What to Teach, Part I: American English vs. British English

Posted on May 22, 2011 by

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Ever since I began teaching at public school, I’ve faced the question of what exactly I should be teaching Georgian students. After all, English is a vast and complicated subject imbued with numerous purposes and numerous ideologies depending on who is speaking the language and why.

Without going into too much detail, I’m going to outline the major issues surrounding the question of exactly what we should be teaching Georgian students. In this post I’ll be covering the question of which dialect or dialects of English we should be teaching. I want to make it clear from the outset that I don’t really have an answer for these questions, and I think that every teacher has to find his or her own balance.

First of all, there are several world varieties of English, mostly identified in broad strokes based on the country in which they are spoken. You might hear of American, British, Canadian, Australian, or New Zealand English. You might even hear of Scottish English, Irish English, New York English, etc. In fact there are numerous dialects even within each of these varieties, graded for region, ethnic group, class, and other social factors. There are also dialects of English that form in countries where English is not a native language – for instance, Filipino English, Indian English, and Chinese English.

However, the current world prestige dialects of English – that is, those commonly regarded as standards to which the student of English should aspire – are American and British English, and specifically, those Englishes considered “Standard English” by native speakers from the US and the UK. These dialects are considered “correct” by the majority of English speakers and are often the dialects that ELLs aspire to imitate. As a result, I’ll be devoting the most attention to them in this post.

Most Georgian textbooks are based on British English. As a result, TLGers who are not native speakers of British English are faced with choices regarding whether to try to adapt and teach British English, to teach their own dialect, or to teach both. This can be especially difficult for people with little or no background in British English because they may have trouble deciding whether an unfamiliar construction is incorrect or whether it is correct in British English.

Teaching British English has the benefit of going along with the textbooks and coteachers and what the students already know. However, we were brought as native experts and that expertise is thrown away if we attempt to teach a dialect that we are not conversant in. In addition, Georgians may want to communicate with Americans and if they use words or constructions that most Americans would recognize, that goal will not be met. At my (group 3) orientation we had a guest speaker talking about “flats” for close to five minutes before an American raised his hand and asked “what is a flat?” I myself encountered a new word just the other week – “milliard,” a fairly obscure British synonym for “billion” – that I am certain would confuse most Americans just as much as it confused me.

If you are American, teaching American English is a lot more comfortable. You are a lot more sure of what is acceptable and unacceptable or correct and incorrect. However, you will also find yourself clashing with students, teachers, and textbooks and it may be frustrating when they write off every single correction you make, telling you that they are using British English. It’s hard enough battling grammar books full of blatantly false rules and fossilized mispronunciations without adding the element of doubt that comes from dialect clashes. And of course, if you are not American, then teaching American English has all of the problems of teaching an unfamiliar dialect with none of the benefits. Another disadvantage is that if tests are in British English, you’re almost sabotaging students if you teach them not to use British English constructions.

Finally, there’s the “teach both” option. I have made many charts on the board with two columns, one titled “US” and the other titled “UK.” This has the advantage of making you seem more knowledgeable – which will counteract some of the resistance to corrections you encounter if you are not a native British speaker – and it also gives students the tools to understand texts from both sides of the pond – but it has the disadvantage of containing a lot of redundant information. After all, what you are really doing is teaching two different ways of saying the same thing, which can add to the already somewhat overwhelming variety in English. There is questionable utility in teaching both “Shall I do the washing-up?” and “Should I do the dishes?” to a student who is already having trouble trying to understand modals.

The answers to these questions may in turn depend on other questions, in particular questions about why a particular student is learning English. British English is very useful for going to England or for communicating with other EFL students who have learned – excuse me, have learnt – British English. However, many Georgians have a great desire to go to America and to surf American websites and communicate with Americans in Georgia, and for them American English may be more helpful.

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In future posts I plan to discuss formal vs. informal registers, accuracy vs. fluency, adherence to “standard English” vs. regional innovation, and other topics related to the question of what, exactly, we should be focusing on as English teachers in Georgia.

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. How do you decide whether to teach the British or the American version of a word or phrase? What are the challenges you face in the classroom related to dialect difference between American and British English?

Also, We’re especially interested in hearing from people who speak a dialect other than American or British English, or a regional dialect in the US or UK. What do you teach and what are your challenges?

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Posted in: What to Teach?