How to teach British and American English
Summary: The most important differences between UK and US English, and the best ways to present and practise them.
Even with the increasing importance of other kinds of English, most of my students remain fascinated and confused by differences between British and American English. Most of the arts and media (newspapers, movies, TV series, etc) they consume are also in one of those two varieties of English. In addition, Canadian and Australian English include a mix of British and American forms, so work on UK and US English can help if those other variations come up later. I therefore tend to mention UK and US English at every level, and often do a longer segment or even whole class on the topic.
What students need to know about British and American English
Differences between British and American English can be divided into ones related to (in approximate order of importance):
- functional language (apologising, etc)
- numbers, times and dates
- body language and gestures
Most of these have their own articles on this site, so this article briefly summarises the most important differences and then gives teaching tips which work for most or all of those kinds of differences. Unless stated otherwise, differences are given with British first and then American.
Perhaps the most important and amusing differences between British and American English are words which are used in both places but with slightly or completely different meanings, such as “pants” (trousers or underpants), “wash up” (do the dishes or wash your hands) and “biscuit” (cookie or a kind of savoury scone). This also includes some which are rude in one place but used innocently in the other such as “fanny” and “fag”.
There is then a bigger but easier to deal with list of words which students might know from British or (more commonly) American English but which are different in the other variety and so might cause incomprehension such as “coach”/ “highway bus/ Greyhound bus” and “bill”/ “check”. There are lists of these two categories of British and American vocabulary on this site.
The topics where vocabulary differences are most likely to come up include:
- clothes (the different meanings of “jumper”, etc)
- food and drink (the meaning of “chips”, etc)
- transport and travel (“hand luggage”/ “carry-on baggage”, etc)
- places (the names of stores such as “chemist’s”/ “pharmacy/ drugstore”, etc)
- education (the meaning of “public school”, etc)
- describing people (appearance words like “fringe”/ “bangs”, personality words like “mean”, etc)
- crime, law and punishment (nicknames for the police, etc)
- medicine (the different meanings of “surgery”, etc)
There are far fewer differences on the topic of money, finance and business than I expected, but are just about enough to make a class on the topic of Business English students. An even less important but interesting difference is the use of brand names, including a few where Brits and Americans use different ones such as “Elastoplast”/ “Band Aid”.
In addition there are things which are different but could be considered more or less equivalent in the other place, such as “prime minister/ PM”/ “president/ POTUS”, “Number 10 Downing Street”/ “the White House”, “greasy caff”/ “diner” and perhaps “digestive”/ “graham cracker”. In contrast, there are also things that exist in one place which don’t have any near equivalent and might not be understood by speakers of other the form of English such as “Twinkie”.
Functions which vary between British and American English include:
- Requests (“Could I possibly…?”/ “May I…?”, etc)
- Checking/ Clarifying (“Pardon?”/ “Excuse me”, etc)
- Dealing with complaints and apologising
- Small talk topics, questions and replies (“How’s it going?”/ “How are you doing?”, etc)
- Greetings (“Merry Xmas”/ “Happy holidays”, etc)
- Thanking (“Cheers” in British English, etc)
- Giving directions (“Hang a left” in American English, etc)
- Opening and closing letters and emails (“Yours faithfully” in British English, etc)
- Starting and ending phone calls
- Restaurant language
- Congratulating (“Well done”/ “Good job”, etc)
- Responding to someone sneezing
There are obviously big pronunciation differences between British and American English, but these can be difficult to generalise about as many features of American English such as short vowels in “bath” and “grass” and rhotic Rs in “winter” etc are also true of regional British accents. Teachers who find doing accents difficult and/ or embarrassing might also need access to the internet to find models to show the students. Perhaps the most important differences to mention are those which don’t follow the general rules of differences in pronunciation and are specific to that one word, such as the different pronunciations of “tomato”, “leisure” and “herb”.
The most well-known differences on the topic of dates and other numbers include:
- Americans saying and writing the month before the day (“January twenty seventh nineteen seventy”, etc)
- The British adding “and” between hundreds and tens (“a hundred and twenty one”, etc)
- Americans being more fond of “… hundred” to talk about numbers over a thousand (“thirty two hundred”, etc)
- The British using “nought” and “oh” for “zero”
There are also aspects of dates which could be said to be more related to vocabulary and grammar such as “fortnight” in British English, “at the weekend”/ “on the weekend” and “Monday to Friday”/ “Monday through Friday”.
Most gestures are shared by Americans and the British, but there are some important possible misunderstandings such as a V sign with the back of your hand towards the other person being perfectly okay in America but very rude in the UK.
