Updated: Jul 19
English has many regional varieties, but the two most common that new English learners ask about are British and American English. In this article, I want to answer some of the most common questions regarding these two English varieties, and to help students answer the question: Should you study American and British English?
First, let's make two things clear.
1. In terms of grammar, British and American English are 99% the same. Whether you read an article on bbc.com or nbc.com, the structures are identical--this means adjectives come before nouns ("a wet floor"), auxiliary verbs come before main verbs ("She doesn't like cheese"), and many other standard English conventions.
2. When we are talking about the differences between British and American English, we are largely talking about the following aspects of each language:
-vocabulary, including slang and idioms (the storage compartment of a car is called a boot in British English, and a trunk in American English, for example)
-spelling of certain words [for example: centre (British) vs. center (American), neighbour (British) vs. neighbor (American)]
-pronunciation and accent, which are two different things, but for the sake of simplicity, both refer to the way the language sounds when it is spoken
So, if you're an English learner, which one should you study? The answer is quite simple.
Study the one that will be most useful to you.
Are you planning on moving to the United States? You should be studying American English.
Do you work for a company that mostly deals with clients from England? Study British English.
Are you just learning English for pleasure so you can enjoy American films and series? Focus on American English.
This is a practical approach, and I feel most students are already doing this. However, I've met some students who have decided to study one type of English over the other because they "like the sound" of one more than the other. This is fine if you're just learning for pleasure or if your interest in the British accent, for example, matches your life goals. However, you might be working against your own self-interest if you're studying British English but you're planning on moving to Chicago, Illinois in a few years.
At the end of the day, you have to think of your goals and your reality.
In terms of "the other English" you are not focusing on, you can and will study it on an as-needed basis. For instance, you might hear a word like "lorry" (truck) or "loo" (restroom) in a British film and wonder what they mean. You can either learn the meanings of the words through context, or look up their meanings during the film.
Of course, there are some situations where the choice to study British or American English is not entirely up to you. If you're learning English at a school, you probably have no control over the curriculum or the teachers that are assigned to you. In these cases, you have to learn what is being presented, and the information is still useful, as you are still learning English grammar and practicing your fluency. Also, if you have time, you can always put some extra focus on the English variety you really want to study outside of class.
Now, I want to address the elephant in the room. (meaning: a major issue that is obvious to everyone, but that is consciously avoided as a topic of conversation because it's a delicate topic or something people don't want to talk about)
British and American English are so prevalent, that it is impossible for you to only see one and not the other. You have probably already been exposed to both, through film, music, books, and websites. However, if you do have a choice of studying one over the other, you should think practically, and pick the one that will make the most sense for your life, while learning bits and pieces of the other as you hear it come up in your life.
Finally, I'd like to provide you with a brief list of four large English-speaking countries, and which version of English you should study if you plan on immigrating to one of them, or if you'll be dealing with them in your academic or professional life (these are suggestions based on the most common standard vocabulary and pronunciation used by the majority of each population, and doesn't take into account regional varieties within these countries):
The United States - American English
England - British English
Australia - British English (seek out Australian vocabulary resources, though)
Canada - American English (still uses British spelling, but even this isn't consistent)
Are you studying a particular variety of English? Did you make a conscious choice to do so, or are you studying "general English" regardless of where it comes from? Let me know in the comments.
Until next time, I wish you success in your studies.