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I have this friend called Billy.
Billy is a native-English speaker from Canada who did his Master’s degree in Scotland.
He tells this story of one time he was at a restaurant in Glasgow, Scotland, and tried to order a hamburger.
The waiter couldn’t understand him.
“Hello, can I have a hamburger please”
“Eh? I dunnae ken whayamin” (I don’t understand what you mean, in Glaswegian)
“Eh? A ….”
After several tries, the waiter had to ask a manager for help, and eventually, Billy was able to order.
It’s stories like this that make you ask: is English really just one language? Or is it more like several different ones?
Lots of people will have stories like this—funny anecdotes about instances where a person who speaks a different English dialect, or had a very strong accent, had trouble understanding them.
For an English learner, I’m sure that can feel overwhelming. If they can’t understand another native speaker, how will they understand me?
But it’s important to remember that Billy tells the story in part because of how unusual it is. He lived in the UK for over a year and had thousands of conversations with English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish people. Only once did someone not understand him.
If you ask me, I think we overemphasise the differences between English dialects. Sure, there are differences—just ask Alastair how many times he has to correct my North American spelling to British for this blog.
But, in the grand scheme of things, the differences are actually quite small.
In this article, I want to discuss some of the differences between British, American, and Australian English just to give a rough sense of how they differ.
But what I really hope you’ll take away is that the differences aren’t all that big. If you learn English from primarily one accent, you’ll be fine operating in other countries with other English-speaking people.
And I’ll argue that you should learn to recognise many different types of English—at least eventually.
Main differences between Australian, American, and British English
So how are these dialects different from one another?
There are differences in terms of accent, vocabulary, spelling, and grammar.
I’m going to briefly describe each, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. I just hope that it will whet your appetite to learn more.
Honestly, I’m not sure if I could do justice to a description of how the accents differ, especially when accents within Australia, the US, and the UK are so different from each other as well.
A “British accent” could include an accent from London, an accent from Belfast, one from Glasgow, and one from Cardiff. All of these four accents are very different, debatably as different as the difference between an accent from Liverpool and New York.
Instead, I think it is better if you just hear people speaking each of these and see for yourself.
Because while there are differences within each country, there are some relatively ‘standard’ American, British and Australian accents as well.
Here are some videos from large news broadcasters in each country. You’ll find that each has a fairly “standard” accent for each of the countries they represent.
But remember that each country will have a variety of their own accents as well.
Here’s a video from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on potential diets for Koala bears in the future:
Here’s a short clip from the BBC about the best way to make tea:
And here’s a short clip from the American CNN about space travel.
It’s not just the way words are pronounced that’s different, but also the actual words used. Here’s a short clip that shows some of those differences in vocabulary:
But again, keep in mind, that sometimes differences are exaggerated.
For example, in this video comparing Australian, British, and American accents, the British person looks at a picture of a bunch of trees and says she would call it a “forest”. The American person says she would call it “the woods”.
The fact is “woods” and “forest” are close synonyms. You can say either of them in both the UK and in the US.
All that is to say, sometimes the differences between the dialects are slightly overblown. They might make for fun YouTube videos, but they normally aren’t nearly as important as some people would make you believe.
This one is a bit more clear-cut.
Spelling differs between the United States on one side and the UK with Australia on the other.
Some common spelling differences include:
- “our” vs. “or”: Several words that are spelt with an “our” in the UK and Australia are just spelt with an “o” in the US. These include favourite/favorite, colour/color, neighbour/neighbor, behaviour/behavior, and others.
- “tre” vs. “ter”: Several words that are spelt with “tre” in the UK and Australia are spelt with “ter” in the US. These include metre/meter, theatre/theater, centre/center, and more.
- “ll” vs. “l”: Some words that are spelt with two “l”s in the UK and Australia are spelt with only one in the US. These include travelling/traveling, modelling/modeling, and more.
- “ise” vs. “ize”: The UK and Australia spell several verbs with “ise” instead of “ize” like the US does. These include realise/realize, organise/organize, analyse/analyze, and so on.
- “ise” vs. “ice”: Some words spelled with “ise” at the end in the UK, are spelled with “ice” in the US. One example is practise/practice. But be careful: the difference only occurs for verbs. “Practice” as a noun is spelled with “ice” in the UK, Australia, and the US.
Generally, these are fixed rules. In the USA, you should use “or” instead of “our”, and “ize” instead of “ise”. To add some confusion, Canada is in the middle, using “our”, “ll”, and “tre”, like the UK and Australia, but using “ize” and “ice”, like the US.
There are, of course, some exceptions, but if you follow this general rule you should be ok.
First, I want to make clear that grammar is the same in all three countries for the vast majority of cases.
Please do not leave this article thinking, “English is so confusing... even the grammar changes depending on where you are!” For the most part, it doesn’t.
There are just a few small differences.
- “Got” vs. “gotten”: In the UK, the past participle of “get” is “got” (get-got-got). In the US, it’s “gotten” (get-got-gotten).
- “Learned” vs. “learnt”: In British English, the past and past participle of “learn” is “learnt” (learn-learnt-learnt). In American English, it’s “learned” (learn-learned-learned).
