Teacher, I Want to Learn British English. That’s Problematic Student.

England and America are two countries separated by a common language according to the famous phrase of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. Warm beer versus cold beer, cricket versus baseball.

Sometimes, it certainly seems that way when teaching at BridgeEnglish Denver. As a native of the old country, I am often asked by students which spelling version of a certain word is correct. Is it color or colour (cue Microsoft red line telling me I spelled the word wrongly)? Should I use the word lift or elevator? Is it soccer or football?

Of course, all of the above are correct. As with many things in life, it’s all about context. If you shouted “hold the elevator” in a London hotel lobby, you may as well write the word American across your forehead. If you are a Eurosnob and insist on using the word football in the US to describe the world’s largest sport, don’t be surprised if you get blank stares from fans of the pigskin. When in Rome.

I’ve had BridgeEnglish students specifically make a request for me to hold private classes with them as they deal with British people in their line of work and want to improve their understanding of what is undoubtedly a different accent from “American English” speakers. They want to learn “British English.”

But that concept is highly problematic. You see, there really is no such thing as “British English.” True, there is a recognizably different accent to an American one as soon as a Brit opens his mouth but those British accents differ so much. For such a small island, there is an incredible variety of accents, not to mention different phrases and words for things depending on where you come from.

One close to home example is in the BridgeEnglish teacher room, which would be called a staff room in England by the way.

I am from close to London, about 20 miles north of the capital city and speak with a fairly generic Southeast England accent. Another teacher, Catherine Davies-Payne, is from Manchester, about 200 miles away in northwest England and speaks with a completely different accent. Just for good measure, she would not be averse to using such Mancunian (adjective pertaining to all things Manchester) phrases as “our kid” (younger brother) and “doing the pots,” (washing the dishes). Phrases that would sound just stupid coming out of my mouth. I lived with two friends from Manchester when I was at college in Wales many moons ago but never quite summoned up the courage to ask them if they were doing the pots that night.

As further evidence of the amazing variety of accents in Great Britain or the UK (more of that later), Liverpool, home of the Beatles and a pretty decent football (soccer) team, is just 30 miles away from Manchester.  A Liverpool Manchester United game is one of the biggest local rivalries in the country and not for the faint-hearted. The Liverpool accent, though, is completely distinct from the Mancunian one. You have a scouse accent if you are from Liverpool and only from Liverpool. You cannot be a scouser – named from a 19th Century meat stew commonly eaten by local sailors and dockworkers – if you are not from Liverpool, or Liverpudlian. Listen to old footage of John Lennon or this interview with Liverpool FC captain Steven Gerrard for great examples of what it sounds like to be a scouser. Gerrard even talks in this video about how he and fellow Scouser in the England national team, Wayne Rooney, are not understood by the players from other parts of the country.

There are also major differences between how people speak in the southwest of England compared to the southeast. How Geordies (natives of Newcastle in northeast England) speak compared with just about anybody else in the country. Check out this video featuring comic Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge not being able to understand “Geordie,” masking his own Mancunian accent by the way for the part of the inept radio host.

And let’s not even get started with the Welsh and the Scots or even the Northern Irish. For good measure, every Welsh kid has to learn the Welsh language at school. Not exactly a widely spoken language – there really are more sheep in Wales than people (3m people versus about 4m sheep) – but essential if you want a government job in Wales. Does Welsh count as British English? I think not. And if you are a true Londoner from the East End, you might just speak a bit of Cockney Rhyming Slang. Nice whistle and flute (suit) you are wearing there son. How’s the trouble and strife (wife)?

The point is, like the English language itself, there is an infinite variety of British accents and phrases and vocabulary used. There is also a big variety in many American accents but, given Britain’s relatively small size (you can, amazingly, fit five Englands into Texas alone, so it’s no wonder all the houses in England are on top of each other), perhaps the variety is more obvious.

So, the next time a student asks for “British English,” I might just have to correct her and tell her there really is no such thing. There is, but it’s just too vague a descriptor.

I’d also like to ask you this question and see if anybody knows it without referring to Wikipedia. People bandy about England, Great Britain, even the United Kingdom without really knowing the difference, as if it’s all the same country. A special prize, yet to be determined, for anybody who can write in with the correct answer as to what the difference is between all those countries? Use the Leave a Comment link to post your answer. If you do get it right, I might pass the answer on to the British Olympic Association who mistakenly insist on calling any athlete picked to represent their country at this summer’s London Olympics as a member of Team GB. The Northern Irish might have something to say about that, undoubtedly with a very thick accent incomprehensible to most BridgeEnglish students learning “American English.”