June 16, 2022
This simple answer to the question of whether I should learn American English or British English is that it depends on what you intend to use the language for. If you are planning to travel to the US, study in the US, or work with US companies, learning to speak American English is likely the better choice for you. If you are planning to study in, work in, or travel in the UK, British English likely makes the most sense.
Of course, there are many other countries where English is either the primary language of communication or one that you can expect a large percentage of the population to be at least marginally familiar with. In this post, I’ll consider some of these options and provide information to help you make the decision on whether to learn British or American English
Second language speakers can often struggle with understanding accents, and the British and American accents vary greatly, so it can be helpful to choose the one most common wherever you plan to travel. In addition to the accent, there are also variations in vocabulary. Here are a few of the more common words that create mix-ups and confusion when used in different places.
The British use the word “pants” to mean what the Americans call “underwear.” For what Americans call “pants,” the British say “trousers.” You’ll want to get that right, wherever you are. If you are doing business, it would be good to know the distinctions between lawyers/attorneys (US) and lawyers, barristers, and solicitors (UK).
If you get injured, you’ll need to visit a drug store in the United States and buy bandaids, while in the United Kingdom you want to buy plasters at the chemists.
Sometimes the word is the same, but the syllables are divided differently. For example, an American English speaker will emphasize the second syllable of the word “harassment” while a British English speaker will emphasize the first syllable, which makes it sound like a different word. Same with “controversy,” where Americans divide the word into “con-tro-ver-see” with the emphasis on the first syllable, while Brits say “cont-rov-er-see” with the emphasis on the second syllable.
Great Britain colonized much of the world, and if you plan to be in any of the Commonwealth countries (except for Canada and the Caribbean nations), British English is likely your best option. Canada and the Caribbean nations, despite their history of British colonization, tend to see a lot more interaction with American English speakers, as they are geographically close. There are 54 countries that are part of the Commonwealth of Nations, and nearly all were either British colonies or dependencies of British colonies.
Several of the largest of these, such as Australia, India, and Kenya, have developed their own varieties of English featuring distinct accents and vocabularies, so you may wish to learn the versions of English specific to those countries, but learning British English, in general, serve you better than American English if those are the only options you are considering.
I spent ages trying to buy “toilet paper” at a shop in India where it wasn’t possible to browse and you had to ask the shopkeeper for everything. Eventually, I found out I needed to be saying “toilet roll” instead.
So think about the purpose of your language study. While British and American English are mostly mutually intelligible, it is important to learn the type of English that best suits your business and travel needs. At Lingua Fonica, we have English tutors who are native speakers based in America, Britain, Kenya, China, India, Mexico, and Senegal. We are happy to find the right fit for you and help you talk through when it comes to the English language.