Think Before You Speak: An American Teaching British English in Russia

It’s a situation I imagine many American TEFL teachers face while teaching English abroad. I encountered this situation as I was going through the job search process. All my potential employers wanted to know if I was comfortable working with and teaching British English because their students were learning or had learned British English. They explained this was because major universities outside the US used British English, therefore making the British variant the more ‘classical’ form.

Since I’ve had some British friends as well as a British employer (an Episcopalian priest) whom I had understood them, and it was easy to comprehend what was being said in Doctor Who, the famous BBC television program, I responded with a resounding ‘sure.’ To me, there weren’t very many differences, and none of them seemed important. As a result, when I arrived at my job, I was surprised by the amount of differences between both versions.

Teach English in Russia TEFLFirst off, I know the British and American dialects are not so different as to render citizens of both nations unable to understand each other. On the contrary, Americans and British understand each other fairly well. American English and British English aren’t like Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese or *insert-name-of-any-other-Chinese-dialect* where the dialects are very different.

The biggest reason though why it’s important for Americans to be familiar with the differences between the two forms of English is because of exams, of which there are two kinds to consider. The first type is a student’s national exams for his or her own country. Many countries, like Russia, use British English as their standard of evaluation. And the second type is exams used for university admittance as non-native speakers who wish to study at an English-speaking university must pass either IELTS or TOEFL.

If you’ve never heard of IELTS and TOEFL, think of them as similar to the SAT and ACT we take at the end of high school. The differences between the test formats are relatively minimal, but universities value them differently. Some schools accept both of them, some only accept IELTS (British English) and some only accept TOEFL (American English).

If your students study British English, be mindful of the differences between British and American when you work with them. When they take IELTS or their national exams (assuming their national exams are in British English), correct words and phrases in American English could be wrong in British English. 

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Consider the past participle of the verb get. American English uses ‘got’ or ‘gotten’ depending on what is implied - ‘current possession’ versus ‘the process of acquiring.’ British English, however, uses ‘got’ for all situations except a couple fixed expressions (‘ill-gotten gains’). If a student writes ‘gotten’ while taking IELTS, it will probably be considered a mistake.

I’ll admit that I picked an easy vocabulary target as get is such a common verb, but the point remains the same. Consistency is essential when teaching a certain dialect. If students are learning British English for IELTS or national exams, then American TEFL teachers should be aware of the biggest differences. But if a student wants to take TOEFL, then American TEFL teachers will need to coach their student on the differences in both versions.

Some rules and spellings are easy, such as words like centre/center, learnt/learned and doughnut/donut. A little more challenging are words that have different meanings.

For example, the words pants and underwear in American English are equivalent to trousers and pants. It could be an incredibly awkward situation as a person speaking American English walking up to a British person and say, “My, you have awesome looking pants!” not knowing that pants in Britain means underwear. The trunk of a car in America is referred to as the boot of the car in England.

At the school where I work, we have made it known to our students and their parents we’re teaching British English. Russia, the country I teach in, also uses British English in its national exams. Right now, we’re helping students prepare for their national exams that they will take in May. I’ve looked at the scoring criteria for the tests, and for some grammar, speaking or writing sections of the test, the difference between a perfect score and a zero is just six mistakes. There’s not a lot of room for error. And because I know there’s such a small margin of error on my students’ national exams, the responsibility is on me as a teacher and native speaker to learn the differences between British English and American English.

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My adjustment to British English hasn’t been difficult. I still speak American outside of work and my style of writing also follows American spellings, grammar and punctuation. However, because I still speak and think like an American outside the classroom, when I’m in the classroom, I need to focus constantly on how I speak and make corrections so that I don’t misinform my students. When I’m not being actively aware of how I’m speaking or writing, it’s extremely easy to slip back into my American ways and write donut and theater instead of doughnut and theatre.

For teachers who have to alternate between the two dialects, I recommend keeping two separate folders for both with small annotations in the corners of papers commenting on differences so that you never forget. Also, in my case, learning the differences in the two languages is fascinating, and it might be so for you as well.

I have to thank the International TEFL Academy and its online TEFL course for helping me understand the level of forethought I need to do when preparing for lessons and considering what my students need to learn.


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