For a while, I taught a business English course using the Market Leader book series. The books are produced in part by the Financial Times, and they use British English consistently. In almost every lesson I taught using the series, at least one Britishism would come up. These were usually spellings, like organisation or favourite. Sometimes, however, they were more substantive differences between British and American English, involving idioms or even small grammatical differences.
As an American teaching in Colombia, I’ve always thought I’m helping my students by teaching them American English. First, that’s the English I know inside and out, and it’s what I teach instinctively. Without British-produced materials, that’s what I naturally teach, of course. I’m more correct and more confident when teaching my native variation of the language. Second, I believe that most of my students have had and will have more contact with American English than British English. As South Americans, Colombians generally have more contact with Americans than with Britons, Australians, or people from other English-speaking countries. American culture, such as through movies and TV, is one way a lot of Colombians pick up English, and most of my students who have wanted to learn English for professional reasons will have more business interactions with Americans than with Europeans.
So, when using Market Leader, I’d always point out differences between American and British English. In a reading containing British-spelled words, I’d ask my students to identify those and spell them in American English. If I noticed a British idiom, I’d ask them whether they saw it; if not, I’d point it out, “translate” it into American English, and explain that Americans might understand the phrase, but they’d definitely never use it. In teaching with a British book, I became very familiar with one true grammatical difference between the two strains of the language: Market Leader would always say “Management are building a new strategy,” while I, as an American, would always say, “Management is building a new strategy.” Since I would never treat most collective nouns as plurals, it felt wrong to let that go un-noted, to let my students believe that all English speakers say things like, “Spain have won the World Cup.”
This still happens occasionally, even when I’m not using Market Leader. And I still do it. But each time I interrupt a class to say, “And how is that word spelled in the U.S.?” or “So you know, Americans don’t use that idiom,” I wonder whether I’m helping my students gain greater facility in English. On one hand, I think it is important to explain that there are differences across countries (even between the U.S. and Canada). But on the other hand, I wonder how helpful it is to repeatedly point out what are usually small differences, such as those in spelling, or the fact that when Americans say “get along,” they mean the same thing as Brits when they say “get on.” Lastly, I worry that by regularly explaining that some native English speakers don’t speak the language the way I do, it might seem I’m correcting British English, saying that English in countries other than the U.S. is somehow less right.
I’ll keep judging in each moment whether a Britishism (or Canadianism or Australianism) is worth noting in class, but I’m hoping to develop some general guidelines about how to handle this issue. In general, is it better for students when a teacher teaches faithfully to her native variation of English? Is it better when the teacher tries to teach the variation that the students will likely have the most contact with? Or should a teacher follow another principle, or a cross between these different guidelines?