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Article for parents: British and American English – how different are they?

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We speak the same language, right? by Annette Capel, Cambridge English consultant

Although people still talk about different types of English – American English, Australian English, Indian English – it is interesting to notice how close these are to each other nowadays. Any native speaker reading or listening to another ‘type’ of English will understand almost every word. Of course, there are differences, and this article gives a few examples of the variation that still exists between American and British English. However, largely because of global communication, cinema, television and especially the internet, different types of English have influenced each other a lot recently. This is typically coming in one direction – from the US to Britain – and it has changed our daily language significantly.

Teens and young adults in Britain use American vocabulary that has crossed the Atlantic all the time – things that young speakers like a lot are described as cool or awesome, and, as a way to refuse to do something impossible, we often hear the phrase No way! However, it is not just our youth who use expressions which were originally American – the polite phrases You’re welcome! or Have a nice day!, which are commonly used in Britain in places like hotels, both originated in the US, while British business people may use phrases like taking a rain check, meaning that they cannot accept an invitation at that time.

Nevertheless, some differences do remain. From 2007 to 2012, I was fortunate enough to work on a massive vocabulary research project for Cambridge English, which is called the English Vocabulary Profile. You can view the results for free online at http://www.englishprofile.org. Working with Carol Cassidy, based in New York, we developed two versions of an interactive database, containing the words and phrases that learners of English around the world typically know and use. Our evidence was based partly on a 50-million-word collection of learners’ writing from Cambridge English exams, but we also looked at the vocabulary taught in best-selling British and American English course books.

So, what did we find out? Well, for a start, there are some words that are still exclusively British or American, even though people from both countries understand them. British people have biscuits with their cup of tea or coffee, but Americans have cookies. We have cookies too in Britain, but they are a certain type of biscuit, such as chocolate chip cookies, where the original recipe is American. A British person goes on holiday, whereas an American takes a vacation; you visit a city centre in Britain but go downtown in the US; British people join a queue to wait for something, but Americans wait in line.

A few words have different meanings across the two varieties of English, which could cause some embarrassment: Americans who are wearing pants definitely have their legs covered, but if a British person is dressed only in pants, they are in their underwear! And if you need to fill up your car with fuel, you can ask for gas in the US, but you need to buy petrol in Britain, as ‘gas’ is not a liquid in British English.

Phrasal verbs (verbs with two or more words like take off or live up to) are another area of difference, and there are slightly fewer of them in the American English version of the English Vocabulary Profile. British and American speakers, for example, talk of a relationship reaking up, but Americans wouldn’t use this phrasal verb to mean ‘finish a school term’ as we do in Britain. And British people buy food to take away whereas Americans have a take-out.

Overall, though, our research shows that British and American English are actually very similar. The 10 most common words (the, of, to, and, a, in, that, is, for and I) are the same in both countries, and looking at the 5,000 most common words in the UK, the vast majority of these words are also in the USA’s top 5,000. Most of the differences are easy to explain – for example, it’s not surprising that ‘pounds’ is much more common in British English, while ‘dollars’ is used more in the USA.

How does all of this affect a learner of English who is thinking of taking a Cambridge English exam? As an examiner, I can reassure you that both British and American English are equally acceptable in the Writing and Speaking tests. We recognise (recognize in American English!) that classes are taking place around the world in many varieties of English, from American English to Zimbabwean English, but what is important above all is that an exam candidate can show us their ability to communicate effectively in English. It is a language that is used globally and our examinations reflect that diversity.

Cambridge English newsletter for Parents: a truly valuable resource to help you help your kids learn better!

Cambridge English has started a free newsletter specially designed for parents. This newsletter aims at helping parents make learning English more fun and effective for their children, through the inclusion of articles as well as several practical, handy tips like this one!

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Written by Cambridge English Southern Europe

November 13, 2013 at 10:00 am

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