As an English teacher, it’s my job to point out differences that are relevant between American and British English. Those include some vocabulary differences, spelling, and pronunciation. We do that so students can identify words they otherwise might not have, and most importantly, know that just because they write color, it doesn’t mean that colour is wrong.
With that, though, comes the dreaded question: teacher, should my English be American or British? Yikes.
Here are three myths surrounding that question.
One sounds better than the other
Now, I will admit that most of my students seem to think that British English sounds super fancy. That is mostly because they believe the American accent to be one thing only, instead of the many we find when we start paying attention to how people speak in different regions.
Why is it a myth, then? Because it’s entirely subjective! Just like I might find one person more beautiful than another and you’d stare at me with a frown, like I’m out of my mind, the same can be said about languages. Personally, one accent that I find absolutely delicious is the Brazilian countryside accent. Those strong Rs are to die for. The Spanish spoken in Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay, with yo being pronounced closer to jo then io? *fans self* So pretty! And yet, not everyone seems to agree on that.
Accent appreciation is subjective. Myth!
One is more correct than the other
This gets on my nerves. As a Brazilian with a lot of Portuguese friends, I must say I haven’t encountered this issue enough to be annoyed at them, but between Americans and the British, this happens a lot. I colonized your country, thus my version of the language is more correct! Uh, say what?
Language is a breathing thing, you guys. It’s alive and it changes and trying to force it to stay still is like trying to force a toddler not to make any noise. (You will fail. Possibly with catastrophic consequences.) So it’s normal that countries that have been colonized suffer the linguistic influence of bordering countries, immigration, not to mention slavery, as was the case in Brazil, with our version of Portuguese borrowing many words from northern African countries.
This doesn’t make one version of the language “purer” than the other. It just means that it went through different cultural moments, and that impacted the language. Because the language = the people. (I still want to write a post just about that!)
All versions of a language are correct versions of a language. If people are speaking it, it’s correct. Next!
As an ESL speaker, you must choose
This is perhaps the argument I’ve heard the most from students in one way or another, and it just saddens me. If you’re an ESL speaker (English as second language), your nationality is probably not of an English-as-mother-tongue country.
To any Brazilian students of mine reading this post: sweeties. Babes. My sweetest honey pies. If you’re Brazilian, your English is Brazilian.
Boom! Mind-blowing. I know.
Here’s the thing: if you’re going to take an exam like Cambridge or TOEFL, you’ll be penalized for switching between one spelling and the other, for example. But that is one case (and if I’m honest, when I took my CPE exam, I had no idea that shifting was bad, did it a lot, and still passed). In real life? You shift between saying lorry and truck, pants and trousers, writing favorite and favourite. You do you, baby.
I’ve studied English for most of my life. I say literature like the British, yet most of my vocabulary is American. My spelling is consistently American, yet I wrote penalise in the paragraph above, and for the first few seconds, couldn’t tell why my spell-check was marking it red. And yet, guess what, everyone? The world is still spinning, my CPE certificate is still intact and hasn’t combusted into flames, and my position as an ESL teacher is still very much valid.
So. Yeah. Myth.
What I want you to take from this
Should your English be American or British? Neither.
As ESL speakers — or, hell, as bilingual or polyglot people in general — we can be very hard on ourselves. Trying to achieve fluency or proficiency in a language can quickly turn into a mindless pursuit of achieving perfection in that language.
It’s normal to put up made-up barriers so our learning process is tougher. Sometimes impossibly so. But just because it’s common, it doesn’t mean you should conform to it.
Unless you’ve been immersed in a specific version of the language (say, you went to Oxford to learn English for five years, or New York, or Dublin, or Cape Town), your English is unlikely to be uniformly one thing or another. And if it is? It’s probably going to sound hella artificial.
Embrace your English the way it is. Embrace your version of whatever language the way it is.
And if someone asks you if your English is American or British? Say it’s so much better than either. It’s your English.