Britishisms: Are they worth noting in America?

By Peter Martin

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?

4 comments

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  1. Joshua Caliendo says:

    Dec 14, 2011 at 7:42 am

    This is a question faced by many teachers. I agree with Nigel (what an adorably British name) that constantly pointing it out is probably a poor use of time that could be spent focusing on different things. As an American teacher running a language school in Europe where British English is often preferred I tend to use materials like Market Leader that are in British English, but at the same time I try to hire a variety of teachers from different countries to expose students to as complete an experience with the language as possible.

  2. Peter Martin says:

    Dec 13, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Nigel and Stuart:

    Thanks a lot for your replies. I agree with both of you. Nigel, you’re definitely right that clarifications can be overdone, and that student level is very important. And Stuart, I think it is important (almost regardless of student level) to note completely different vocabulary. On that last topic, here are some exercises I like using:

    http://www.sporcle.com/games/g/usuk_words
    http://www.sporcle.com/games/g/ukus_words

    One thing I forgot to mention in the post is that I think teaching consistency is most important. I know some Colombians who studied in the U.K. and so speak and write British more than American English. If they’re consistent about it, I see no need to correct them, since if they communicate that way with Americans, Americans will not notice “mistakes” any more than we do when we talk to British people (or you do when you talk to us). But if someone spells “color” and “humour” in the same document, I point out the inconsistency and tell them to pick one variation to use all the time, since one of the two is wrong and, more than that, they’re not being consistent, which I think is crucial. Do you agree with that?

    Pete

  3. Stuart Cook says:

    Dec 12, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I can see your point: you’re teaching in the US but the majority of TEFL books focus on British English and your students obviously need US English. On the flip side, I’m British (teaching in Europe) and don’t, as a rule, point out American equivalents in class. I wouldn’t, for example, mention that ‘travelling’ is spelled with one ‘l’ in America. That said, if doing a vocab lesson, I’d give my students US alternatives like ‘elevator’, ‘garbage’, etc.

    Nice article.

  4. Nigel Thorpe says:

    Dec 12, 2011 at 6:06 pm

    In my humble British English opinion, I think you were right to point out the differences between the two ‘languages’ whilst teaching Business English using Market Leader, because you are teaching American English and your students would be used to your language and spelling. However, I also think that to continually correct or state the differnces in class takes up precious time and probably is a wasted effort if the students are only going to be using the language with native speakers or speakers who have been taight American English. Also the level of the student is an added factor, I would only use the difference in spelling anfd the use of idioms etc to higher levels.
    I recently gave an intensive English course to 8 upper intermediate native Spanish students, the other teacher was from New Jersey. We did have some interesting debates about the use of the language and the spelling with different students giving different ideas about how they spoke. I should add that the students all had either a native American or British teacher.

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