- Collective nouns: In British English, collective nouns (like team, group, class, family) are often considered plural as in, “my family are wonderful.” In US English, it’s more common to be singular as in, “my family is wonderful.” In both cases, it wouldn’t sound strange to use either version, and you will find many people in Britain saying “my family are wonderful”.
- Tense preferences: Americans and Brits differ somewhat in terms of preference for using certain tenses. For example, when talking about something that happened in the recent past, Brits will often use the present perfect tense where Americans will prefer the past simple tense. So a Brit might say, “I’ve studied English,” where an American would prefer, “I studied English.”
Do these differences actually matter?
In most cases, not really.
Notice that the differences are quite small. These are not differences that you’ll notice in your day-to-day. And using one version vs. the other will almost certainly not cause confusion in a normal conversation or written task.
Will people understand me if I use vocabulary from another dialect?
Almost certainly, yes. The vast majority of English speakers recognise vocabulary from other dialects even if they wouldn’t use those words themselves.
As one caveat, it may be the case that Americans, and perhaps Canadians, are worse at understanding other dialects.
Well, there’s some evidence that global English is Americanising—and it’s even being felt within the UK. Some researchers link that to the shifting political influence of the United Kingdom and the United States over the past few decades.
Whatever the reason, the effect is that most people who aren’t from the United States, including Brits, Aussies, South Africans, and so on, will still have had exposure to American vocabulary and accents, so they’ll recognise and understand them.
Americans may not have had as much exposure to the vocabulary and accents of other places, so they may be more rigid in terms of what they understand.
Still, these potential misunderstandings by Americans would make up a very small portion of any real conversation.
The fact is that if you’re speaking using “British English” to an American, they’ll understand the vast majority of what you’re saying, and unless you are using very specific British idioms, they probably won’t recognise that it is “British English”.
It is just “English”.
So, which accent or dialect should I choose?
So far, I’ve said that there are differences between American, British, and Australian versions of English, but that those differences are almost always exaggerated.
Still, the English learner is left with a choice: which one should I choose to study more and practise?
It depends somewhat on your circumstances and level.
At the beginner stage it doesn’t matter
For beginners, I would say just choose the one you find easiest until you get to an intermediate level.
Focus on that accent until you're confident in it.
Obviously, if you have a special reason to favour one over the other, consider that as well. Perhaps you plan to move to Australia. Or maybe your stepmother is American. In that case, choose the one that makes the most sense to you.
Also, think about whether you’re planning to take an English test and prepare for that. For example, the IELTS is administered by Cambridge and the majority of it uses British English and British accents. If you know you’re going to take the IELTS, practice British English.
But if you don’t have a special reason to choose one, just choose the one you find easiest.
At an intermediate level, branch out to other accents
Once you’re at an intermediate level, you should be expanding out of just one accent. Include listening activities from a variety of people including British, American, and Australian accents.
The reason is that you want to train your ear to be flexible and be able to understand a variety of speech. So start to feed yourself a variety of accents starting at the intermediate level.
Starting from an intermediate level, I would recommend focussing on interesting content, regardless of the accent. You will have much more success listening to a podcast about a subject that interests you rather than listening to a podcast with a specific accent.
That’s the entire reason we created English Learning for Curious Minds—as a way for intermediate and above learners to listen to content that is actually interesting.
At an advanced level, consume a variety of accents
At this point, you should be consuming content in a variety of accents and aim to get comfortable understanding them all.
And don’t forget that there are many more native English-speaking accents than just American, British, and Australian. Of course, there are large native English-speaking populations in Canada, South Africa and New Zealand... but there’s also Jamaica, India, Belize, the Philippines, Singapore, and more.
And even within all of those countries, there are many different accents from different regions.
Seek out many kinds of English so you can speak easily with anyone, and of course, seek out content that is actually interesting
Best English podcasts for different accents
Podcasts are one of our favourite ways to learn English in general and one of the best ways to train yourself to understand other accents.
Here are some podcast resources for learning different dialects of English.
American English: All Ears English Podcast
British English: English Learning for Curious Minds
Australian English: Aussie English Podcast
Remember: don’t worry too much about the differences
This article has focused on differences between the way English is spoken in three different countries.
And certainly, we English speakers love to talk about how our accents are different from one another.
If you got a Brit, an Aussie, and a Yank in the room together, it’s inevitable that they’ll talk about how their English is different.
Of course, it’s not just English-speakers that do this.
When I lived in France as a Canadian, I must have had hundreds of conversations about how strange Quebecois French is (to the French).
I’ve heard Chileans, Mexicans, and Columbians talk for hours about the “right” way to speak Spanish.
And there’s nothing Brazilians like better than having foreigners tell them that their version of Portuguese sounds better than Portugal’s.
We love talking about how we talk.
But I promise that even though you’ll find hours of videos on YouTube exploring differences between different English accents, the amount of content isn’t proportional to the actual size of the differences between the dialects.
In reality, the differences between the various versions of English aren’t that big.
If you learn “British” English, you will have no trouble speaking with someone that uses a different dialect—and vice versa.
So don’t worry about it too much. Learn whichever version of English works for you, and then try to branch out until you can recognise English in most of its forms.
That’s your path to becoming fluent in English.
Gonçalves, B., Loureiro-Porto, L., Ramasco, J. J., & Sánchez, D. (2018). Mapping the Americanization of English in space and time. PloS one, 13(5), e0197741.