Sam Thompson

English versus English

Why get into arguments over which form of English is best?

In Thailand and many other countries, there is not a set standard as to which "style" of English is used.

This is not necessarily a bad thing; I see value in students having exposure to all variants of English, because in reality they may encounter speakers of many different English flavors (or flavours).


The problem my students face, though, is getting confused when encountering, for example, British English in one course with one teacher, and the next semester encountering American English with another teacher; it is hard enough to understand one way of speaking and writing, much less understanding that there are differences in what is considered correct, especially when the Thai language is essentially uniform (save a few local dialects) throughout all Thai speakers.

My approach has always been, whenever possible, to point-out potential variants of any English topic I'm teaching, making sure to stress that all of these variants are correct. I do this because my students typically come from mixed backgrounds and levels, and seldom have been taught the same grammatical structure of this or pronunciation of that.

In my eyes, as long as the students can communicate in this second language, I should not nit-pick accent or other details except at very advanced levels. Of course, this is unless I am teaching a course specifically for a British or American-based test (hello IELTS and TOEFL), in which case the students are essentially paying to learn a certain style, presumably to study or live in a country reflecting that style.

Pointless argument

The problem then becomes other teachers I've encountered; often, I've heard teachers admonish students for spelling something "colour" instead of "color," or pronouncing "skedule" instead of "shedule." To me, this not only damages the purpose of [specifically] ESL learning, but also creates a situation of placing one variant of English as more superior than another. It becomes iPhone versus Android; PC versus Mac.

In my eyes, this competition is pointless and counterproductive; English, especially as a second language, should be a medium with which to communicate, not a medium with which to judge what is correct and what is not. I always tell students to simply pick a style they feel comfortable using and stick with it, so I always find it hard to accept colleagues who insist on using American or British English in a classroom outside these countries without at least explaining why this is being done.

That said, schools in Thailand are just as guilty of using accents and styles to discriminate against teachers. I can't tell you how many times I've heard "The students can't understand his accent" from a Thai teacher about a foreign teacher, no matter where he or she is from.

Toning accents down

I'll grant that some English accents are especially "thick" and difficult to understand, and that teachers should strive to speak clearly no matter what the accent; I had to tone-down my southern US accent as soon as I moved here to be understood (and so as not to be compared to George Bush...), as many other teachers from other parts of the world also do.

That said, picking a teacher solely based on his/her accent and/or nationality ends up being counterproductive to the students.

If students only have exposure to Australian accents, for example, and then meet someone from South Africa, how are they supposed to cope? What about needing to speak to any other non-native English person in English? Especially for Thai students who are not typically taught to think in context, I can guarantee that a student who learned only with American or British speakers, native or not, is going to have a very hard time understanding someone who speaks with... well, any other accent.

The bottom line, I tell my students, is to speak to be understood. English isn't just spoken by native English speakers, after all, and no one accent or style is "correct." Why compete?

I hope you enjoyed my blog. If you would like to get in touch or perhaps e-mail me with a question, I would love to hear from you - All the best, Sam Thompson.


Had to laugh. One of the commentators made a point that there are no Maria Sanchez ( s) or Pedros in Asia

I have met them. There are lots of them located in a place east of Indonesia.

By Ronnie, Pattaya (17th September 2022)

If you ask a Thai person how to say something in Thai, they will teach it to you in Thai. If you ask them specifically how to say it in a different dialect of Thai, then they will do it. I think maybe sometime in Thailand English Teacher have problem you know. Student want to know word "rubbish bin", then good idea you teach them "rubbish bin", English you know. That why Thai people speak " rubbish bin". Later maybeThai student want to learn American, OK, same like foreigner, first learn Thai, then maybe he want learn Isan.

By Ronnie Pilkington, Pattaya (8th September 2017)

Having spent a considerable time in various places in Thailand over the past decade, I am always dismayed at the overwhelming opinion of foreign people that the standard of spoken English amoungst the Thais is poor. I believe that it is quite good, especially when compared to Indonesia or Vietnam for example. What I believe the discussion above fails to recognise is that there exists in practical terms, a version of English which is Thai English. That is what Thai people speak. In Thai English, you dispose of items into a " Rubbish Bin", you move between floors of a building using a " lift", you change Telivision channels using the " remote", you " come holiday today uh?", or " you not want uh?", " he not like". " You make Color law?" , " Harbor", " You OK Mai?". No doubt I may get replies saying that many of these are simply examples of poor English, grammar or spelling etc. Well, English comes from England, just like German comes from Germany. I think it a little arrogant to consider one countries commonly practised version of the language that deviates from " English English" to be correct whilst that of another country is considered incorrect. That said, if I was teaching someone English, then I believe it to be correct to teach them the version considered standard from the host country. I would not teach them " Scotts English", even though I am Scottish and " Scotts" is now recognised by linguistics as being a valid English language related tongue, and no longer considered to be incorrect bad English. If someone is to be taught English, please, for goodness sake, teach them English ( English ), just as you would German ( German ). However, if someone already speaks Thai English to a very high standard, instructing them that they should change it to the American version to be correct is just bad. In Thailand, the two most dominant spoken mother toungues are the official Thai language and Isan. Very educated Thai people are taught to consider Isan to be a dialect of Thai and sometimes may consider it almost as slang. Some linguists ( non Thai ) consider it to be a distinct language ( albeit with historical roots in Loas ). If you ask people in Thailand how to say something in Thai, they will tell you the Thai version, not the Isan variant. If someone in Thailand asks me how to say something in English, I tell them in English, not Scotts. Please have the respect to teach English English, as someone would German German and not disrespect Thai English over thevAmerican version.

