As a student of English, you will likely have to choose between the two. American English and British English are the most frequently learned kinds of English in the world.
There are a few, important differences in the vocabulary and grammatical structures of the two dialects of English, as well as some spelling differences. However, one of the biggest differences between American English and British English is the accent, or the pronunciation of the words. Let’s take a look at the two main factors you must consider when choosing to study one dialect or another
Choosing between learning American English or British English
1. Which one will be more useful to you?
2. Which one will be easier for you to learn?
If you are currently residing in the United Kingdom or in the United States, the decision should be fairly easy. It will likely be simpler to learn the dialect that you are most frequently exposed to, and the one which others around you will consider more familiar. If you are attending university in Knoxville, Tennessee, and plan to be for some time, study American English. However, if you have a job in London, you will likely be better off focusing on British pronunciation.
It’s not so simple if you’re residing outside of these two countries, or if you travel back and forth between the two. If your job has you regularly flying between Knoxville and London, for example, you may want to consider the following factors:
- Which dialect do the native speakers I regularly communicate with use?
- Which dialect does your instructor use?
- Which dialect are your friends studying?
- What is your field of study or career? Some fields are dominated by one dialect or the other.
- Which dialect seems easier to you?
- Which dialect do you prefer?
If you regularly interact with American clients, for example, studying American English will probably be a great benefit to you. However, it may prove more difficult if your instructor and classmates are all studying British English. You may want to write a list of pros and cons of either dialect to make the decision easier.
What are the differences between the two dialects?
In the context of language learning, American pronunciation means General American (GenAm) pronunciation. This is the pronunciation used by educated Americans, on television and on radio. It is described in dictionaries of American English, such as the Merriam-Webster and Random House dictionaries. This is the English taught in Confidence Learning Services’ English and Accent Reduction courses.
Most Americans and Canadians speak something similar to General American. Whether you’re in New York, Knoxville, Los Angeles, Seattle or Toronto, you will generally hear the same accent. There are some regional differences, but they are usually fairly small.
General American pronunciation is rhotic, which means that the letter r is always pronounced.
American spelling tends toward simpler and slightly more phonetic spellings of words with less letters.
American English Offers:
- More media content (Movies, TV Shows, and video games)
- More web content (YouTube videos, Podcasts, etc.)
- More speakers overall – about 10 times more speakers of American vs. British English.
When people talk about learning British pronunciation, they usually think of Received Pronunciation (RP). RP is the pronunciation of the British upper class; it is sometimes called the Queen’s English. This is the pronunciation that you will learn at a British language school; it is also the model taught in coursebooks and dictionaries from publishers like Oxford and Longman.
In the UK, a small percentage of people speak something similar to RP — upper-class people, academics, actors, TV personalities, politicians and English teachers.
“Normal” Britons usually speak with their local accents, which are often quite different from RP, and can be very hard to understand to untrained ears. Sometimes cities that are only 20 km apart have very different accents. (The British Library has an interactive map of the UK which lets you listen to some examples of British accents from various areas.)
RP is non-rhotic, which means that the letter r is usually “silent”, unless it is followed by a vowel. Here’s how it works:
- In words like car, tower, inform and first, r is silent (r is not followed by a vowel).
- In words like red, foreign, print, r is pronounced (r is followed by a vowel).
- R is also pronounced at the end of a word, if the next word starts with a vowel, for example: number eight, far away.
- Most RP speakers also insert an r in phrases like: the idea(r) of, Africa(r) and Asia, law(r) and order. This r is not in the spelling; they just use it to separate two vowels.
The following pairs sound exactly the same in RP: or/awe, court/caught,sore/saw, farther/father, formerly/formally. In General American, they all sound different.
British English spelling tends toward additional letters or less phonetic spellings than American English.
British English Offers:
- Many well known actors, movies, and media content.
- Great academic content, including high quality dictionaries and English textbooks.
- An image of intelligence and intrigue among Americans. (However, don’t let this fact influence you too much: while it is possible to master a native sounding accent in either dialect, it takes years of practice, and a lot of hard work and dedication beyond just language learning. Your native language accent will probably far outweigh any benefit of learning a British accent to impress Americans.)
American English or British English? Know both.
Ultimately, it’s your choice – there is no right or wrong answer here. However, keep in mind that no matter which dialect you choose to study, you should become familiar with the other dialect as well. Even if you choose to focus solely on British English, you need to understand both British and American English, since both are widely used. Even if you want to speak RP, it is good to know how words are pronounced in General American. It helps you understand American speech.
Secondly, you ought to be aware of the systematic differences between RP and GenAm because you will be learning words from Americans as well as Britons. Consider what happens if you hear a new English word on an American TV show produced in Knoxville. If you have some basic knowledge of American phonetics, and the differences between American English and British English, you will probably have a good idea of whether that pronunciation will be the same or different in RP. Otherwise, you’re left just guessing.
If you pay attention to both British and American pronunciations in your dictionary, you will eventually develop a type of intuition about these things. For most words, you’ll be able to tell how to pronounce them in your accent, even if you have only heard them from speakers of the other accent. However, it’s always a good idea to check pronunciation with audio on a site like Oxford Dictionaries, which allows you to choose either US or British English from a drop down menu on the left of the word you type in.