American & British English Pronunciation Differences

Written by beth taylor
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American & British English Pronunciation Differences
Distinguish the key differences between American and British English. (Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

Whether you are learning English or teaching it to others, tackling the pronounciation differences between American and British English can be a surprisingly tough task. English as a second language (ESL) students who don't live in either America or the U.K. may easily become confused about English pronunciations as they hear different accents across different speakers and media. Break down some of the differences with these tips.

American and British Accents

While there are a wide variety of accents in the American and British English-speaking world, it may be useful to think of the two most broad and commonly heard (especially in terms of popular media) varieties. The general American accent is similar to that heard throughout the Midwest and West, and Received Pronunciation, similar to the dialect heard on BBC broadcasts, is considered a standard for U.K. English. Focus on these two categories to avoid further confusion about local dialects and accents.

Key Differences

The most obvious difference that the average English speaker or learner might notice between the two dialects is that American English is what is known as rhotic, a voicing of words that pronounces hard R's, while British English is generally non-rhotic and rolls over R's silently. Vowels are another key difference. O is pronounced in a more rounded way in British English, but is more interchangeable with an "ah" or A sound in American English. In many words, the A in British English tends to be longer than it is in American pronunciation.

Studying More Differences

These basic differences are relatively easy to explain through examples and practice. If you are a more advanced student of languages, you may be familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This is the international pronunciation guide seen in dictionaries and other linguistic texts. Understanding this alphabet and consulting guides about British and American pronunciation can help you understand finer degrees of difference that are more difficult to verbalise.

Learning and Practicing

Whether you are trying to learn or teach the difference between these dialects, the vast amount of popular media produced in both America and the U.K. provides a great basis for practicing. Newscasts and scripted shows are useful tools for hearing natural pronunciation, as well as other important differences in the daily use of language. For example, another key difference between U.K. and U.S. English is the use of different synonyms for common words, such as "lift" compared to "elevator," or "boot" rather than "trunk."

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