“English spoken, American understood” is a sign I saw once hanging in a Scottish pub. It sums up the “English question” quite nicely, which is this article’s topic.
How many people speak English?
With 375 million native speakers and 1.5 billion total speakers English is by far the most widely spoken language in the world and as such has become a lingua franca for international business.
As it is spoken in very different parts of the world it has become influenced by several social, political and cultural aspects, resulting in a language with loads of local variants.
Despite the fact that English is an official language in over 60 countries around the world, there are only 6 countries where it is actually spoken as a native language by the majority of the population.
Sometimes collectively referred to as the Anglosphere, these countries are also home to the most widely accepted variants of the English language, (though there are also significant numbers of native speakers in several other countries such as South Africa, Singapore and Nigeria plus many Caribbean countries that speak an English creole).
Variants of English: which one should you choose?
Deciding the right English variant for your content is a strategic decision that requires some careful consideration. Especially because once you have settled on an approach, you need to make sure that everyone in your company is aligned.
When it comes to written English, the various forms are distinct in terms of spelling, grammar and vocabulary. Even though the standard written forms are understandable by all English speakers alike, a native US English speaker might not identify with a text written in UK English and vice versa.
So, your decision will depend on what sort of connection you are trying to establish with the reader. Therefore, you need to ask yourself the following questions:
- Which countries are you targeting?
- What is the objective of your content? Is it to get information across (like in the case of technical documentation), or is it to resonate with your target audience (as is the case with marketing material, social media, etc.)?
- Where are your main competitors based and what forms of English do they use?
Once you have a fair idea, of that, you can choose between the two biggest variants:
British or American English?
English of United Kingdom
UK English is the preferred variant in most European countries and due to its colonialist history in English-speaking African countries and South Asia (i.e. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh).
English of the United States
Thanks to its cultural influence, US English is the preferred variant in Latin America and East Asia (i.e. China, Japan and Philipines).
Difference between British and American English
These two forms differ from each other in terms of spelling conventions, word meanings and grammar rules. If you want to test your own knowledge of the differences between British and American English slang try watching this short video clip with Ellen Degeneres and Hugh Laurie:
The Oxford Dictionaries website also has a page with a comprehensive list of British and American terms that might come handy, especially if you are doing SEO.
To make the picture complete, there are also:
English of Canada
English of Australia and New Zealand
If you are unable to choose between any of the above recognised forms, then, perhaps you could try to adopt International English. Though there is no standard definition of what International English entails, the idea is to develop a neutral language that is free of any cultural references with a spelling system that mixes both American and British forms so as to avoid alienating anyone.
Whatever type of English you go for, bear in mind that different markets use different systems of measurement. In particular, the US still uses the imperial system, whereas UK English uses both imperial and metric systems.
Hope you found this interesting, and remember, next time you go to a Scottish pub and pay for 7 pints of beer, you will get your money’s worth. But pay the same in the United States, and you will get just 6 pints. Read here to figure out why.