What’s the Difference Anyway? And How Much Does it Matter for Learners?
I have encountered many students who have a grasp of basic English but are under the false impression that there is a low level of intelligibility between Americans and Britons. As a result, they don’t wish to interact with English-speakers of particular backgrounds for fear that this would contaminate their skills. For those of you who think this way, have no fear.
The English language shows a high degree of consistency, and learning from either British or American resources (or Canadian, Australian, etc.) will leave you adequately prepared to communicate with English speakers throughout the world. You don’t want to limit your English exposure to a single country. The differences between dialects enrich English rather than divide it, and they’re not a hindrance to your fluency in this most global of languages.
This article explains that:
- English dialects differ insignificantly (mostly through accents).
- Most English speakers have little to no problem understanding those who speak different dialects.
- Even within individual countries, there is often a broad range of dialects.
- Accents are the most superficial aspect of a language and not an obstacle to fluency.
- Written English varies only in spelling.
- Most of what you’ll learn is common to all English-speakers.
The Differences are Insignificant
The degree of difference between dialects of English is often highly exaggerated. The primary distinction is in accents, but for the vast majority of English words, the pronunciation is universal, making it easy to understand a native English speaker from anywhere in the world, no matter his or her accent.
There are, of course, varying words for some of the same objects, but these differences are very easy to learn and not always strict. I once read in a Russian-language English textbook that while Americans say taxi, Britons say cab. This was news to me. It could very well be, for all I know, that taxi is of American origin and cab of British origin, but Americans say both words. The same is true of autumn and fall to refer to the season after summer: Americans use both words, regardless of what you may have read.
There are some strict differences of vocabulary, but they're no cause for stress or confusion. While an American would never say flat to mean apartment, or queue to mean line, the prominence of British English in our popular culture means that Americans are likely to be familiar with these Briticisms, just as most Britons are conversant with Americanisms.
There is a High Degree of Mutual Intelligibility Between Most Dialects
The various dialects of English are overwhelmingly mutually intelligible. While some obscure exceptions do exist (pidgin and creole languages spoken by parts of the population in places like Hawaii and Singapore), English has a high degree of consistency most anywhere you go. In contrast to English, languages such as German and Arabic, while maintaining a universal standard dialect, exhibit a regional variety that can veer into the unintelligible.
It would be an exaggeration to say that no English speakers have any difficulty understanding any other English speakers. However, the language’s relatively recent internationalization, with its roots in the British Empire, ensures that most everywhere you go, English is essentially the same. In many parts of the world, English is the second language of most of the population, and the people you meet there might speak with heavy local accents that are difficult to understand at first. Have no fear: if you speak English confidently and properly, then even if you have an accent yourself, you will be understood. Embrace the challenge of deciphering local accents and savor the enriching encounter with diverse cultures that the English language’s global status permits.
There is No Such Thing as a Single American or British Dialect Anyway
This brings me to my next point. It’s futile to focus on a single country’s dialect, because there tends to be a wide range of dialects within individual Anglophone countries. As we’ve seen, saying you want to focus on learning American English or British English is meaningless in the sense that the differences between the two dialects are superficial. However, it’s also meaningless in the sense that there is no single American or British dialect.
The differences between some of the dialects of a particular Anglophone country can be subtle for the untrained ear, but they can also be very sharp. Anyone with sufficient exposure to English can detect the difference between a Texas accent and a New York accent. Don’t expect everyone you meet in a given American region to speak with the local accent, however. Some people will have a more noticeable accent than others, and others will speak in a way that barely distinguishes them from most Americans. Regional accents are no barrier to intelligibility, and while some are more common than others, there is no hierarchy of dialects.
John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon were successive American presidents from 1961 to 1974, and each of them had a distinct accent (Massachusetts, Texas, and California, respectively). Their accents did not impede their illustrious careers. Proper English is a matter of grammar and vocabulary, having nothing to do with accents…
The Main Difference is in the Accent, and it’s Okay to Speak with a Foreign Accent
This brings me to my next point. People in the Anglosphere are usually accustomed to interacting with immigrants and foreigners. Speaking proper English has absolutely nothing to do with how convincingly you imitate the local accent. Unless, of course, you’re a spy tasked with concealing your foreign origin. The actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, an immigrant from Austria, served as governor of California, America’s most populous state – and yet his foreignness is immediately apparent when he says the word “California.” He doesn’t pronounce the word wrong, but simply says it in a manner that one would expect from a native German-speaker. No one would contest his fluency in the English language, however. His Austrian accent is every bit as legitimate as a London accent, a Minnesota accent, or a New Zealand accent.
Suppose that you taught yourself English using British tapes, watching British films and TV shows, and speaking with British language partners. You’ve saved a lot of money, and have decided to book a trip to the United Kingdom and the United States. Unless you hired a professional accent coach, or have been living in the UK since childhood, chances are you won’t have a British accent. You might speak English very well, fluently even, and might pepper your speech with Briticisms (I haven’t the time instead of I don’t have time). However, the people with whom you converse are unlikely to notice that you’ve learned the language exclusively from British sources. Americans would compliment you on your excellent English, and probably wouldn’t notice or draw attention to your use of British words and phrases, since everyone, especially language learners, speaks with their own idiosyncrasies. You might sound foreign to an American, but you wouldn’t sound British.
If you’re a beginner, you aren’t really learning American English or British English. You’re learning English with the accent of your native country. Accents are the most superficial aspect of foreign languages, and losing them is both unnecessary and notoriously difficult. Apart from the accent, the difference between American English and British English consists of minor semantic distinctions that are so basic, that it’s well worth your time simply learning both forms simultaneously.
The Spelling Differences are Minor
Americans spell some words differently than their fellow Anglophones. For nouns that the British and others end with -our, we simply remove the u (labour becomes labor, for example). Where the British end verbs with -ise, we use -ize (realise and realize). The spelling of certain sets of words is the only distinguishing feature in written English. One is more likely, of course, to encounter Americanisms in an American text, but every writer has his own unique vocabulary, style, and influences. In most texts, the author’s nationality is less likely than other aspects of his background and personality to be present in his prose. Nowhere but in prose is it more apparent how minor the differences between British and American English truly are.
Most of What You Learn is Common to Nearly All Speakers
Fluency is a myth. To borrow a metaphor from mathematics, language learning is asymptotical. You start out learning dozens, then hundreds of words at a supersonic rate, but once you’ve reached a certain level of competency, you progress more slowly, while continuing to progress throughout your life. Fluency is also relative. Put me in a bioengineering lab or an army barracks, and my ability to effectively communicate drastically declines.
If you’re learning a foreign language, you might need to learn professional jargon that relates to your career, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll need high expertise in a regional dialect. There is no substantial variation in the vocabulary of the average American and the average Briton, and most of the English words and phrases that you’ll learn are common to the vast majority of speakers.
Hopefully I’ve convinced you not to worry about focusing on mastering a single English dialect. If you’ve made it through this article, even with abundant help from a bilingual dictionary, then odds are that you’re well-prepared.
- don’t be confused by minor differences of dialect.
- don’t shy away from the fun challenge of encountering new dialects and accents.
- don’t worry about your accent impeding your ability to communicate.
- use proper spelling where appropriate (for instance, if you’re writing for an American audience, write center instead of centre).
Good luck! Go out and make yourself heard by the two billion people who speak the great English language!
Hero Image by Ken Lund (CC BY-SA 2.0)