A good friend of mine, and former student, used to always talk about “speaking American” versus “speaking English,” and the term would make me bristle. One day, completely exasperated, I curtly proclaimed, “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS “SPEAKING AMERICAN.” ENGLISH IS ENGLISH!!!” I continued with the argument that no one ever asks, “Do you speak Australian?” No one has ever said, “He speaks Canadian!” Sure, our accents are different. Yes, we have different vocabulary words for a handful of things, and true, there are a few spelling patterns and minor grammatical differences, but English is English, and I still hold to that today.
As an English teacher living in Europe, only once in eleven years have I knowingly lost a job because I am American. (And honestly, I felt it spoke more to his xenophobic views than to my ability.) More often than not, people have focused on my credentials, professionalism, expertise and positive client feedback. Indeed, on more than a few occasions, clients have hired me specifically because they had been searching for an American English teacher. The reasons vary. Often students want to learn the English they associate with Hollywood films or their favorite songs. Often students tell me that my Standard American English accent is easier to understand than a British one. Sometimes a student wants the added benefit of leaning about American culture. However, I understand that these arguments are absolutely subjective, and moreover, I know there are probably an equal number of students who choose British English for similar reasons.
When I teach, I generally use British textbooks because I realize that in Europe, many of my students will be taking exams (in school or for certification) that will use British vocabulary and spelling. (An exception to this is the internationally recognized TOEFL exam, which uses American spelling, and American speakers in the listening portion.) When I come across a minute grammar point that differs between British and American English (for example, the use of “needn’t” or “have got”) I assess the strength of my student and I decide if the extra information of “how we do this in the U.S.” will just confuse them. If so, I leave it out and they’re none the wiser.
However, the vast majority of my students want (or need) to live, travel or work internationally, and therefore they need to speak English. For their purposes, they want to communicate confidently, effectively and properly. In this instance, I argue again, “English is English.” A well-spoken language-learner, no matter the accent or occasional lexical variance, will find success, be it on vacation, in the job interview, or living in a foreign land.
In the end, I believe a good English teacher transcends the “type” of English they teach. Can she communicate ideas effectively? Does he have an exceptional knowledge of the language? Is she properly trained and experienced to teach? Does he make learning enjoyable and relevant? These are legitimate questions a student should consider.
Jumper vs. sweater…not so important.
(And a really good English speaker will understand BOTH!)