What Is Standard English?

American and British English

So does it really matter? Surely in today’s world such differences only cause minor misunderstandings. With the rise of Internet technologies and an ever growing global economy, does anyone actually speak a pure form of their own English anymore? Certainly in the future, compromise may be the key. Who knows, in the future we may well see a world standard of English!

Many English speakers have found Americanisms slowly creeping into their language, (particularly in British English), causing a hotch potch of styles. Certainly, English may be the international language of communication – but which kind?

Indeed, many students don’t realise that they actually regularly mix standards of English. Take a typical essay sentence:

She emerged from the elevator in the computer shop and went to make an inquiry regarding the despatch of her colour monitor. (American, British, American, British, British)

He opened the boot and took out the grey garbage bag, and then parked his car in the lot. (British, British, American, American)

Such a mix of varieties would be enough to make a traditional English teacher’s hair go white, but is it so far from reality?

Which is better?

As a teacher, a favourite question continually asked by my students is “Which is better, American or British English?” My answer is always the same, “It depends!” These days, we can also add the Australian variety, as where I live in Asia, learners are exposed to more Australian English than in other parts of the world and are more likely to study there than in the States or the UK. Although admittedly the difference between Australian and British English is very small and mainly vocabulary based.

Certainly in academic terms we would be expected to choose one type of English over another for consistency, and a school curriculum will favour a particular standard, whatever that may be.

With so many varieties of English, course book writers and publishers are in somewhat of a conundrum as there has to be a particular standard of English which should be followed throughout the book. Consequently, commercially produced course books from leading ELT publishers often feature both British and American varieties in the same series. e.g. Headway and American Headway.

So what factors can influence whether foreign learners are better off learning a particular standard of English? Put simply, excluding any demands that the curriculum might make, it depends on what is more appropriate; taking into account their current and future academic, employment or social needs and their geographical location.

If someone is working for a US owned company or one whose client base is predominantly American then the company will probably require American English in its written communication. Similarly if you are studying to be a tour guide in an area frequented by British tourists, it makes sense to concentrate on that standard. If a learner is going to study in Australia then familiarising themselves with Australian English beforehand is going to benefit them in the long run. Similarly, if someone has a British or American partner, the same principle applies and if a student comes from a European country like Sweden they are more likely to be taught British English, due to its close proximity and economic importance within that region.

Healthy competition amongst language teachers

When I have managed language schools, it was apparent to me that there was often healthy competition between teachers of different nationalities, regarding the quality or importance of their particular standard of English. Some of them were very protective, as each variety has its own special identity. As the renowned linguist David Crystal states, in his Encyclopaedia of the English Language (p310), “Each country where English is a first language is aware of its linguistic identity, and is anxious to preserve it from the influence of others. New Zealanders don’t want to be Australians, Canadians don’t want to be Americans, and Americanism is perceived as a danger signal by usage guardians everywhere”

Language schools abroad may favour one particular standard of English over another (usually based on its geography or appropriacy), and therefore sometimes, understandably, give preference to that particular nationality of teacher.

Personally though, I like to keep an open mind, as there can also be advantages for both students and teachers. Students get to be exposed to more varieties of English, providing them with a more well rounded education and improving their listening comprehension by exposing them to different global accents. Teachers are also made aware of the differences in varieties, increasing their own knowledge base.

Provided teachers teach what is in the course book and do not interfere with the main objectives of the course, does it really hurt to explain to a student the differences between rubbish and garbage for example, or that lay-by in Australia is the equivalent to hire purchase in the UK, when they come across that particular word in the book?

The Standards of English

It is interesting to note how many regional standards of English there actually are, if we take into account English spoken as both a first and second language.

1. British and Irish
2. American
3. Canadian
4. Australian, New Zealand & South Pacific
5. Caribbean
6. West, East and South African (Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya,)
7. South Asian (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh)
8. East Asian (Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Hong Kong)

Ref: The Circle of World English, p111, Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal (Cambridge University Press 1995)

In conclusion, it is worth noting that when all’s said and done, EFL teachers and linguists will continue to debate on this emotive subject. However, the (minor?) differences between our varieties of English should be put into perspective; we all speak the same (but different) language after all!

Written by Gill Hart
Gill is an experienced English language teacher having been teaching and managing language schools for twenty years. She has also run her own TEFL training courses for new teachers. She is a now a freelance writer and is currently studying journalism. She has taught in Europe, Thailand and The Middle East and currently lives in Asia.

