An American Teaching British English in Asia Minor

The evolution of a teacher in segueing from an American English to British English in a foreign land.

By Tom Duda


teacher in front of the class

The memory of standing awkwardly in front of one’s first class is something that most teachers would just as soon forget. When I made my debut as an ESL instructor, I recollect that I had a deep desire to make the students feel comfortable. I wanted an introductory subject that would easily segue the awkward silence into an understanding between me and my class. In Turkey, where I was teaching, football (soccer) is extremely popular for both men and women. Therefore, I thought this would be a good warm-up topic. I spent hours researching the country’s popular teams on the night prior to my first class. I think my efforts paid off because I received lots of smiles and laughter from the class when I mentioned the three most popular teams in the Turkish soccer league and asked each student to explain which team they supported and why. However, I wasn’t there to make them smile and laugh, I was being paid to teach English.

While making my pupils comfortable was complete, it was time to move on to a more serious issue: teaching them English while gaining their respect and trust.

Teaching Beginning English is Easy, Right?

In my mind, with a classroom full of beginning English learners, teaching simple grammar was not such a daunting task. Parts of speech, countable and uncountable nouns, state verbs, and basic vocabulary are basically second nature to even the least experienced teacher, or so I thought. I soon learned that teaching something that is second nature takes a whole new skill set.

So, I decided that because vocabulary is the basic building block to learning a language, I would embark on a plan to teach my class English vocabulary. It somehow seemed safer than grammar. Up to this point, I never considered myself an individual with a limited lexicon; until I found myself repeating the names of vegetables with the class. I discovered that the picture quality of the corresponding nouns in the text book left a lot to be desired. We were all having a great time as my pupils were repeating after me, “tomato, celery, carrot.” Then to my embarrassment, as we looked at the remaining picture in the textbook, an elongated vegetable was illustrated with the name aborigine written below it. “It’s a cucumber,” I said with authority. A student subsequently consulted his iPhone’s dictionary feature and determined that an aborigine is actually the British word for an eggplant. I was busted. Smiles morphed into puzzlement, as I watched their confidence in me vanish.

Upgrading Myself

It turns out that the need of adding extra words to my lexicon was not my only problem; I also had a hint of ethnocentrism in my psyche as I thought American English was the international way of speaking. Therefore, feeling chagrined after completing my not-so-successful first vocabulary lesson, I made my way to the wardrobe, donned my favorite jumper, and got in the lift. Once outside the building, I lit up a cigarette and almost got hit by a lorry when reminiscing on the zebra walk. I continued to deliberate as I strolled towards public transport and, even on queue in the underground, I continued to think.

This is just a short list of words that, hopefully, illustrate the difference between American and British English. Although the native language in Turkey is Turkish, it is a language that has adopted many words from Great Britain because of their close proximity to England. In fact, if I had paid better attention to the public signage, I might have been spared some humiliation. For example, when using the restroom one must look for the sign that says WC – Water Closet. The Turkish Alphabet is Latin, but with some minor differences. The letter C is pronounced as J, therefore Krakor replaces cracker, which is actually the British word for cookie. Hence, I became serendipitously familiar with many British words. Nevertheless, as a teacher, further progress with my English vocabulary was required.

The Way One Says It

Pronunciation is the most noticeable difference between British and American English. Although I still, and always will have my American accent, I often encountered situations in which differing examples of pronunciation were required. Teachers overseas have to be a bit of an impressionist and would probably make icons, such as Rich Little, proud.

It is fine to use one’s ear in order to mimic an accent, but knowing some simple rules can make one’s performance stronger. For instance, American English tends to put emphasis on consonant sounds—especially the -R sound in words such as: red, rabbit, and rich. Vowel sounds—especially the A—are emphasized. The most noticeable sound difference in British English is the use of the letter T. An English person pronounces the following words much differently than an American would: bottle, bottom, letter, better, throttle, metal.

Let Me Spell it Out for You

Next, there’s the whole spelling issue with British and American English. One may wish to visit the city centre in London, and may be somewhat nonplussed to notice the reversal of the letters –re at the end of the word. This is because of the reversal of –er as the end of a noun. So be sure to be sure to remain the center of attention when visiting an American city center, like Chicago. Should a British English speaker be writing a letter to a mate on the Internet, he would definitely double the last L when conjugating the verb. One goes travelling in the UK, but traveling in the US. One may manoeuvre across the keyboard in Britain; however, in the United States, he would manoeuver. Now that this is understood, one is ready for perhaps the most daunting facet of the English puzzle; putting the words together in the correct order. Shall I mention the word grammar?

The Nuances of Grammar

I saved the best for the final segment. The differences are few. First, is the present perfect tense. In British English, the perfect participle, have, is always evident in conversation. In America, if one were to say, “I lost my keys," it would sound perfectly normal. Such a phrase in England would be a faux pas. One would be promptly corrected that he surly meant he HAD lost his keys. The second little tip to remember is that the American continuous tense is called the progressive tense in Great Britain. Remember these rules when teaching overseas and Bob’s your uncle (which is a British phrase meaning everything will be alright).

Some Final Thoughts

It does not take a lot of time to learn the differences between the two versions of English. However, I recommend that you take the time to do so if your learners are accustomed to one or the other. Remain cognizant of the fact that you will be teaching to an audience that wants exact answers. This means that you should stick with one form of English throughout a semester, especially with beginners. Confusion will arise should an instructor interject American words when teaching from a British framework.

I did not forget to translate the dilemma in the second section of this article. I simply wanted to add a bonus for those who finished the article. Here is the American English version of the above scenario. On that fateful day I made my way to the closet, put on my favorite sweater, and got in the elevator. Now outside the building, I lit up a cigarette, and almost got hit by a truck when reflecting while walking in the crosswalk. I continued to deliberate as I walked toward public transportation and, even in line in the subway, I continued to think. Ta ta, and enjoy your new language!

Resources on the Differences Between American and British English:

British/American English Spellings

Here is a short lesson and worksheet designed to help your pupils convert British English words to their American spellings.

British English versus American English

A ten-question multiple choice online quiz that matches British English words to their American counterparts.