There are famously some grammatical differences such as Americans using Present Perfect in fewer situations and the British love of “have got”. Perhaps the only thing that students need to know about these differences is that they can choose freely between “I already did it” and “I have already done it”, “I like doing it” and “I like to do it”, etc (despite what the exercises in their textbook might suggest).
At the border between grammar and vocabulary, there are also some differences in phrasal verbs and other prepositions like “opposite”/ “across from” and “fill in a form”/ “fill out a form”.
Spelling differences mainly follow patterns like “-our”/ “-or”, “-re”/ “-er” and “-ogue”/ “-og”, but there also individual ones like “grey”/ “gray”, “storey”/ “story” and “tyre”/ “tire”.
Less well known are the punctuation differences, including Americans using points after abbreviations with letters missing in the middle (“Mr.”, etc), commas before every item in a list (“bananas, apples, and pears”), apostrophes in decades (“1980’s”) and capital letters after colons and punctuation inside quotation marks. The British do the opposite of all of those things. These are generally best dealt with in a lesson on punctuation, and students who really need to worry about this such as EAP students will have to refer to specific style guides for even more specific advice. However, I have successfully combined this topic with other points such as vocabulary in the How British is Your English activity explained below.
How not to teach British and American English
Although some higher level exam such as CPE say that students should be “consistent” with their use of English, this mainly means not using both “color” and “colour” in one essay, and possibly also being consistent more generally with endings like “-or”/ “-our” and “-re”/ “-er”. It is hard to believe that they can mean more than that. When Canadians, Australians and the millions of people with “mid-Atlantic” English use forms from both British and American English and borrowing between the two forms is becoming more and more common, it seems silly to ask even high level learners to choose one or the other. I therefore allow students to mix up pairs like “lift” and “elevator” and “flat” and “apartment” in their speaking and writing, and even encourage it as a way of not repeating words and to show off their range of language. The difficulty for the teacher is then to learn as many such forms as they can, so that they don’t “correct” students who say “at the weekend”, “on the weekend”, etc, which is perhaps the worst thing that you can do. A lack of knowledge can also lead to the opposite problem of assuming that all local Janglish/ Konglish/ Franglais/ Spanglish/ Chinglish/…ish forms actually come from British or American English and so missing a useful opportunity for feedback.
Other common mistakes when teaching British and American English include:
- convincing students that the two kinds of English are hugely different (when in fact they are very similar)
- asking students to identify which is which with no evidence to help them (as many teaching materials do), something which is either useless because they could already do it before they entered the class or just pure guesswork, and anyway is the least important skill when it comes to British and American English
- suddenly overwhelming students with a whole load of British and American differences (perhaps after ignoring the topic up to that point)
- randomly choosing what differences to cover
- introducing rare forms to students who are too low level for them and/ or are unlikely to come across them (including things that are non-standard even within the US or UK)
- insisting on one of the two forms in production
How to present British and American English
So as to not overwhelm students when we first do a lesson on British and American English, I like to introduce useful forms from both varieties as we go along in the lessons before that point. For example, when we do clothes, I give the main form that we are going to practise and then synonyms from other varieties of English in brackets afterwards, as in “trainers (sneakers)”. As students mainly need to understand both forms and either is okay in production, it is probably most useful to put the internationally most useful form first and the other form in brackets afterwards, as in “curtains (drapes)” and “elevator (lift)”. However, with higher level classes you could use this as an excuse to introduce the less common form by doing it the other way round, with the form that they are likely to be familiar with in brackets afterwards to help them understand the less familiar form. And if students are particularly hung up on which is which, you could be more consistent, for example always using your own variety of English first and the other variety in brackets afterwards. Although I do this less often, the same can be done for grammatical forms (“Have you done it yet? (“Did you do it yet?)”, etc), spelling (“stigmatize (stigmatise)”), punctuation, etc.
After an exercise using this language such as a roleplay or discussion, I then tend to test students on their memory of the different forms that they just saw on the worksheet, in an approach that I call URA (Use Recall Analyse). I often do this as a synonyms exercise. without specifically mentioning British and American English.
If you do want students to try to guess which is which, or if your textbook includes such an exercise, such activities are easily improved by adding other hints such as accents of the speakers, references to places, names of the people and brands, and references to typical foods. However, I prefer to just get them to spot the differences without talking about which is which. This can be done by giving them a text in one form of English and the same text converted into the other form of English, and asking students to race to spot all the differences.
Most of the activities below can also be used during the presentation stage, especially those just below.
British and American English classroom activities
Split the Brits and Yanks
Make a list of the British and American English that you want to present with no gaps between the words as in “undergroundsubwaycoachhighwaybustramstreetcar”, with all the examples in the same order, e.g. all British then American. Students split the list up to produce pairs of phrases with the same meaning.
