When someone tells you they are learning English, you don’t usually question them and ask What English? But the truth is, there is more than one English. While by and large the different Englishes are the same, there are still numerous differences between them, in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and even grammar. Do you know what they are? If you can speak English this is generally not a problem for you because it is likely you will understand the different varieties of English but it becomes interesting when we consider learners of English. What English should they be learning and, consequently you will ask, which English should I teach in the EFL classroom?
The different Englishes
British English and American English are the most widely spoken Englishes around the world. British English is spoken in the United Kingdom and the British Isles, while American English is spoken throughout the United States of America, as well as in parts of Latin and South America.
The main differences between British and American English is pronunciation and vocabulary. With accents, you just need to consider the accents in Friends versus Fawlty Towers to hear the differences. However, even within the two regions, accents can vary dramatically, so much so that a Londoner might have difficulty understanding a Scotsman, and a Texan and a New Yorker can sound totally different.
In terms of vocabulary, there are certain words which are used differently in the two dialects, such as biscuits in England which are known as cookies in America. There are also spelling differences, with British English making use of a –u in many words which American English doesn’t – for example, colour versus color, or humour versus humor. Also, American English uses the –ize ending, while British English prefers –ise – for example, specialize versus specialise, and recognize versus recognise.
Other notable Englishes which you have probably been exposed to, if you’re aware of it or not, are South African English, Australian English, New Zealand English, Canadian English, Indian English, Philippine English, Ugandan English, and Singapore English (or Singlish). These Englishes are largely influenced by the other native languages spoken in their respective countries.
In South Africa, for example, people will enjoy a braai at the weekend, while an English person has a barbecue. An American might refer to someone as cray-cray while a Singaporean would say they are siao. And while you might postpone a meeting, in India it’s even possible to prepone a meeting – and schedule it for an earlier time!
As you can see, these Englishes not only have different accents but they even have different vocabulary (and grammar) as a result of the other languages they have historically been in contact with.
Which leads us to this question:
What English should you be teaching in the classroom?
This depends on a number of factors:
- What English do you (the teacher) speak?
- Where are you teaching?
If we consider the teacher first, then we need to think about what their dialect of English is. Teachers should stick to the English they are proficient in. There is nothing more cringe than a teacher trying to fake an accent. Basically, this means that you must speak in your natural accent. As long as you speak clearly and comprehensibly, it doesn’t matter what accent you speak or indeed, which vocabulary you use.
However, it is important that your students understand that there are different Englishes and that they are, well, different. Which brings us to the next point.
The English you teach in your EFL classroom largely depends on where you are teaching. Many Asian countries teach American English, while European countries teach British English. And of course, you will teach British English in the UK and American English in the US, no matter what nationality your students are. This will affect you because the resources you are given will be in those Englishes. For example, you might use the Cutting Edge coursebook, but there are both UK and US English versions.
At the same time, the particular reason your students might be learning English might mean they need a particular English. For example, if you are teaching English in South Korea, but your student wants to study at a British university, you need to familiarise them with British English as this is the English they will need to be able to understand.
Read more: The Lowdown on Teaching in South Korea
Again, this doesn’t mean you need to speak that English. What you need to do is to make sure you and your students are aware of the differences between the way you speak and the English they are being exposed to in their coursebooks, and possibly their environments outside the classroom.
When it comes to pronunciation and vocabulary, highlighting the differences and explaining that they are both correct is the way to tackle any differences you might have. Of course, if using your English will be confusing for your students, then you should adopt the English that you are teaching, but this shouldn’t happen too often.
For example, a South African teaching in London will need to be mindful not to use the word robot when referring to a traffic light, as this could well cause your students to expect to see Robocop at the end of the street, but simply explaining that you generally greet someone by saying howzit? Instead of hello should be enough for your students to understand your greeting every lesson.
How to deal with different Englishes in the EFL classroom
As the teacher, it is your duty to take all of these factors into consideration when it comes to which variety of English your students are going to learn. Here are a few ways you can make sure your students are as prepared as possible to understand the English they are going to be exposed to.
Incorporate different accents into your lessons through listening texts. Make sure your audio files include speakers which have different English accents so your students can get comfortable understanding the different English accents.
Make your students aware of the differences between Englishes. This is especially important if there is a difference between the English you speak and the English you are teaching. Remember, no variety of English is wrong; they are just different. Above all, remember that the goal of your students learning English is for them to understand the English they hear and for them to be understood. This does not mean they need to speak the Queen’s English and, in actual fact, an English learner is more likely to speak English to another English learner than a native speaker! Bear this in mind when teaching in the EFL classroom and debating with your students about whether aluminum or aluminium is the correct word!
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