American or British English — which should I learn?

In this article, you will

  • learn about differences between British and American English
  • practice key vocabulary on the topic of language, communication, and culture
  • practice prepositions.

Newsmart Level 4 (B2, TOEIC 550–600, TOEFL iBT 53–64, IELTS 5–6)

The question of which English to learn seems like a simple one.

It implies that some versions of English are ‘better’ than others. And it signals the decline of the perception of British English (the home of the Queen, don’t forget!) as the benchmark of ‘good English’.

Many recognise that a nation of only sixty million can no longer claim to be the reference point for a language spoken by billions around the globe with a multitude of accents and grammatical localisations.

As a result, American English seems like a more logical choice. After all, it is spoken by a far greater number of people (over 300 million), it is tied to the power base of one of the world’s mightiest economies and it is preferred by many for its simplicity and directness. Not to mention its link to a hugely influential consumer culture.

British English, in comparison, appears as old fashioned as the bowler hats which are part of its national stereotype. Interestingly, similar claims might one day be made by those advocating Indian English.

On closer inspection, however, the question of which version of English to choose is not simple at all. It is important to acknowledge that language is learned not for itself but to be used in context with other people. The standard by which we measure ‘good English’ is more about the needs of your circumstances than a textbook of grammar rules.

American English might be ‘better’ because it seems more modern and is spoken by a greater number of people than other versions. As a result, it may be more effective as the language of international business. But, if non-native speakers train themselves up to C1 American English, they may make themselves unintelligible to many of their non-native speaker customers around the world!

Perhaps a better question to ask is: what is the best way to communicate with my customers and colleagues in a manner that they will understand?

After all, the objective of learning a language for business is not to use the language correctly, it is to communicate. Many other skills are needed if you want to successfully communicate across borders: emotional intelligence, flexibility and punctuality to name a few.

If the real focus is communication skills and not language, then which skills should we focus on? Often, it is skills which are seldom taught in English language classrooms. It is skills related to people: building rapport, decision making, influencing and conflict management.

These are the skills which professionals need to use when interacting with others for business. Perhaps these should be priorities. English language teachers who do not focus on people skills may find that their students are good at one type of communication, but not at others.

As a business trainer, I am often asked for advice or for tips and tricks which will bring success. when interacting with diverse groups of stakeholders.

Business professionals are trained to think analytically, to seek for and measure data, to produce truthful conclusions from empirical evidence. However, when it comes to interpersonal communication, there are more complex factors involved. Successful business people can balance truth with perspective, proof with preference, fact with emotion.

When communicating with international stakeholders, flexibility, an understanding of the needs of others and the establishment of a common culture become essential. Participants must embrace openness, empathy and patience. None of these are guaranteed by using the right word at the right time, or the right syntax. Correct language does not guarantee a successful outcome when communicating internationally. In fact, worrying about it too much may become counterproductive.

The simple question of British or American English leads to assumptions about the nature and role of language when communicating internationally. It also raises the possibility that people skills, not language, are the critical factor in business success.

Originally published at