On Learning American English (My Dubious Claim to Being Bilingual).

There are some elusive skills that you can obtain in life that will make you the envy of all of your fellow humans. Being visible to the wait staff in a restaurant when you want to settle your bill is chief among these but to me a close second is being bilingual or multilingual. At school I learnt how to tell a French person that I had a flat tyre and how to ask the way to the local bibliotheque, neither of which will help you with the opposite sex when you are in France I can tell you. I was never taught vital French like Je voudrais une bière or how to ask when the ferry workers/air traffic controllers/everyone’s strike would end.

As a result of these linguistic shortcomings I have promised myself that I will take a Spanish course this summer so that when I next visit a Spanish speaking country I won’t be that person whose interaction with the locals is limited to pointing to the beer taps in the bar and then calling everyone the one Spanish word I know (amigo) once I have consumed enough of the aforementioned beers. Once in Cherbourg, I was accosted by a rude British tourist who assuming I was foreign kept repeating the word petroleum and mimicking filling up his car. I directed him on a circuitous route involving every toll road in France and assured myself I’d never be like that.

Whilst berating myself on not being multilingual, however, I realised that I do already speak two languages fluently: British and American English. The spelling differences we have largely come from a patriotic man called Noah Webster who wanted to free his people from the influence of the British by spelling words more phonetically to establish a separate American English. He removed lots of pesky colonial letters such as the ‘u’ in colour, flavour etc. and the extra ‘l’ in travelled. Fortunately not all of his new patriotic spellings caught on such as ‘tung’ for tongue or ‘wimmen’ for women. If they had, English lessons would undoubtedly have been easier for a lot of people in isolated hill towns.

I know that you are judging me for calling the removal of a few (Americans would argue superfluous) letters from the odd word a different language so allow me to strengthen my case. It’s the different words, pronunciations and phrases that present the real problem to any Brit aspiring to live in America. The different words we use for the same objects are the opportunity to not be understood and have to repeat ourselves until we give up and point to what we want. A British coworker of mine moved to the US as a school kid and amused her schoolmates no end when she asked if anyone had any rubbers in class. A rubber might be a condom in the US but it’s what we Brits call an eraser.

The first time I dialed into a conference call at work (or tried to) I spent ages looking at my phone trying to find the requisite pound key (which we call the hash key in the UK) and ended up having to ask someone. An American who visits the UK and complains of a “sore fanny” after a long flight will soon discover that it means a different body part on the other side of the Atlantic. I once also exclaimed that I was full of beans (full of energy in the UK) only to discover everyone holding their nose and thinking that I was referring to flatulence. This would be known in the UK as a “cock up” which you may think is British slang for Viagra but it actually refers to something that has gone wrong.

I have quickly learnt that “I’m just going to pop to the loo” is usually met with blank looks and that it’s easier to say “I’m going to the restroom” if I want to be understood. Also, if referring to something awesome it’s best to not call it “the dog’s bollocks” as that idiom has not made it across the Atlantic yet and people will wonder why I am talking about Fido’s undercarriage. I will never replace the British English tap with the US version faucet, though. If I decide to become a US citizen when I’m eligible in a few years and part of the test involves the word faucet then I’m afraid I will fail. I will never use that awful word.

The point that I am trying to make in this post is that to communicate effectively as a Brit in the US requires more than needing to remove the occasional ‘u’ from a word. Many everyday words have a different meaning in the US and many British idioms mean absolutely nothing to the average American. If you are exchanging banter with someone on the other side of the Atlantic the American is making fun of the Brit while the Brit is taking the piss out of the American. It’s pretty easy to adjust and while it certainly doesn’t qualify as learning a new language it can lead to any number of amusing situations and misunderstandings which can enrich your life or lead to no end of embarrassment. I’m definitely okay with that as it happens.

Have you ever been caught out by the different meanings of US/British English?

24 thoughts on “On Learning American English (My Dubious Claim to Being Bilingual).

  1. mamakam

    I have so many funny stories from the days as an expat living in the UK! My favorite was when we were having a garden party with several of our new neighbors and the subject turned to American television. For whatever reason, the TV classic “Mork and Mindy” was brought up. I mentioned that I loved that show, and I said that I even had Mork and Mindy suspenders, you know the ones with rainbow stripes and a “number one” finger? Boy, did everyone have a great laugh at my expense! Apparently, suspenders as I know them are known as “braces” in the UK, and to them suspenders are used to hold up a woman’s stockings!

  2. My American friends always seem to be amused when I use the word loo. I refuse to call it restroom, though, as the word restroom to me insinuates a place where I can go to chill and relax 🙂

    1. The first time I was in the US and I saw a restroom sign at the airport I thought that very same thing! Restroom to me is too long a word, I much prefer loo or even toilet.

  3. Bea

    I’ve been calling it a “port-a-loo” since 8th grade when a friend visited her mom in Scotland for s month and came back with that term. Loo is so much shorter and nicer sounding than bathroom!
    My dad had an exchange student once who had this unfortunate exchange in school:
    Her: Does anyone have a rubber? I’ve made a mistake.
    Classmate: It’s too late for that!

  4. When I started taking extra English classes (I was about 10 then), my teacher asked whether I’d like to learn British or American English. I went with British and now I quite often have to fight auto correct, which always wants to take extra u’s out!

  5. It’s not just American English. Here in Canada it sometimes feels like you are learning a new language too, as you try and pick up the local terms so that you are understood! Then you start questioning whether they understand any of of your British words or phrases!

    1. All those new words like “aboot”! I would love it if you were to cover some of these local terms in your blog 😉 I find the differences in language really interesting. 🙂

  6. AHAHAHAHA! I work for a charity with volunteers from around the world, so we have a lot of fun at meetings for this reason. Your insistence on using the word tap can be misconstrued as an unending desire to drink beer (which is served on tap). Even in the same country, though, we get these sort of mishaps. Alice asked me once, “did you see that Ed brought out the sweeper?” I wondered when we got a Swiffer mop when apparently she referred to the vacuum cleaner. I also pause when she uses the word ‘pop’. To me, that’s an old-time way of saying dad, not soda (or coke or cola or whatever you Brits call it).

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