Is it important to study the differences between American and British English?
Students of English are sometimes bothered by what they think of as differences between the US and the UK branches of the language. They shouldn't be. We all speak American now. Well, more or less.
Here, I am not talking about the sound of speech. In this respect, US and UK spoken English is different: American speech belongs at a barbecue; English is better heard over the top of a china teacup. American has the confidence of the optimist who knows where his next T-bone steak is coming from. English is diffident, as if enquiring if you prefer your milk before or after the tea is poured.
For the poor bloody foreigner, the real problem is to understand those natives with strong accents, whether they are in Glasgow or Louisiana, Birmingham or the Bronx. Educated people from California or south-east England sound pretty much the same. Does it really matter if the one says autumn and the other says fall?
But the cultural imperialism of Walt Disney, of pop music, of big business, of Hollywood, CNN and all the rest has ensured that, from the point of view of vocabulary, US English is by far the dominant strain. It has always been so, and the effect is minimal. For example, does it matter if radio takes over from wireless, baggage from luggage, and garbage from rubbish? Not really. They were English words anyway. We just didn't use them so much.
Sometimes the words adopted from the USA are vivid and useful. One that I remember is zipperwatch, an Americanism used to describe the job of a reporter assigned to check on the sex-life of a politician; another is bimbo, an attractive girl of limited intellect, sometimes involved in zipperwatch.
Some vocabulary differences persist. Lift and pavement and flat and queue are still UK as opposed to the US elevator and sidewalk and apartment and line-up. There are other examples, not quite so common, that you can collect. For example, in the UK, an ex-serviceman often works as a caretaker, perhaps in a public school, where among other chores, he will replace a broken fanlight or mend a leaking tap. On the other hand, in the USA, a veteran often works as a janitor, perhaps in a private school, where among other jobs, he will replace a broken transom or fix a leaking faucet. Mostly you can work those things out with no trouble at all.
In 10 years "over there", this Scotsman made only one mistake that caused any embarrassment. What you need to know is that if you want to erase a pencil mark, in England you ask for a rubber while in America you need to borrow an eraser. I'd been teaching in Canada for slightly less than a year when I asked this student if she had a rubber to lend me. Total collapse of class. A kindly young man took me on one side: "Look, sir, you ought to know. Round here a rubber is a guy's contraceptive."
These days I always use an eraser, no matter where I am. I advise you to do the same.
©English Teaching Systems February 2008