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American English: A 2-Minute Introduction

learn American EnglishPunk. Televangelist. Teenager.

These are just three American words an international student will likely encounter in the US. There are thousands more. American English is a lithe, kaleidescopic language, constantly borrowing, tailoring and coining new words.

For cultural “newbies” (to use another Americanism), discovering the quirks and riddles of our vernacular is a baffling but deeply rewarding experience.

American English vs. British English

On the national level, American English betrays a fondness for compound verbs and adjectives, such as bad-mouth, brainstorm, rear-end, deadbeat, no-show, bandwagon. Many compound words are hijacked (another Americanism) from their ordinary meanings to serve linguistic double-duty: backpack, for instance, can be both a bag and a pastime.

Similarly, prepositions and definite articles are haphazard. In Britain, one says, “I was in hospital,” but in America, a “the” is usually there: “I was in the hospital.” Likewise, children in the UK learn lessons “at school,” while Americans learn theirs “in school.”

Americans also love to reinvent, so it’s no surprise that words can have unique meanings on each side of the Atlantic. In the UK, ordering a brew makes for a mellow evening, while in the US it denotes jukeboxes and hangovers.

Nor are tea and beer the only variables. In England, cars have boots; in America, they have trunks.

Regional Words & Phrases in American English

Even language within the US can be erratic.

Carbonated beverages are “soda” in the East, “pop” in the Midwest, “soda water” in the rural Southwest and “soft drinks” on most restaurant menus. Likewise, some parts of the country “frost” a cake while others “ice” it. And whether you wear “sneakers” or “tennis shoes” depends on your location.

Slang & College Terminology

Slang and jargon are separate (and intricately complicated) issues. American English is especially adept at concocting new exclamations, insults and colloquialisms. Since this shadow language morphs at street-level, it’s hard to keep pace with the latest expressions. Today, most slang is introduced online or on television and is absorbed seemingly overnight.

International students, in particular, will find it useful to consult a list of college terms and phrases. Although it won’t offer the latest buzzwords around campus, it will introduce you to the academic terminology you’ll be expected to know.

Adjusting to college life in the US is challenging, and mastering American English is part of that journey. If you remain curious and committed, however, you’ll gain a vibrant way to talk about your experiences and yourself.

So keep your ears open.

And have a nice day (yet another Americanism)!

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