Should kids learn American English or British English?

Did you know that English is the official language of sixty-seven countries? Each country has its own accent and popular sayings. Even within the U.S., there are so many different accents. Americans in the South have a different accent than Americans living in California. Accents vary from country to country. The more popular accents are British English and American English. What’s the difference and which one is the best one for your child to learn?

At Everest Education, we often hear our parents asking “Should my child learn British English or American English?”.  This question is very common, despite there being many other types of English that exist as well.  There are a few different spelling rules, grammar rules, different accents and vocabularies between American English and British English.  Some words have different meanings depending on whether they are used in the American or British context. For example, the word “pants” in American English refers to an item of clothing used to cover the legs, whereas in British English it refers to underwear.

If your child is learning English from many different speaker, you probably want to know if that type of English is acceptable.  In this article, we will look at some reasons why this question exists, and what the answer could be.

1. Why is American English different from British English?

The British actually introduced the language to the Americas when they reached these lands by sea between the 16th and 17th centuries.  At that time, the spelling had not yet been standardized.  It took the writing of the first dictionaries to set in stone how these words appeared.  In the UK, the dictionary was compiled by London-based scholars.  Meanwhile, in the United States, the lexicographer was a man named Noah Webster.Why is American English different from British English?

Webster wanted American spelling to not only be more straightforward, but different from UK spelling, as a way of America showing its independence from the former British rule.  He dropped the letter “u” from words like “colour” and “honour” – which had developed from the French influence in England – to make them color and honor instead.  He did the same to words ending in -ise to make them -ize, because he thought American English spelling should reflect the way it was said.

In terms of speech, the differences between American and British English actually took place after the first settlers arrived in America.  These groups of people spoke using what was called rhotic speech, where the “r” sounds of words are pronounced.  Meanwhile, the higher classes in the UK wanted to distinguish the way they spoke from the common masses by softening their pronunciation of the “r” sounds.  Since the elite even back then was considered the standard for being fashionable, other people began to copy their speech, until it eventually became the common way of speaking in the south of England.

2. What Are The Differences Between American And British English?

The main difference between British English and American English is in pronunciation.  Some words are also different in each variety of English, and there are also a few differences in the way they use grammar.  Here are five of the most common grammatical differences between British and American English.

1. Present perfect and past simple
In British English, people use the present perfect to speak about a past action that they consider relevant to the present.
The present perfect can be used in the same way in American English, but people often use the past simple when they consider the action finished.  This is especially common with the adverbs already, just and yet.

British English American English
He isn’t hungry. He has already had lunch.
– Have you done your homework yet?
– Yes, I’ve just finished it.
He isn’t hungry. He already had lunch.
– Did you do your homework yet?
– Yes, I just finished it.

2. Got and gotten
In British English, the past participle of the verb get is got.
In American English, people say gotten.
** Note that has got is commonly used in both British and American English to speak about possession or necessity. “have gotten” is not correct here.

British English American English
– You could have got hurt!
– He’s got very thin.
– She has got serious about her career. BUT:
– Have you got any money?
– We’ve got to go now.
– You could have gotten hurt!
– He’s gotten very thin.
– She has gotten serious about her career. BUT:
– Have you got any money? (NOT Have you gotten …)
– We’ve got to go now. (NOT We’ve gotten to …)

3. Verb forms with collective nouns
In British English, a singular or plural verb can be used with a noun that refers to a group of people or things (a collective noun).  We use a plural verb when we think of the group as individuals or a singular verb when we think of the group as a single unit.
In American English, a singular verb is used with collective nouns.
** Note that police are always followed by a plural verb.

British English American English
– My family is/are visiting Pakistan.
– My team is/are winning the match.
– The crew is/are on the way to the airport. BUT:
– The police are investigating the crime.
– My family is visiting Pakistan.
– My team is winning the match.
– The crew is on the way to the airport. BUT:
– The police are investigating the crime.

4. Have and take
In British English, the verbs have and take are commonly used with nouns like bath, shower, wash to speak about washing, and with nouns like a break, holiday, rest to speak about resting.
In American English, only the verb take (and not the verb have) is used this way.

British English American English
– I’m going to have/take a shower.
– Let’s have/take a break.
– I’m going to take a shower.
– Let’s take a break.

5. shall
In British English, people often use Shall I …? to offer to do something and/or Shall we …? to make a suggestion.
Meanwhile, it is very unusual for speakers of American English to use shall.  They normally use an alternative like Should/Can I …? or Do you want/Would you like …? or How about …? instead.

British English American English
– It’s hot in here. Shall I open the window?
– Shall we meet in the café at 5?
– Shall we try that again?
– It’s hot in here. Can I open the window?
– Do you want to meet in the café at 5?
– How about we try that again?

3. Should my child learn American or British English?

English is a difficult language to spell correctly.  There are a large number of exceptions to the rules.  In addition, there are lots of differences between British and American spellings.  For example, colour/color, centre/center, organise/organize, dialogue/dialog.  Your child probably already uses one type of English, depending on what she is learning at school.  And that’s perfectly OK.  There’s no right or wrong type of English.

When it comes to standardized tests such as IELTS, TOEFL, or other Cambridge

Should my child learn American or British English?

 qualification exams, it is perfectly acceptable to use either British or American English, and as all of these tests are considered as global standardized tests, they will accept different varieties of English in their exams.  For example, in Cambridge English tests, British or American spelling can be used.

In Cambridge Assessment English Speaking tests, examiners are trained to give equal marks to candidates using British or American spelling.  Your child will not get a higher band score for using a British accent.  They will simply care about her ability to communicate in a clear and effective way, this involves:

    • saying individual words clearly (pronunciation)

    • stressing the right parts of words and the right words in a sentence (word stress)

    • making sure the voice goes up and down at the right times (intonation).

However, there is one exception when choosing either British or American is more important, and that is when your child is writing – or speaking.  Once she writes or spells a word one way, they must continue to spell the word that way for the rest of the test – don’t suddenly switch to the other way around.  The simplest reason for not using both languages is that both languages are considered separate forms of English.  When we use British spelling, the examiner will make up his mind and consider our work as British language.  Therefore, if we switch later to American English, the examiner will consider it as a spelling mistake and will give us a low score for the Lexical Resource.

Parting words…

There are different types of English, and it’s great to teach your child the differences between them so that she knows how to recognize and not fall into confusion, but that’s no reason for us to get stressed or anxious. American English and British English are mutually intelligible: one can understand the other about 95% of the time.  And even the words that are different will normally be understood thanks to their context.  Accidentally using one instead of the other will not automatically lead to miscommunication.

If you ask us, should your child learn the US or UK English, the only advice that we can give your family is: just let her learn!  Let your young learner enjoy learning the few differences that there are, and build up her own accent.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a bit more American or a bit more British, what is important is what she can learn.

Should you have any concerns or any topics you want us to cover, feel free to leave your comments below.  You can subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest updates delivered straight to your inbox and find more parenting coverage here


British and American English, articles from British Council Foundation

British English and American English


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