedick

    This is great, Zoe. When I taught in Japan it was me (an American) a Brit, an Australian, and a Canadian at the same university. This made for some very interesting discussions about different lesson plans. Who knew a vacuum cleaner was a “hoover?” And I hadn’t known anything about the American tendency to use the past tense instead of the present perfect until then. I insisted that I never did this until one day I got caught in the act doing the exact same thing you say here – saying “I already ate.”

  • niamh

    Great post!
    I like the idea of Global English but agree with Zoe that you have to be realistic and teach what works for students.
    The vocabulary is a huge thing of course but using inconsistent spelling can cause students to fail academic exams like IELTS. It can difficult if students are using books published in both the UK and US as they seem to contradict each other. And when their teacher sounds nothing like the accent on the CD, hmm it’s not great. At least now most courses use regional accents and not just the Queen’s English!

  • joanna

    When I moved here from England I learned (learnt?) pretty quick to be conscious of what word differences there might be. I sat in a classroom & called out “does anyone have a rubber I can borrow?”. Some mighty shocked looks!

  • Zoe Smith

    Rob, you’re right! The problem is Matador is American so every time I submit an article they change it to American spelling!! I’ll have to dig out that American spell check for next time and save them a job!

  • Carlo

    And in Australia, duvet or comforter is a doona!

    Very interesting post!

  • Natasha

    I’ll never forget the first time I went to the States. Nobody had a clue what I was on about and sometimes I struggled to understand the natives too.

    I was horrified when a girl asked me if I’d seen her fanny pack (bum bag) and was checking my undies when somebody yelled ‘nice pants’ (knickers) at me.

    I got my own back by asking if I could ‘bum a fag off them’.

    I teach British English but I always try to show them the American version if I know it. For some reason, cars seem to be the topic with the most differences.

  • AdventureRob

    I always used ‘Quilt’ for duvet. Duvet is the French word that the English language adopted as far as I can tell ;-)

  • Michelle

    Natasha, you just cracked me up.

    Zoe, great article! I taught English in Brazil and Korea with British/Canadian teachers too. Leads to some interesting conversations. To be honest, even though I’m American, I always wanted to default to the British way when in doubt – it is the original, after all!

  • Marissa

    I remember stumbling upon some language learning programs at a bookstore when I was a lot younger and seeing one for American English and one for British English. I thought “Aren’t they the same language?” I was so wrong but I love learning all the minor differences.
    Also, an Australian friend of mine though an American “crosswalk” was the most hilarious thing ever, hahaha.

  • Nancy

    Fascinating stuff, Zoe. Kept me glued in throughout the article! I’ve always found the language differences intriguing (and have sometimes secretly preferred the British way to my native American tongue.)

  • Bettina

    Great article! Am about to move from Hong Kong to Prague to teach English, and I will certainly be mindful of your advice!

    Thank you =)

  • Alaina

    I just started teaching English in Austria alongside numerous Brits. At the orientation program, the differences in British and American English were a huge topic of discussion and the base for a lot of jokes. Learning British slang was especially hilarious!…Cheers!

  • Alouise

    I’m from Canada and we spell a lot of words the British way, like colour or cheque and it always bugs me when spell check marks the words down as incorrect. I didn’t realize (or realise) that dates were different too. I’ve been told that English is one of the hardest languages to learn, and with the article it’s easy to see why.

    One time at work someone asked my coworker for the time and she said twenty to seven. Then the person asked what time it was in American…which prompted some strange looks from my coworker. Anyways would most Americans just say 6:40? And which method do the British prefer?

    • Lexy

      Yeah, Americans rarely ever give time like “twenty to seven.” When I visited England, I was constantly frustrated in trying to understand the time! People were always saying things like, “twenty past” or “twelve of”. Generally, Americans will say the time in a straightforward manner: “two fifteen, noon, one thirty.”

  • Emily

    I’m from Canada, and we speak very similarly to Americans but spell words like the British do (e.g. colour, neighbour, centre). However, I have British parents, so my speech is a very random assortment of American/Canadian and British.

    1. Verbs: I use the regular way.
    2. “Realize,” not “realise”.
    3. I would say “I’ve already eaten.”
    4. I don’t use “shall” or “shan’t” but I use “ought to” sometimes.
    5. I do dates the American way.
    6. I use some North American and some British vocabulary: for example, I say “duvet” but I also say “elevator”.

    I watched an interesting TV clip on YouTube:
    Hugh Laurie is on Ellen, and they’re quizzing each other on American and British slang. I thought I would do better on the American one, but turns out I didn’t know any. On the other hand, I knew all the British ones.

    Another thing is pronunciation. I have a Canadian accent but pronounce certain words, like tomato or yogurt, the British way.

    Because I am so mixed-up linguistically and because I come from two backgrounds (Canada and Britain), I am always interested in reading these articles about British vs. American English. This one was no exception! Thanks for writing it. :)

    • Stutz

      I think Ellen confused everyone by spelling shorty phonetically, as “shawty”, which is how it’s pronounced in rap songs. The word is shorty, though.

  • Stutz

    Regarding the order of dates, Americans wouldn’t write “25th January 2009″, either. It would be January 25, 2009. Our dates are consistent with how we speak and write them. That’s why the month comes first. The reason we don’t speak them that way is because “25th January” is nonsensical unless you mean “THE 25th OF January”. When we say dates, we literally do say “January twenty-five (or twenty-fifth), two-thousand nine”.

    • Frdf

      So “25th January” is nonsensical but “two thousand nine” isn’t? Sorry, fella, that’s nothing but blinkered parochial twaddle.

  • Ruth Dear

    I don’t see how 20 (minutes) to 5 wouldn’t be straightforward. Perhaps
    it’s not what Americans are used to but it’s hardly a difficult concept to
    grasp and I would write 25th October 2011 but I would SAY the 25th of October 2011. That’s what I’ve always taught my students as well.

    I teach in South Korea now which is saturated with American English. I have no problem teaching it but it is difficult to get around the pronunciation differences. The two biggest for me (a British Southerner) are ‘can’t’ and ‘dance’. I end up with some very strange looks when I try and get the students to repeat after me. It can certainly be frustrating at times!

  • Guest123

    “prepositions such as ‘already’, ‘yet’, ‘never’ and ‘ever’ and would disallow the use of the past tense.”
    Those aren’t prepositions, rather they are adverbs of time. In any case, the article was a nice read.

  • ESLinsider

    I’d say in my experience teaching in Korea, Taiwan and China that American English is preferred by schools. Some schools go as far as requesting the native speaker; be they English, Irish or whatever, to change their accent to an American one. And some schools will prefer to hire a Canadian or an American teacher.

  • Elizabeth Angel Lopez-Hayward

    yep….ı remember askıng myself thıs questıon too. I have sınce fıgured out the answer though.

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