The girl who spoke like the movies
I was at Primary school when I met Jenifer. Any new pupil would always attract the curiosity of the rest of the class. But what made Jenifer especially interesting was how she spoke! She pronounced her words like the people in the movies – or “films” as we say in UK – in the way the glamorous stars of the big screen talked, even exclaiming “Oh my Guard!” every time she was surprised. Not even the television spoke as cool as that!
When I asked her where she came from, she replied “Oh, hi! oh…,” which sounded more like a distracted “hello” than a place. I told my best friend Chris that the new girl was from “Ohio”, and was immediately corrected: “No she isn’t! Jenifer’s from America.” Well, we were only eleven years old…
Saying and spelling: speaking and writing
The intrigue only grew in English class. Jenifer clearly hadn’t learned spelling as we had. The word she pronounced “senner” she wrote “center”, when the rest of us knew that our “sentah” was written “centre”. She wrote “neighbour” without a “u”, and “plough” as “plow”. She even called the last letter of the alphabet “zee” instead of “zed”. Poor Jenifer! As 11-year-old British schoolchildren, we concluded that Americans weren’t very good at English. I soon discovered that the English spoken around the world wasn’t what we spoke at primary school in London in 1979. In fact, it was a lot more like Jenifer’s!
Little differences and huge similarities
We thought Jenifer’s English was “different” because of a few words or spellings, but actually all the rest of her English was the same as ours. Spanish is spoken in Madrid and Mexico City, but sometimes the same words have different meanings, which have given both Spaniards and Mexicans lots of funny anecdotes to laugh about. Some of the local expressions from the Alps make German speakers from Frankfurt wonder if they should ask for a professional interpreter instead of a ski instructor. But nobody would say these are not the same language. It’s just that the little things tend to make a big impression on us.
No two people speak exactly the same language
There aren’t two people in the world who speak exactly the same language. Each one of us has our own favourite words and expressions. We all know someone who says certain things that nobody else does, or gives funny names to things, or likes to use words from other languages. When we’re with friends or at work, we often use special code words for the people and things we talk about most often. A special mini-language starts developing all by itself, and people from outside our group wouldn’t know what we are talking about! This is why different versions of the same languages appear everywhere.
Back in the 1970s, French was considered to be the international language, and American English and British English were probably more different from each other than they are now. Things started to change with pop music. The Beatles were famous in the 1960s for their peculiar Liverpool accents, but by the 1980s it was practically impossible to tell by their singing whether groups were American or British. Then with television shows travelling each way across the Atlantic, American English started to sound less like Hollywood to British ears, and British English less like the Queen – or Mr Bean! – to Americans. What had sounded foreign to both sides only a few years earlier, now just sounded like English with another regional accent.
These days, British families are just as likely to spend their Saturday afternoons at a “mall” as in a “shopping centre”. They have everyday “issues” in their lives now as often as they used to have “problems”. And when they’re surprised by good news, it’s usually more “awesome!” than “smashing!”
Speaking, listening, reading and writing… to the world!
The internet has brought American and British English closer together, because it makes complete interaction possible. Cinema, television and pop involved listening only, while newspapers, magazines and books just required reading. Nowadays we’re speaking, listening, reading and writing with people all around the globe, and English is used more and more by speakers of other languages. We send and receive text messages and emails all day long, we download and watch movies, read blogs and leave audio messages, and we do it in English more than ever before.
So what is General English?
General English is the language which is common to all the different varieties of English: those huge similarities that make the little differences stand out. When I started teaching Business English years ago, I was surprised to discover that I was still explaining reported speech, phrasal verbs and how to write a formal letter in the same way as in my usual classes. The only real differences were vocabulary and a few set expressions. Academic English is also general English, but with traditional grammar and specific vocabulary in longer sentences. What distinguishes American English from British English is mainly a limited number of spelling differences and a preference for the Past Simple over the Present Perfect. General English is English without the little exceptions.
What about the Oxford Test of English?
The Oxford Test of English is a General English test. All the contents of the different modules – Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing – are pre-tested all around the world. In some countries, such as Mexico and parts of South America, the English which is being taught is mainly American. In other parts of the world, it may be mainly British English. The contents have to be proven to work equally well in all countries. If a particular task is easier for learners of British English than American English, then it is rejected and can’t be included in the Test. This means we can be sure that the Oxford Test of English is fair to all students, regardless of which variety of English they have learned. Because Oxford University Press is the world authority on the English language, our colleagues in the dictionaries department are constantly recording all the developments in the English language. This means that American spellings of words – like Jenifer’s “center”, “neighbor” and “plow” – are considered just as correct as their British spellings, and “Mom just got home” is as correct as “Mum’s just come home”.
Want to find out more?
Simon Ferdinand is Head of Market Development for ELT Assessment at Oxford University Press, where he is in charge of launching the Oxford Test of English worldwide.His career spans 26 years in the field of English Language Teaching, first as a teacher of English and French at a language school in Madrid, then as a sales rep and product manager with Oxford University Press working on English File and exams material.
Simon speaks six languages fluently and he is also the author of ‘Cómo negociar en inglés’ (How to Negotiate in English) which was published in Madrid in 2006 and has sold 27,000 copies.