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?"
In comes a linguist with his wonderful maps:
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!