Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Just run with it!

Hat tip: Elmer Neves

(Source: Everywhere! But I got this one from here.)

You have seen these British vs. American English posters. Perhaps the coursebook you teach is full of those tables. You may have even drilled those differences, as I sure did more than once. And you might have acted as if reality were exactly like that: neatly divided somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic.

Don't get me wrong: those colorful posters are useful to some extent. Even though they considerably narrow down the spread of English around the world, at the very least they introduce the concept of linguistic variation in the L2 classroom. But as that cute 7-year-old famously asked, "Is this real life?"

(Source: BusinessInsider)

What you see here is the map for rubber-soled shoes one would wear for athletic activities. You know, these: 


According to our British vs. American English poster, to no fault of its own (I'm sure you've seen this repeated time and again), Americans call those shoes "sneakers". Well, judge for yourself: on the map, blue represents "sneakers". Red is for... *drum roll*... "tennis shoes". 

Does anyone else see a red flag here?

In terms of percentage, "sneakers" does have a slight advantage over "tennis shoes" (45.50% v. 41.34%), but it's hard to stand by the claim that "sneakers" is THE term used in the U.S.. "In the U.S.." That continental country. That's a loooot of people. A few of them (0.23% in the survey) even prefer the so-called "British" word "trainers"!

(Not that a small country such as England would necessarily be more homogeneous. On the contrary!)

I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir: we all know that languages are alive and kicking, and that they vary. Through time, across regions, across social classes or ethnic groups. Yes, of course we know that. However, are we allowing this knowledge to seep through to our classes, or are we helping fuel the myth of English as a language with 2 monolithic standards? 

I understand there are pedagogical reasons not to overload students with different words for the same object. Teach me a word, I'll learn it; teach me 10, I'll forget all of them. But is that all there is to it? Or, if variation is the spice of language, are there other obscure reasons for such a bland diet?

Click here for:
The original survey
The colorful maps
The BusinessInsider article with funny comments about the maps

Update (June 7, 2013): Ben Zimmer has commented on the maps and survey. As usual, a great read!


  1. Just the sort of thing most teachers will love to learn, Natalia. Keep up the good work.

  2. Great post, Natalia! Long live linguistic diversity and DOWN with sweeping generalisations!!

  3. Enlightening text, delightful English!

    Congrats, Nats!

    1. Your comment lit me up and made my soul alight from my body. Lol #punlovers

    2. As a teacher of Spanish on Long Island in NY to native, heritage language learners and non-natives, I have to constantly give my students numerous options when it comes to vocabulary (and at times with grammar as well) as I maneuver through the labyrinth of the Spanish that is spoken in our classroom. While it can be daunting, I can only draw the line at eliminating Spanglish as a viable option, at least as of now. Having been trained in peninsular Spanish, it would unjust of me to only accept one way of saying way or the highway. I do at times get confused with what is acceptable and correct and must step back and reflect as I redraw the boundaries of acceptable Spanish.

    3. Wow! :) That's fantastic! I wasn't thinking about that when I wrote the post, but it's true: when we are teaching heritage and NS learners, it's even more important to acknowledge variation and accept different standards. After all, the way a person or his/her family speak is intertwined with his/her identity, and to dismiss it as just plain "wrong" could do more harm than good. This doesn't mean, of course, that we won't teach what is generally accepted as the standard, but there may be, like you said, a lot of redrawing of boundaries (loved it!).

      That happens a lot with my mother tongue, too. The standard prescribed by Portuguese grammars is very different from the ones adopted by educated Brazilians in their speech. For a few decades now Brazilian linguists have been describing our standards, but that knowledge hasn't trickled down yet. Every time this topic comes up in the media, there's public outrage, and linguists are accused of trying to destroy the "correct" language.

  4. Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing! But now, what do we teach our students when they ask the difference between British and American English? o_O One of my students shared this video with me: and we discussed the differences between the two speakers and also the differences between the American's choices and mine (also American but from a different region). We also found it interesting that the guy demonstrating "American English" used some words that are probably specific to his family or families of similar heritage.

    1. Thanks, Lizzie! That sounds like a wonderful lesson! Not only did your students learn a few differences between Am and Br English, but they also learned from you that language can vary within America. =D


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