Nov 032010

Oh my, are you in for a treat! I’ve got a guest post for you from none other than everyone’s favourite ELT blogger – the thoroughly TEFLtastic, Alex Case. Without ado, over to Alex.

As I’m British, I have to admit that my biggest problem with American English is a knee-jerk negative reaction to Americanisms, especially when they are used by people back home. I would love to believe that I could one day fully accept more logical American forms like ax, or at least find out if words really are Americanisms before showing my disgust. Unfortunately, that instant snobbish sneer seems to be a cultural norm that I just can’t lose.

Ironically, my second largest problem is that a prime example of an Englishman who can’t keep the American English tide back is me. After ten years abroad, I can’t remember the last time I said corner shop, cashpoint, or first floor for the one that isn’t on the ground. I must say that the extreme reaction I get for saying convenience store and ATM back home is a bit over the top. What is it with these Brits? Do they think they are superior to the 99% of the world that uses those expressions? Apparently we do…

My next problem with American English is those bits that I have yet to come across, let alone pick up myself. The number of times I have corrected students only to later find out that what they said was perfectly acceptable American English are too numerous to mention, but they include “puzzle” for jigsaw, “robe” for dressing gown, “dish” for a plate, and “toaster oven”. That has caused me even more angst over the years as I’ve realised that becoming the teacher I would like to be doesn’t just involve thinking up more game ideas, but also entails the deeply tedious process of learning about my own language when I’d much rather be learning Moldovan or Bengali.

I’m hardly alone in the problem above. One clear sign of that is the number of online lists of typical mistakes for particular language speakers (Franglais etc) that include perfectly acceptable American English. To make me feel better, the number of lists by North Americans correcting their students for using British English is even greater.

Becoming too aware of the danger of correcting a student for something that turns out to be correct somewhere can lead to problem number 4 – blaming all student errors on American English. For example, most British teachers in Japan and Korea blame the Japlish and Konglish word “muffler” (a winter scarf) on Americans. Strange that, because most Americans assume it is British English. Of course, if I properly knew my own language as it is spoken beyond the limits of Lewis District Council, I’d probably be able to correct my students with complete confidence. Will read Webster’s through soon, I promise, just as soon as I’ve learnt 3000 kanji and have a fun activity for today’s class of mixed conditionals…

Alex Case is an English teacher, teacher trainer, EFL writer and editor who has worked in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, Italy, the UK, Japan and Korea. He is a star of the ELT blogging world, keeping us all laughing, stimulated and really well equipped with great lesson ideas at TEFLtastic

 Posted by at 1:29 pm

  24 Responses to “Alex’s problems with American English”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Oxford Classics and OUP ELT Global, vickihollett. vickihollett said: I'm thrilled to have a guest blogger at Who can it be? Your clue is his post is TEFLtastic! […]

  2. Some interesting things are not said here but hinted at.

    As a native English english speaker should i abandon my natural “cash machine” just because a native American american speaker uses a different word?

    Should i teach what i know, and what i consider to be correct or what i know people are using (i don’t mean American versus English here but english wot people speak )

    And is a convenience store and a corner shop really the same thing?

  3. Dude, I just read your post and, I’m like, get over it already. If brits don’t like American English, just wait fifty years and see how they like having to deal with American Spanish.

    Great post, Alex (on your great blog, Vicki); would love to have you as my first guest over on my side of the pond.

  4. This cracks me up, because I do the same thing in reverse. I actually lost a bet to a student on the word ‘Biro,’ ensuring that I’ll never forget it.

    I’ve run into the problem of students–often educated in BrE here in Germany–insisting they know a word or a spelling and that I’m just not familiar with it, because it’s British. Most recently, it was Aunte, with the e on the end. My student wouldn’t believe that the ‘e’ didn’t belong and we had to consult a few websites. (At least I won that bet.)

    On my good days, I like finding new ways to say things. On my off days, it seems like one more unnecessary hassle in my life. (Like learning the Saxon dialect of German. Can’t they just speak normal German?)

  5. That’s a good question, Chris. It’s strange that in all the discussion of English as a Lingua Franca/ English as an International Language, very little mention is made of how American it is/ will be. That might explain the negative reaction of some people to the concept!

    When and where I was growing up, there were only corner shops, although some of them were becoming chains and so looking more like convenience stores. I wonder what Londoners said during the brief period when there were 7/11s there.

  6. Many thanks to Vicki for putting this up. Doing as much self promotion online as I do, perhaps I should point out that the nice words at the top and bottom weren’t written by me- so thanks to Vicki again! The picture is also not me, although the sneer does look a little familiar…

  7. Lovely to see you Chris.

    Re that cash machine/ ATM dilemma, I see it as a matter of full disclosure – so I teach both and let the students decide. But of course, I’m in the peculiar circumstance of being a Brit working in the US. I find it a bit odd that some exam boards favour consistency – so no muddling of US and UK terms allowed. Why, I wonder? What’s the merit of that?