If that is too easy, you could also produce a list of the British words and expressions with no gap (“undergroundcoachtram”) and a matching list of the American expressions with no gap in the same order (“subwayhighwaybusstreetcar”) for students to split and match. The same can work for functional language (“couldigotothetoiletmayigotothetoilet”, etc), spelling (“encyclopediaencyclopaedia”, etc), numbers (“noughtpointohfivepercentzeropointzerofivepercent”, etc) and/ or grammar (“ihavegottwoyoungersistersihavetwoyoungersisters”).
You can then test their memories with something more challenging such as matching.
British and American spot the difference activities
As well as looking at two texts at the same time and trying to spot all the differences (as suggested for the presentation stage above), students could look at one text, try to find places where they expect there to be differences in the other version, then look at the second version to check (perhaps with the first text hidden during that stage if you want to stretch their memories more).
There is also a version of the spot the difference activity above that is done as pairwork and therefore brings more speaking into it. Give one student a text or list of sentences in British English and give the other student the same thing converted into American English. To make it easier, you could have exactly one difference per line or per sentence. Without looking at each other’s worksheet, they should find and mark any differences.
How British is Your English?
Students predict how British or American they think their own English is, perhaps as a percentage (e.g. “Sixty percent American), and then take a quiz to see if they were right.
In the first stage, students listen to the teacher and write down what form they would usually use to talk about that thing, e.g. listening to “It’s stuff that you take on the plane with you” and writing down “hand luggage” or “carry-on baggage”. For language other than vocabulary, the teacher can:
- Explain a situation and ask what they would say (for functional language)
- Write up a date or number as figures and ask students to write it down as words
- Say a meaning and ask students to draw a stickman and/ or make a gesture and ask students to write down a meaning (for body language and gestures)
- Read out a word and ask students to spell it on their paper
- Read out or show a gapped sentence for students to complete (for grammar)
- Write out a sentence with no punctuation or dictate a sentence (for punctuation)
- If nothing comes to mind for any of the questions, they should just leave that one blank at this stage.
The second stage is similar, but the teacher also gives British and American options and students check that they have written one of those options down. If not, they should choose one of the two options, just choosing what sounds or looks best if they haven’t used any of those forms before.
Perhaps after comparing with a partner and guessing whose choices are more British, students are then told which variation is which. If you give them similar words to define, words or sentences to dictate, etc, they can then test each other more in the same way.
British or American, or not
Make a worksheet with at least three forms of each word, phrase or sentence, with a mix of British, American and wrong forms. The wrong forms can be typical mistakes such as false friends, but it doesn’t matter if some are just completely made up things if the main aim is just to present the correct British and American English. Students go through the list and try to cross off all the wrong ones. They can then see how much they remember about the two right forms with a different activity.
British and American English list dictation
Students listen to a string or words and expressions and shout out or hold up cards saying “British” and “American” whenever they are sure that they are hearing one of those two forms. They get one point if they are right but lose a point if they are wrong. The game then continues in the same way with other strings of language of one of those two kinds, switching to a new list each time that they make a guess. You should sometimes continue with the same kind and sometimes alternate to keep students on their toes. They can then label short lists on a worksheet with Br or Am, match synonyms, test each other in the same way, etc.
British and American the same or different
Read out and/ or put up a British or American word, phrase or sentence and then another form and ask students to guess if those two things have the same or different meanings. To show their guesses, they could raise “The same” or “Different” cards that you have given them, shout out “The same” or “Different”, or just raise their right or left hands. This game could include grammar, dates, numbers, gestures, different spellings and pronunciations of the same word, different words for the same thing, forms which they aren’t familiar with and might guess the wrong meaning of, and words which have different meanings in British and American (perhaps indicated by pronouncing each word with a British and then American accent).
British and American hangman
Make a sentence that is full of words, numbers (spelt out as words), grammar, place names etc that are specific to the UK or the USA. Write the sentence up just as gaps for each letter, as you would for a single word in the normal hangman game. You can also include gaps for punctuation if you want to practise the extra comma in lists, etc. Students try to guess every letter of the sentence, working out as they go along if the sentence should be American or British and using that to help. The guessing can be done in random order, as in the original hangman spelling and guessing game. However, I usually prefer to play letter by letter from the beginning, with the right letter going up after each (right or wrong) guess.
British and American performances
Students write dialogues which are supposed to be clearly British or American, starting with difficult to guess hints like words which have different meanings in the two kinds of English and ending with more obvious ones like place names and typical foods. They perform them for other students until someone guesses which variety they are using, perhaps with one point for a correct guess but minus one point for a wrong guess.
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