9 comments

  1. David

    I generally point out usage variations, especially for spelling. My shortcut on the whiteboard is to prefix them with US > and UK >. Some of the most useful structured speaking practice books available to us come from the USA. Being Australian, though, most of our material comes from British or Australian sources, ensuring that spelling is consistent with the local scene. However, many English students here are from South Korea, where their previous English training has usually been American-based. We’ve no choice but to address differences, because perceptive students will be experiencing them even as we study. One aside: I know “debate” as a verb can be either transitive or intransitive, but don’t we normally omit the preposition when there’s an invitation to “debate a subject”?

  2. Robert

    I really enjoyed the article. I taught in Japan and the rivalries between teachers who were protecting their version of English was a great source of banter! Being from the UK, a popular one was always “Colour has a U in it!!!

  3. Becky

    I teach at a language school in Germany where there is a fair amount of debate as to which is ‘better’. A colleague of mine even went as far as suggesting to his students that they don’t use British English at all, because American English is more global (he said because of Hollywood, American English is seen and heard more often – a moot point in Germany where everything is dubbed). He also used to correct their (southern) British pronunciation of words like bath and laugh. My opinion – the more exposure to different varieties of English, the better. But it should be focused to the students’ needs. If their more likely to do business with the UK or study there (i.e. most of Europe) then British English should be more stressed.

  4. Phil

    Hiberno-English is my mother tongue. I began to teach British English in 1993. I enjoy the differences between the many forms of the language however, my task as a teacher is to enable my students use the language in their lives. Exposure to the various forms can be useful if the student has a good grasp of one form, an interest in or need for the other forms. The question of accent and pronunciation is also a thorny one and possibly a more difficult one to resolve. Philips history lesson is naïve and insulting. Look at any English dictionary the influence of other cultures on the English language is clear. History culture, language and tradition are fluid if they are static they are dead!

  5. Jennifer

    As English speakers, we all have our preferences as to which English we teach. To us, the differences are profound, but we are still able to navigate them. I think exposing students to a variety of English serves them best. Think about learning a new language yourself; the differences that a native speaker can easily distinguish are gibberish to you! I recently lived in Japan and learned standard Japanese from a textbook and a highly educated woman. In class I could speak and understand, but in the outside world, the language was impossible for me. After bumbling through for 5 1/2 months thinking I would never be able to understand and communicate in Japanese, I took a trip to a large city. I was SHOCKED that I could understand and use my language training. I thought that maybe everything had crystalized for me. Four days later I returned home and realized that I was just as lost as before. I always thought it was me who was the problem, but really, it was the fact that the area I was living in had a very different accent and dialect than standard Japanese. I was training my ear to recognize standard Japanese but that’s not what I was hearing!

    Long story short, we should recognize that we are there to help people communicate and not teaching EFL in order to propagate our own regional form of English.

    PS. One of the language classes I took over couldn’t understand me because I had a “strange” accent. (I have a standard Canadian accent–not the fake “Americans making fun of Canadians”) Their previous teacher was from Mississippi and pronounced my name as “Gin”ifer. To most English speakers he was the one with the strange accent!

  6. Anonymous

    In my opinion, I feel that is important to learn the “standard” of English that pertains to your region and teach others the same way you have been brought up to speak the language. The main goal is to transmit knowledge to others, whether that’s in American English or Canadian English; the fruit of the matter is that it’s English!

  7. Bob

    I’m in an MA TESOL program in San Francisco CA. I am doing a case study of an ESL learner whose L1 is Cantonese. What I don’t see in this excellent discussion of various “forms” of English (e.g., Australian, American, British, etc.) is the effect a particular instructor’s own accent may have on learning English. My case study subject was taught English 1st in Hong Kong by a Cantonese instructor with a heavy Cantonese accent. She was taught British English and with a British accent, but by a Hong Kong native whose L2 is Cantonese. Then she was taught ESL in succession by a Cantonese who learned English in Toronto, then a Cantonese who learned English in Australia, and lastly a native American instructor. She speaks of difficulties in understanding American-accented English after education in a British-accented English and the other varieties of accents of her instructors. I can’t find much in the ESL literature about this subject.

  8. Dilini weerarathne

    As a teacher of english is it complicated to communicate in modern english?(Mixture of british and american english)

    • Dilini weerarathne

      Would you mind giving your ideas to my quiz?

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