The World Rushes To Speak and Write 'American' English

Britain's 'mother tongue' takes a lickin' from the Americanization of the emerging global language

Like many Russians, Ilya Bezouglyi learned English the way his teachers preferred: British style.

But after being laughed at in Canada for using the word "chaps," and after a year of graduate study in the United States, Mr. Bezouglyi says that he and his English are "pretty much Americanized."

The "Americanization" of English is happening around the world today, from Africa to Britain itself. American English is seeping into the nooks and crannies of English everywhere thanks to education, business, Hollywood, and the Internet.

Although British English - which many countries consider to be the "real thing" - is widely taught around the world, what those learners use in their private lives is more influenced by the US.

As a result, "American English is spreading faster than British English," says Braj Kachru, a linguist in India and a founder and co-editor of the journal "World Englishes."

In television broadcasts alone, the United States controlled 75 percent of the world's programming as recently as 1993, beaming "Sesame Street" to Lagos, Nigeria, for example.

Americans also outnumber Britons: People are more likely to encounter one of the 260 million Yanks than one of the 55 million Brits. "It's more practical to speak and understand American English these days," says Bezouglyi, who adds there are more Americans than Britons in Russia today.

The spread of American English began in the decades after World War II. Experts say the simultaneous rise of the US as a military and technological superpower and the receding of the British empire gave many in the world both the desire and option to choose American English.

English in general has spread during that time as well. More than 1 billion people are thought to speak it as a native, second, or foreign language. Among the roughly 350 million native English speakers, the American version is spoken by about 70 percent.

"There's no question that Britain made English an international language in the 19th century with its empire," says Bill Bryson, an American author of several books on the history of English. "But it's Americans that have been the driving force behind the globalization of English in the 20th century" because of their commercial and cultural clout, he says.

Examples of the influence of American English include:

*Young people in Europe, Asia, and Russia using it in casual conversation - including the notorious US export, "you guys" - even when many of them have been taught British English.

"As far as I can see, it's exactly equivalent to wearing Nike baseball caps, or Air Jordan shoes," says Mr. Bryson, who listened to teenagers speak with American accents in the Netherlands recently. "It's a kind of linguistic badge."

*In Brazil, people often ask for courses in "American," rather than English, according to Bernabe Feria, head of curriculum and development for Berlitz International in Princeton, N.J.

*In Nigeria, years of trade with the US - and contact that blossomed in the 1960s with the Peace Corps - have greatly increased the use of American English. It is now spoken along with British English, a leftover of British colonial rule.

*In Cairo, as recently as 1984, some university students received lower grades if they used American spellings instead of British. Since then, there has been an increase in the number of teachers in Egypt trained by Americans. "You can well imagine that nobody gets a red line through their paper for spelling 'center' with an 'er' anymore," says Richard Boyum, the head of English-language teaching activities at the United States Information Agency (USIA).

*In Thailand, the standard in both schools and the English-language press is British English. But university teachers may speak English with an American accent because they have studied in the US.

*The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), long the promoter of proper British English, now includes Americans in its broadcasts (see story at right). Its English-language teaching programs feature Americans in broadcasts that go to countries where American English is favored, such as South Korea.

American invasion

Britain has not been immune to the spread of American English, either.

More words that were exclusively American are now found in the speech and writing in both countries, says Norman Moss, compiler of an American-British/British-American dictionary called "What's the Difference?" "Once 'guy' and 'campus' were almost unknown in Britain," he says. Today they are widely used.

Britons are also increasingly saying "movie" instead of "film." Computer-related words are more frequently spelled the American way: program, without the British addition of "me" on the end, for example. And the American phrase "the bottom line" is encroaching on its British equivalent "at the end of the day."

"We tend to take them [Americanisms] over if they are useful and reject them if they are not," offers Geraldine Kershaw, a senior English-language teaching consultant to the British Council, a government-sponsored agency that operates British-English teaching centers worldwide.

Linguists note that the mixing of British and American English in Europe has given rise to a "mid-Atlantic" English, a more neutral language that is less identifiable with either country.

In some European countries, both kinds of English are now accepted and taught. Some learners prefer American English because they believe it has fewer regional accents and dialects than British English does, experts say, and therefore is easier to understand and to use.

Still, the USIA - which advises countries on English teaching but does not teach it directly - and its British counterpart, the British Council, argue that the languages are not in competition.

"I don't think there is a fierce contest going on between the two kinds of English," says Ms. Kershaw of the British Council. She notes that there are very few differences between the two.

Neither of the agencies "has a budget that could anywhere satisfy the demands that foreign institutions are placing on upgrading English-language expertise," notes the USIA's Mr. Boyum. "What we do in this field is actually mostly cooperate rather than compete."

English as a commodity

But the question of who is teaching the world to speak English is no small matter. The hunger for the language has made English teaching a big business.

"English has become an economic commodity," says Dr. Kachru, who runs the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

Some estimates place the revenues of the worldwide industry at about $10 billion annually. That includes teaching, textbooks, and materials, and money spent by foreign students who choose to attend schools in English-speaking countries as a result of learning the language.

The dollar amount will likely get much bigger if predictions by the British Council that more than 1 billion people will be learning English by 2000 prove true. Markets that are expected to contribute to the rise include Russia and China. China alone is estimated already to have between 200 million and 400 million people who speak some form of English.

Currently, much of the English taught in Europe, India, and parts of Asia and Africa is British or British-influenced. American English is favored in Latin America, Japan, and South Korea.

But linguists note that often those learning the language just want English - they don't care what kind. English is often studied by people whose primary purpose is not to speak to Americans or Britons, says Dr. Feria of Berlitz. They need to speak with other nonnative speakers, using English as a common language, experts say.

Many cultures also increasingly communicate in their own forms of English - Indian English, for example. And some countries may reject either American or British English if speaking it is considered undesirable for political reasons.

Nevertheless, English teaching generates more than $1.1 billion annually for Britain. The British Council pulls in about $237 million of that from its global, self-supporting English teaching and related activities. Last year, it launched its English 2000 program. One of its aims is to attract more foreign students to Britain through promotion of British English and culture worldwide.

Australia is also in the game, adding an estimated $415 million annually to its economy from teaching English. It, too, has become more aggressive recently, establishing English-teaching centers in Asia as a way to attract foreign students to Australian universities.

Although the US government discontinued its involvement in direct English teaching in the 1970s, the US still attracts 450,000 students and scholars to American schools each year. They, in turn, become a powerful dissemination vehicle (in addition to bringing more than $7 billion annually to the American economy).

"Each one of them obviously learns American English, and in fact some of them go back and become teachers of it abroad," says John Loiello, associate director for cultural and education affairs at the USIA.

In addition, it is thought that those who learn one kind of English or another, especially when they learn it while immersed in the culture of a country, are more likely to buy the goods of that country in the future.

Muscovite Bezouglyi is a case in point. He reads Newsweek magazine and frequents a newly opened American bookstore in Russia. He says he chooses to read American publications because he better understands "what they're writing about and their English."

As English continues to spread, some experts say, a form of it could become the common language of the world. But multiligualism is also on the rise, suggesting that English may not be the only language to prevail.

David Crystal, a linguist from Wales and author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, says that the way English is changing now, if it does become the global language, "it's going to be American-English-dominated, I have no doubt."

*Alexander MacLeod in London contributed to this story.

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