Ken May

Eating limes in Disneyland

An hilarious look at the differences between British and American English.


Nobody noticed, but I’ll confess anyway. I played a tiny trick on readers last month. It was more of an inside joke, really. But, in April’s article (“Klong Takian”) I conducted an experiment in the English language. As a writing challenge to myself, I penned the piece using British English. It wasn’t easy. Microserf® automatically switched my spelling into the American version, reverting me back to my American status against my will. I had to reinsert “Y” into “tyre”, “U” into “colour”, and “S” into “civilisation”. Even then, each British spelling was marked as a mistake with a red squiggly line. My British punctuation, in turn, was covered with hundreds of green squiggles showing writing errors. There were so many red and green ticks between the two that it made me sentimental for Christmas. It must be disheartening for British citizens to learn that, according to Bill Gates, they have been getting it wrong all these years.

I wondered if this was the reason why an English expatriate sold me his computer so cheaply (or maybe it was just the broken C drive). But, then again, the bloke was actually Welch – and I really don’t want to get into how loony their spelling is. With effort I could fool the software into words like “aeroplane” and “centre”. But, a sort of paranoia later crept in. I imagined my computer altering words like “fish, chips, and cider” into “hamburgers, fries, and coke”. While I slept at night I dreamt that my Stone Roses CD was converted into Brittney Spears. Which led to greater problems in the morning. I debated how far I should take my experiment with British-ness. Should I slip on trousers before taking a petro-quaffing jitney full of blokes? Should I take the lift to the loo in my flat or wait in queue beside the postbox? And how exactly do I number the floors anyway? Do I start counting with the ground floor or the first floor? Or is the second floor really the first?

Well, by now, readers may be asking questions of their own; like what does this article have to do with teaching? Therefore, I’ll fast forward to my actual point. Each day our students are bombarded with English from all directions. The modern EFL student interacts with native speakers from across the globe. British teachers provide one version of English, American lecturers contradict this version, Canadians waver mysteriously between the two, and the Australians and Scottish – well – let’s just be nice and say that they are in a league of their own. The average Thai student is told by one source that one style is correct. In the next class they hear the opposite view. Then learners are expected to distinguish between the two. We offer students the burden of Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde, then ask them to sort out this schizophrenic ride.

One question that needs to be asked is: How are students retaining language when the stimulus is full of contradictions. Since life is short, I’ll spare you the worry and tell you myself. What is happening is what I call “linguistic mashing”. Lime juice and cabbage are getting stirred in together with vegemite and generic ketchup. Lately, I have spotted this dish often in student writing. My scurvy-fearing pupils pull information from multiple sources (or copy it from various websites). They will then piece together papers with linguistic acrobatics. Students throw American double quotation marks in with British dates (for example: The randy bobby said, “Queen Elizabeth shall shake her fanny dancing on her 80th birthday – 21 April 2006”.) They mix British/American English together freely (‘The nappy wearing wino, sleeping in the subway, covered himself with canned biscuits”). Although native speakers cling to their style with pride, globally it is evolving into forms of its own. And what ultimately has to be decided is if this is correct.

While reading student papers, I seriously ponder if I should cross out a word like ‘waistcoat’ and pencil in “vest” above. This is especially problematic as I develop stronger relationships with British expatriates and take on components of their language. I catch myself ordering ‘starters’ at restaurants and looking for ‘rubbish bins’ for my empty ‘tins’ of baked beans. Non-American linguistics are slowly being absorbed into my own writing style (Damn, them Pommies). Therefore, I am reluctant to condemn students for the same practice. If a student writes: “The warder’s mouldy cheese was gently placed inside his pajamas”, how then should this spelling be properly edited? What side should I take? Should teachers allow different styles to intermix? Should British and American English remain segregated?

This is no easy question. There are fundamental differences in communication styles. A statement like: ‘A pack of fags were inside Ken Keniff’s suspenders’ has radically different interpretations depending on if the reader is American or English. If I said something like: “Marmite’s knob didn’t work properly without glancing at the magazine” the British might be provoked to chuckles, while Americans would visualize him standing in front of a doorway with a home repair manual in his hand. If I write: Dirty Dog lamented, ‘Shall I show grandma my gums and rubbers?’, then the Yanks would picture him as a demented pervert quietly thinking alone in the privacy of a bar. Meanwhile, Limeys would think he was shouting out loud about school supplies like a raging lunatic. Thai students would bypass these complexities altogether to meditate about food or to consider if any of these statements had anything to do with their final grade. There are no clear definitions for native speakers. There are only arbitrary rules. For Thai students, it is only a question of cut and paste before lunch.

