Santa Clause or Father Christmas? Gifts or presents?

I asked a student of mine recently whether he still believed in Father Christmas. He looked at me nonplussed before asking me who Father Christmas was. I replied that he was the big, fat man who delivered children presents at Christmas time. “Presents?”, he asked. “Gifts’, I said. To which he smiled and said, “Ah, you mean Santa Clause”.

Does it matter? Well, maybe not for this 25 year old adult, who I presume no longer believes in Santa Clause (or Father Christmas), but it might matter to my 3 year son who attends a bilingual American school where Santa trumps Father Christmas every time.

Which brings me to a more serious point. I used to tell my students that it really didn’t matter. That whether you used American or British English made very little difference. Okay, there were some differences in vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation, but you would still be mutually intelligible whatever variety you chose to employ.

However, in retrospect, I now believe that I was doing some of my students a disservice. I think of the group of learners who worked for a multinational healthcare company based in the United States, the young woman studying for American university entrance exams, and the interior designer writing an article for an American publication. For these people, the differences between British and American English did matter.

So, when a learner asks, ‘What are the differences between American and British English?’ (and they do ask, don’t they?), we need to make the differences absolutely clear before determining which variety the learner might needs.

From there, we can start planning lessons that address these needs more adequately in terms of vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation.

Vocabulary can be dealt with more easily. We can make conscious and appropriate selections, choosing from between ‘diaper’ and ‘nappy’, ‘elevator’ and ‘lift’ and ‘pantry’ and ‘larder’.

Teaching appropriate spelling is also relatively straightforward. There are some generalized (generalised?) rules which we can make our students aware of. However, we also need to ensure that learners are consistent in their use of these spellings and that we are consistent in our feedback on learners’ writing. Carefully selecting texts for students to read which contain American or British spelling conventions would surely be of great benefit in this respect.

Pronunciation is much more problematic, however. I am hopeless at imitating accents and in no way propose that teachers start to do so. Having said that, we can select listening texts that expose learners to American or British varieties (interestingly enough, the site ‘Breaking news English’ has started to provide listening texts in both varieties). And we can also ensure that we are not over-correcting perceived errors which are not, in fact, errors.

Although it irks me somewhat to hear my son say ‘Santa Clause’, I have chosen not to correct him as it is obviously the variety of English he needs in the playground. And it is addressing these needs which should be our starting point for any learner of a language.

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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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