108: In the US, it is 'learned' and 'spelled,' while the British kept 'learnt' and 'spelt'

The English past tense became regular; the British kept the irregular spelling.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 108th episode.

Listen to the end of today's show to hear about another audio book I recommend for non-native speakers, Holes, by Louis Sacker. I'll also tell you how you can get a copy of this book for free!

Today I'm going to talk about a couple of differences between American English and British English. I come across learners with very different levels of awareness when it comes to ways the dialects of English are different. Certainly, it would be easier for all of us, teachers and learners alike, if American English and British English were same, but I kind of like the differences. After all, we are in different countries, and even different continents. Certainly our cultures are different, so it seems our speech should give us clues about our individual backgrounds.

Of course, I fully understand that within these English speaking countries, there are many, many differences in smaller regional dialects. I'm speaking only about a few specific words within the most standard accents.

When I'm teaching, there are two words that tell me a student has had some British English learning experience, the words learnt and spelt. That was learnt l-e-a-r-n-t, and spelt s-p-e-l-t. In American English, the verbs to learn and to spell are regular in the past tense. We simply add -ed, and we get learned and spelled. In British English, a t is used instead.

Now, I don't know how much the British realize that the Americans have made these words regular, but I will say that probably only a minority Americans know that the British kept the older, irregular, spelling and pronunciation. That, unfortunately, can make your American colleagues and friends think you are actually wrong, and not realize that you're using a different country's standard.

When you're speaking, the spoken difference can be masked by your overall accent, and go unnoticed by your listeners. It's usually the spelling that is first noticed.

As an ESL or ELL student, you have some choices, and I think choices are good. If you are living and working or studying in the US, you might choose to adopt the US patterns, but that also depends on if you plan to stay in the US long-term.

If you are studying English outside of an English speaking country in an EFL program, it depends on how and where you'll be using your English. For people in that situation, being able to recognize the differences between countries' standards is the best circumstance.

And this might surprise some of you, but if you are using English as a common language among non-native English speakers (for instance, in a multi-cultural situation where English is the shared second language among you), I think the British patterns are more widely known across the world, and you might want to stay with them. I think the British have done a better job of creating material for English as a Foreign Language classrooms, and that is why so many of you have had more British English exposure than American English.

Let's talk a bit about Canadian speech because sometimes Canadian English can be a hybrid between American and British English. Canadian pronunciation is more American, but their spelling tends to follow closer to British. For instance, they usually keep the extra u in the words colour and favour. Their past tenses, however, have taken on the American qualities. I asked a Canadian friend of mine who teaches ESL in Canada what the more common pattern is in his country. He told me that the ed endings of these words is generally used in spelling, although saying learnt is acceptable. I would say, if you live in Canada, you can choose how Canadian you want to sound by using the learned pronunciation, or the learnt pronunciation.

The words learn and spell aren't the only words with these differences in past tense spelling and pronunciation, they are just the most frequently used. According to the Ask the Experts section of the Oxford English Dictionary, the British also have an irregular past tense for the following:


Since languages always change, It will be interesting to see what happens to these words in the future. Will they become more regular over time? Who knows.

Now I'm going to tell you about a great book, Holes, by Louis Sacker, which you can get for free by signing up for a free 14-day trial of Audible.com. To get this deal, go to www.audiblepodcast.com/pronuncian. Oh, and don't think that just because you aren't in the US you can't get in on this; Audible is available in a huge number of countries of the world.

Holes is a young adult reading level, so if you're worried you don't have a high enough listening comprehension for an audiobook, this would be a good start. And the story is very entertaining, which is why Disney also made it into a movie. A 14-year-old boy named Stanley gets found guilty of stealing a pair of famous shoes, although he is actually innocent. His punishment is to go to a place called Camp Green Lake and, every day, dig a hole in the ground. The Warden says that this kind of labor will make him, and the other inmates into good boys. However, there is much more to the story than digging a hole to improve one's set of values.

The story is amusing and funny at the same time. If you enjoy books with themes of friendship, family history, luck, destiny, and hope, this book is for you. And later you can watch the movie, too, and get even more entertainment out of it. Trust me, I've used this audio book with students in the past, and they all enjoyed it. I enjoy it every time I hear the story again.

So, you can get this book, or any other of Audible's 75,000 titles, by going to www.audiblepodcast.com/pronuncian. Sign up for the free trial. You can cancel before the 14 days is up, and you get to keep your free book.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.