Many professional teachers declare that either style can be correct as long as the student uses one of them consistently. Other teachers claim that American English should be employed for American teachers, while British English shall be embraced for British lecturers. These viewpoints are too simplistic for the global classroom of modern times. Is it really fair to expect EFL students to distinguish multiple styles of English when the majority of native speakers only bother learning one? A few industry professionals (nerdy, sentence-tree tweaking, tossers) are probably ready to brawl with that last statement, but it deserves closer attention, eh?

Contrary to popular belief, few Americans have proper understanding of British English. Differences in spelling, grammar, and word choice are not taught in our public high schools. We learn British English from the Monty Python and Mr. Bean television series – and the latter only mumbles incoherent sounds (sort of like the Scottish). I knew nothing about British spelling or punctuation until I was already teaching at a college in Europe. I seriously doubt that even a fraction of Americans could understand something like British weights and measures. If somebody told me that Louis Minson’s baby weighs six stones, I would think, ‘Is that in pebbles or boulders?”. Confused Americans still believe that the British calendar operates on twelve-day months, because somebody can be born on 30/01/06. The average American would riot if asked to learn British English. They would dump perfectly good tea in the Boston harbour once again. They would enrage with nationalistic pride. I am not exaggerating. When Jimmy Carter tried to install the metric system in the 1970s he was practically impeached. My junior high school teacher threw the metric textbook out the classroom window as a public display of patriotism – and he was the one teaching math.

Likewise, when British citizens attempt to speak like an American it usually sounds like they are auditioning for a Robert DeNiro film – and these are the more curious ones. The more pathetic remind me of an overly-polite Hugh Grant on a bad hair day: “Excuse me, sir, may I be so bold to ask you to properly F____ off?”. I imagine that a few British speakers resent it when Bill Gate’s alters their spelling (consider it a belated tea tax). Some might take offense when classic British sitcoms are remade to sound more American. And I hesitate to mention that certain ‘word’ which crawls up a British spine like a flesh-eating maggot. What the Hell, I might as well come out and say it: “SOCCER! SOCCER! SOCCER!”. Was George Best a good SOCCER player? Is Liverpool a decent SOCCER team? Why don’t British SOCCER players wear cool shoulder pads like they do in real sports like American FOOTBALL!!!!!!!!!!

OK…OK…OK…. I am only taking the piss (and you sepos out there can stop panicking, because I am not talking about urine samples for drug tests). Can we just have a spot of tea and get along? I’d put a kettle on, if the Brits weren’t all drinking coffee and eating curry these days. In a better world English teachers could phone the Grammarians to save us. You know who I am talking about. The golden elite who make up all our grammar laws while in high-rise skyscrapers above. These are the people who declared it improper to start a sentence with conjunction or to end one with a preposition. But, what do they know? They haven’t even invented a common phonic alphabet for us to refer to. The Grammarians are busy right now arguing about hyphens vs. parenthesis – and if it weren’t for them the semi-colon would have gone extinct (the subjunctive phrase might even be next in line). The Grammarian elite are painfully silent in the English/American debate. They are too busy diagramming compound sentences or something. I guess we have to work it out alone.

There is a simple solution: We could place Bangkok Phil and Dave Sperling into a single boxing ring. They could lace up gloves and fight it out. If Phil wins then the world would have to speak British for a period of five years. If Dave knocks Phil out then American English would become the lingua franca. As a special bonus: the winner is entitled to pick the phonic alphabet of his choice. If the two or them get real crazy and start biting off ears or chewing up berets than both would get disqualified. Then the world must start speaking like Kiwis by default. It is crucial that this problem get solved NOW. Phil and Dave must rumble for the sake of the children. The future of English depends on it. Wouldn’t you readers, too, be willing to take a blow for English?
Oh yeah, the children, I sort of forgot about the children. My students mash different English styles together. If truth be told, so do native speakers. But, what are we going to do about it? Probably nothing. The assumption is that British English is correct for the British, that American is appropriate for the Americans, and that Canadians are free agents who can do whatever they want – though Bill Gates still makes them write like an American, too. All of this is a double standard. If these English styles are correct for each culture, then why is the same luxury not offered to Asians? There are common language patterns across this region, which are clearly understood by the people using them. Maybe it is a global right to speak English with limited verb tenses, the lack of articles, and nouns without plurals. Nothing is permanent; even language evolves. Why shouldn’t Asians have a stake in an English of their own? And why should Asian students be doing all the work? Couldn’t wealthy nations pay a greater share of the tab? Native speakers could at least compromise by creating a new type of spelling that makes practical sense. Would native speakers be willing to learn it if somebody did? I, for one, am willing contribute my share. I am getting British English surgically implanted tomorrow. I’ll reserve a place for you next in queue.




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