“Americans who travel abroad for the first time are often shocked to discover that despite all the progress that has been made in the past 30 years, many foreign people still speak in foreign languages.”
Ah, America! One of the biggest countries in the world and where the English language reigns supreme. All 50 states have different ways of speaking English. However, there is a lot of common ground in the way people speak across the country.
We need to stop thinking that the only way to speak English in the United States is how they speak in TV shows, Hollywood Blockbusters, and in fashion magazines.
85% of films shown around the world are American. These figures definitely thrust America into the limelight.
Who hasn’t heard of Star Wars, Sex and the City, or the New York Times?
All of these use the American English that we’re going to have a look at. In this article, we're going to have a look at where American English came from, what makes American English different to other varieties of English, and how you can learn to speak American English.
The Origins of American English
“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there's the United States of America.” - Barack Obama
In the grand scheme of things, the United States of America is a relatively young country. Its language is also rather young.
English was first spoken in America during the 17th century. However, at this time in history, there were plenty of speakers of other languages on the continent who spoke French, Spanish, Dutch, Welsh, Irish, and the indigenous languages, of course!
Over time, English evolved and started playing an important role on the continent. The phonology, vocabulary, and grammar of American English diverged from its British roots over time.
It wasn’t until after the colonisation of the Americas that American English really diverged from that of British English. There were differences in pronunciation and vocabulary, just as you’d find in Australian, Scottish, and Irish English. In fact, no matter where you go in the world, there’ll be a different version of English.
So are you ready to find out exactly what American English is and how to learn it?
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The Specificities of American English
Do the terms “’sup” or “y’all” mean anything to you?
These are typically American terms! The first is the contraction of “What’s up?” and the other means “You all”. There’s your first example of how American English differs from the other variants of English.
The English spoken in the United States of America is often considered a simpler version of English.
This is usually because most people are already quite familiar with it having heard it on TV and in films. Without even noticing, most people already have a pretty good understanding of American English. Similarly, you can probably get by in New York with the basics. After having heard it so much throughout your life, American English is pretty much already your second language!
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You also need to know the grammar, which is also simpler than other forms of English. Obviously, you still need to follow the grammatical rules, but they’re usually simpler in American English.
The same is true for the accent. Since you’ll have heard it so often, it’s much easier to understand the American English accent over a regional British dialect or Scottish English. That should clear a few things up!
So while American English started as various British dialects, it has since diverged from roots. A common example is the letter “r”, which is almost always pronounced in American English, unlike in English dialects which tend to drop the “r” when it follows a vowel.
There are also new terms that America gave the English language both inside the United States and around the world. All of these terms, from various domains, originated in the US:
- Compact car
- Get the hang of
- And many more!
As you’ll have understood, it’s quite difficult to talk about what makes American English special without comparing it to other English dialects, especially British English. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do!
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The Differences Between American English and British English
As we said before, American English originated as British English and a mix of various English dialects from around the United Kingdom. However, over the course of the centuries, American English became its own dialect and grew up with American culture.
Since most people all over the world learn to speak English in school, English classes are becoming increasingly specialised, to the point where students are watching in English (without subtitles in some cases) by the time they’re leaving school.
The main difference you’ll notice between the UK and the US is how words are spelt. In fact, American English changed the spelling of quite a few words in the English language.
This is the quickest and easiest way to tell whether you’re reading British English or American English. However, the vocabulary is also another way to work out which country the language is from. Since language is inherently related to culture, and there are a number of differences between British and American culture, it’s hardly surprising that there’s also a linguistic difference between the two countries.
In the United States of America, they often use the past simple for describing events that happened not too long ago. In England, on the other hand, they tend to use the present perfect. For example, an American would say “I went to store” whereas someone from England would say “I’ve been to the shop”. The difference may be slight, but you can see that there are even alterations to the simplest sentences.
Even the verb “get” is different. In America, “get-got-gotten” is the preferred conjugations for the present and past while in the UK, they use “get-got-got”. After a few exercises, you’ll get the hang of it.
Once again, practice makes perfect and you can get plenty of practice by immersing yourself in American culture. There are plenty of useful resources for learning American English, helping you to think in American English, and working on your pronunciation.
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Resources for Learning American English
“England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”
The United States of America is a constantly-changing country whose culture is constantly making its way to other countries. From Beyoncé to the Statue of Liberty via Ernest Hemingway, everyone knows something about American culture.
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Whether you use audio resources, audiovisual resources, or literary resources, they can be hugely useful in helping you to understand American English, American culture, and immerse yourself in both.
Watching American films with the subtitles on is a great way to learn American English. Everyone watches them, after all.
What about American TV shows?
There’s surely one you like! Whether it’s Forrest Gump, Breaking Bad, or the Walking Dead, films and TV shows are much better in their mother tongue and a great way to learn about language and culture.
Books are another source of inspiration. If you want to improve your American English vocabulary, there’s not much better than a book. Immersing yourself in a new world, a certain point of view, and a new country is more than possible with the help of a book.
This is your chance to learn from the greats like William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, and Toni Morrison. In addition to helping you gain new perspectives, these resources will also help you in your new language.
Of course, you can improve your English vocabulary from any type of media. Radio stations, TV channels, and the press are all freely accessible and useful tools for learning not just general American English, but specific vocabulary like business English.
Watching CNN, listening to online radio stations, or flicking through The Wall Street Journal are all useful ways to improve your knowledge of the language, country, and culture.
This is a language that continues to evolve and change. If you need to find a tutor to help you, look no further than Superprof!