General Pronunciation

American or British English: which should I learn and why?

For this first blog entry, I would like to address a question that many students asked me over the years: “Which English should I learn?” Is American English the best choice? Or should I stick with the more traditional British English?

To develop your listening skills, listen as you read:

What is “real” English?

Some students (and natives) often believe that British English is the “real” English and that it’s therefore more correct. First of all, the grammatical structure of the language is the same, be it in the States or in the Queen’s Land. So, if you decide to learn British English, you won’t speak better than the others. And second of all, the whole idea of considering one language, and therefore one culture, over the other isn’t a point of view I share. I mean, sure, the English settlers invaded the wild continent that America used to be (or still is, if you have a look at the news), and then their language started to evolve in a slightly different way.

This is a natural phenomenon rather than something regrettable. It happens with every language that belongs to a previous empire: Portuguese in Portugal is different from Portuguese in Brazil. Spanish in Spain is different from Spanish in Argentina. French in France is different from French in Canada, Belgium, Switzerland. It would be extremely colonialist, in my opinion, to claim that “the original” language is the “real” one. What makes a language real is the fact that it’s spoken and understood by people, all the more if there are millions of them.

Slight differences

The truth is, the differences between these varieties of English aren’t that big. You will find some varieties in spelling and in pronunciation, as for example the Americans call the sister of their father their /ænt/, the British call the same person their /ɑːnt/. When the British write “colour” and pronounce /ˈkʌlə/, the Americans drop the “u” to spell it “color”, but pronounce it /ˈkʌlər/, with a final ‘r’. But to be honest, these differences are easy to pick, and it’s quite safe to say that whichever English you decide to go with, you will be understood worldwide.

Making a choice

But that’s the thing: except if you have the skills of being some sort of chameleon, adapting wherever you go, you will need to make a choice. Consistency is essential and you cannot walk around and pronounce water /ˈwɔːtə/ and then write “theater”. Pick your side! You will either be American-like or British-like.

How to choose?

Well, if you’re learning English to relocate in an English-speaking country, the choice is obvious! You will want to fit in with the other locals and you will be better equipped to achieve that if you adopt their particular pronunciation and spelling. But in any other situation, you should choose the one that you love the best! Listen to some natives from both parts of the Atlantic: which do you prefer? Which do you understand better? Which feels better in your mouth? Which is it easier to identify with?

Here are some examples:

The British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (from the BBC series Sherlock):

The American TV host and icon Ellen Degeneres

It’s not really important at this stage to understand everything, the point is just to listen to the melody of the language and to your soul at the same time: which sounds better to you?

My personal impressions are, at the risk of falling into a stereotype, that the British sound more classy than the Americans, who, on the other hand, sound more relaxed and friendly. When I started learning this language, I was 13 years old and I loved the way the Americans spoke. I dreamed of living in the US. Growing up, I became a huge fan of American series, which naturally led me to copying their vocabulary, spelling, and melody. Yet, over time, I feel that I’m discovering a new love for British English and I like trying it out sometimes to see how it feels.

What about you? Tell me in the comments section!

Pssst: don’t leave without your free copy of “Boost your English in 7 days!” 😉