  8. Hi Toby
    You reminded me of some research that Ian McMaster presented about Business Spotlight readers in Germany. Slightly more had contact with the UK than the US (but only slightly more). Most students said both BrE and AmE were equally important for them. Given a wider choice, 9% said AmE was most important for them, 12% said BrE and 64% said International English (whatever that is) was most important. 19% expressed no preference.
    In case some folks haven’t already seen it, the ref is here:
    – then go to #A07 – the /McMasterNativeSpeaker.ppt

  9. Alex, the pleasure’s all mine and thanks so much for this terrific post.

    Now as for that sneer folks – I went looking for an illustration of British snobbery and couldn’t find one that I could legally use. So I drew the piccie above.

    But then I got worried. What if you thought that was Alex? What if I had inadvertently drawn Alex without knowing? I’m easily worried.

    Then I realized – although I have no idea what Alex looks like, I don’t think he wears a monacle. Phew!

  10. I did see a picture of him somewhere online, once…. but he is very elusive. I gather he is solidly lower-middle class, though, so he is more likely to sport a black eye than a monocle.

  11. Alex- us Londoners, me at least, called the 7/11s – “7/11s” whilst still buying my fish fingers and custard (reference to Doctor Who) at the corner shop run by Mr Patell.
    In the US i would go to the grocery store out of choice, the convenience store sounds everything but.
    Vicki – teaching both forms, when i know them, gives me no problem – what i worry about now is that i have to converse in everyday life like this.
    “hey folks i’m just off to the corner shop convenience store, i’ll be at the pavement sidewalk cafe bar give me a ring call on my mobile cell.”
    Communication with loved ones, difficult at the outset is getting harder.
    By the way what does the verb “to duke” mean?

  12. It’s true Darren, so I am much more guilty of reverse snobbism back home. Anything American brings out entirely another (unwelcome) side of me though… At least I’m not alone- an American teacher I worked with in Spain said that feeling superior to Americans was the one thing that Europeans have in common.

    Thanks, Chris. Thought it might be 7/11. That might also explain where I picked it up from as that’s what I used when I first arrived in Japan while I was still resisting the Japlish expression conveni (konbini).

    I had a class who’d been taught “alligatorcrocodile” by a previous teacher and never had the heart to simplify it (nor an explanation of whatever the difference might be). Not sure “pantstrousers” or “estatestationwagon” will ever make it into International English though.

    Your anecdote has also made me realise there is a Problem Number 5 – realising that a word in the next sentence will leave you with the choice of using your natural British word that will leave them stumped but means they will learn something (if perhaps something rather useless), or selling out and using an Americanism I would never use otherwise just for smooth communication, with the danger that they’ll forever think that it is also British English.

  13. Hmmm, i don’t know – i think estatestaionwaggon sounds brilliant and i would really like one.

  14. Oh Adam, a big hello!
    Sorry it took a while for your message to appear. For some reason it was classed as spam. Spam??? Spam??? I must go have a word with Askimet…

  15. That’s OK, Vicki, this isn’t the first blog that has happened on. Actually, I only found out while trying to leave a response on my own blog and finding it in the spam zone.

    Anyhows, back to business. Having lived in the US myself and developed a great mid-Atlantic vernacular, I’d love to be able to contribute a guest post here myself at one point.

  16. Oh Adam, wow! Yes, please!!!!

  17. Alex,
    Your problem number 5 reminded me of something that sometimes happens in our house. I’ll say something in BrE and my ‘merican husband will repeat it back in AmE. Or I’ll pronounce something with my accent and he’ll say it back in his. When I query this, he says he’s just checking he understood. But I suspect he’s secretly trying to teach me to say it his way. Ha! He has a long job ahead.

  18. […] Alex’s problems with American English […]

  19. Very funny post indeed! Thank you, Alex.

    Just to let Alex know that Moldovan doesn’t exist as a language per se. It is a dialect we speak in Romania as well as in Moldova.

  20. I certainly say cash machine in my AmE, though not cashpoint.

    Here in NYC, corner store, convenience store, and bodega compete for mindshare. The last is applicable even if the store is not Hispanic: the bodega on my corner is run by Arabs, and the one next to that (which is really a pocket-sized supermarket, except that it doesn’t sell fresh meat or fish) is run by Indians.

  21. Thanks again for putting this up Vicki. Could you possibly change the link to



  22. Done! Thanks Alex!

  23. Wow, that was quick! Thanks Vicki

  24. Going way back to what you said at the start – finding out that your corrections are in fact ok in another aspect of the language – don’t you find, more and more, that just about everything is acceptable?
    Efficacy is a case in point, the French love the word and i spent a while correcting them and trying to drill efficiency.
    Then i looked in my English dictionary.
    Seems that every thing i think is wrong turns out to be right.
    And as for convenience store, corner shop, bodega, pocket supermarket etc etc – how about just shop? Or store?

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