By Ronnie Pilkington, Pattaya, Thailand (8th September 2017)

The British vs. American English argument is so 1990s.

The vast majority of the time an adult Thai today speaks English, they aren't talking to an American or UK national. They're speaking to a Korean or Japanese or a Chinese national.

Consider Spanish and English. Both have a similar number of native speakers. But English has an additional 2 billion people that speak it as a second language - in addition to its 400 million or so native speakers.

It’s the only language where the number of non-native speakers dwarf the number of native speakers. And it’s why English is far more important than Mandarin even though that Chinese language has a least twice the number of native speakers.

Ready or not, English is the language of global business.

Consider the example of Rakuten – Japan’s largest online retailer. In 2010, CEO Hiroshi Mikitani, mandated that English would be the company’s official language – a change that effected some 7,100 Japanese employees.

His goal was to make Rakuten a top internet services company. And that meant that expansion had to come from outside Japan.

Overnight, the Japanese language cafeteria menus were replaced, as were elevator directories and all other “official” company communications. He stated the employees would have to demonstrate competence in an English scoring system within two years – or risk demotion or even dismissal.

So what happened? Today the “English mandate” has allowed Rakuten to create a much more powerful organization. Three out of the six senior executives in the engineering organization in Tokyo aren’t Japanese as the company aggressively seeks the best talent from around the globe.

Half of Rakuten’s Japanese employees can now adequately engage in English communications and 25% of them communicate in English to foreign partners and subsidiaries on a regular basis. They’re no longer shy to use English.

That’s why Thailand’s blue chip companies, who are increasingly looking to compete in today’s global markets, need to speak the language of business.

The world is increasingly (and rapidly) learning English as it second language. That’s why you’re teaching English today.

By Kevin, Bangkok (3rd July 2015)

Well said, Sam.

I'm kind of shocked that a teacher would admonish a student for using one spelling over another. From what I've read, the key is consistency. Students shouldn't alternate between Commonwealth and American spellings.

I think that for upper intermediate and above, particularly with things like business English, exercises which allow them to learn the differences between the two Englishes are valuable to the international student.

By Joko, Yangon (19th May 2015)

Same here, Sam. I never get too picky. I usually teach American English because that is what I'm familiar with. But I always make it a point to let the students know there are other variations and not to be surprised if a British teacher comes in and teaches them something different in the future.

Mark, I chuckle when I see the stereotypes of some of the names and characters in these books. For example, all Latin characters are almost always women with curvacious bodies, busting out of their tops. I've also made a habit of rewriting the material so the students get it. After all, how many times in their lives will they use "Argentinian"?

By John, Bangkok (29th April 2015)

'no one accent or style is "correct." '...Of course there is...A phonetically correct neutral speaking Englishman/women beats all...nothing better for teaching English...problem is...there aren't many of them around...

By Daniel james, Bangkok (21st April 2015)

The standards of ESL text books as they apply to Thai schools and businesses are of such an appallingly low level of quality and effectiveness that the difference in what side of the pond it hails from, is almost a non issue.

The people who come up with these nuisance books have never been outside their own country and have no idea what they are doing.

The general distinction between the two (in my experience) is that British based books are harder to learn from. The British books make too many assumptions about what students already know. They focus more on grammar and the books are just too 'busy' and dull.

The Americans make it easier (more white space/pictures, etc) but they still use the word 'soccer' so they obviously haven't tippee-toed into the real world of TEFL either. NOBODY outside North America uses the word 'soccer.' And nobody in Asia is called Maria Sanchez or Pedro Escobar!

I've seen some series' of books start out with good intentions and sound ideas but veer off the straight and narrow after a couple of levels.

All the books used in Thailand are crap, but the most neglected and barren area of GOOD materials is for teenagers. Writers and educators who come up with these God-awful books just aren't even on the same planet as their target audience.

I end up re-writing all the books for whoever hires me or writing materials from scratch. It takes time but the benefits of doing this are light years ahead of anything published by the anonymous dolts at Macmillan or Cambridge, etc.

So, American English or British English?

Just give me plain, easily digestible English, that people actually use, please!

By Mark Newman, Thailand (21st April 2015)

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