Me Talk British One Day: A Yankee’s Guide to the Queen’s English

We need an English speaker to fill the PUBLIC RELATIONS COORDINATOR position at our travel company. This position will involve creating and executing tourism publicity campaigns targeted to English-speaking markets throughout the summer of 2016.

Hey, perfect! I need a summer job, and that sounds like something I could do!

Candidate must be NATIVE BRITISH SPEAKER

…Oh.

(Can I just fake an accent for the interview and throughout the whole summer? I really want this job.)

The popularity of Hollywood movies and Top 40 radio here in Spain means that more and more people are becoming familiar with my native dialect of English. However, in the academic and professional world, BrE is still the way to go. This is due to both geographic proximity (the UK is obviously closer to Spain than the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) and the fact that the Queen’s English is the OG dialect.

I’ve even had the interesting experience of having some little kids think I’m not a native speaker of English because I’m from the US. “Leensay, por qué hablas inglés si eres americana? Dime algo en americano.” They think that there must be some language called “American” (much to the chagrin of some of us Yanks, there isn’t).

It’s actually been a pretty cool experience as a language nerd, because I learn something new about my native tongue almost every day. But I have to admit that I sometimes feel like a fish out of water teaching an unfamiliar version of my own language. For all my fellow ‘Mericans who might be interested in coming to teach English in Spain, here are some things it would help to know (as well as a bunch of mistakes I made so you don’t have to).

You want me to give you a WHAT?

I was teaching a private English class to my coworker’s 8-year-old son. At school, they were studying clothing vocabulary, so we were reviewing with a set of flash cards that featured a picture of each item on the front of the card and the English word on the back.

He was doing well and knew most of the words, but got stuck at one point, so I looked at the picture: “This is a ‘sweater.'”

It was clear that the kid had never heard that word before in his life. He shook his head. “Eso no es ‘sweater.'”

I turned the card over to show him the word, thinking that maybe he was just confused by the pronunciation. Lo and behold, the English word on the back was not “sweater,” but rather JUMPER. Duh.

If you ask for a “jumper” in the UK, people will think you’re cold. If you ask for a “jumper” in the US, an American will assume your car won’t start and hand you some cables before asking if you want them to call AAA.

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 7.59.17 PM
Ignoring the fact that my artistic skills didn’t evolve beyond second grade, I think this “draw a self-portrait and label the clothing” activity was harder for me than for the kid. (jumper and trousers and grEy, oh my!)

It’s easier said than done, but using British vocabulary, especially when working with little kids who aren’t familiar with the concept of different dialects, will clear up a lot of confusion.

Although most people know that an apartment is a flat and a gas station is a petrol station across the pond, some British terms aren’t as well known among Americans. Like the time during another private class when my seven-year-old student asked if I could pass him a “rubber.”

(In British English, a “rubber” is an eraser which is a perfectly appropriate thing to give to a seven-year-old.)

Free game show idea: Is That British Or Is That Just Wrong?

One day, my main teacher and I decided to split up our group of 4º ESO (like sophomores in high school) students. I took them aside in small groups to practice a speaking activity while the rest of the kids had class as normal. The conversation topic dealt with how we’d spent our weekends.

The first student in my group began, “At the weekend I played football with my friends.”

Knowing prepositions can be tough in any language (I certainly struggle with those small but mighty words in Spanish), I gently corrected him. “Over the weekend I played football.”

But the next student made the same mistake, and the next one, and the next one. The main teacher came into the room with the next group of students right as I was in the middle of correcting another “at the weekend.” Imagine my surprise when she told me that “at the weekend” is perfectly correct in British English – needless to say I felt terrible when I realized that I’d told every single kid in the group they’d been wrong.

A similar incident happened the first time I met my boss. I normally speak in Spanish with her now, but we were speaking English for the benefit of my dad, who was with us at the time. She told me that she would email me my work schedule, but pronounced it “shedule” instead of “skedule.”

I didn’t want to correct her when I’d just met her, so I ignored it. Over the next few weeks, I heard quite a few other Spanish people saying “shedule,” but just chalked it up to a pronunciation error.

Then one day I heard an actual British person say “shedule” and now I’m not sure what to believe anymore. Lately there have been so many times when I hear Spaniards saying things in English that sound unusual to me, but that I’m hesitant to correct because maybe that’s perfectly correct in British dialects.

Suddenly, spelling “mistakes” abound

I was in a science class one day, helping teach the 1º ESO (the youngest group in the school, like seventh grade) kids about the water cycle. The main teacher was explaining some things in Spanish while I drew a diagram on the board with labels in English. When I was done, almost every single hand in the room went up.

Profe, falta la U!”

They were pointing to various spots on the board where I’d written the words “water vapor.” They, of course, were used to seeing “vapour” and thought I had spelled it wrong.

Objectively speaking, I have to say that in my experience, certain American spellings seem to be easier for most Spaniards (even though that’s not what they learn) because in many cases the American English words are spelled exactly the same in Spanish. Vapor is the same in American English and Spanish. So are favor (think por favor, used as “please” but literally “for a favor”) and color. Another one of my 8-year-old private lesson students was reading me something he’d written for school about his favorite movies and TV shows, and kept pronouncing it with a very exaggerated middle syllable: “favowwwrite.” The U in favourite was tripping him up.

On the other hand, though, British English words like “realise” and “organisation” tend to be easier for Spaniards than their American counterparts because the English pronunciation of s comes more naturally to them than the z sound. It all just depends – neither one is any better or worse, and they each have easy and difficult aspects.

Last but not least, speaking of the letter Z…

“My last name is Zimmerman. Z-I-M-M-E-R-M-A-N.”

I glanced over to see how it was being written down: Cimmerman.

“Oh, no, it starts with Z,” I corrected politely.

“Yes, C.”

I spelled it again for them, this time pronouncing each letter according to the Spanish alphabet: zeta ee eme eme ay ere eme ah ene.

“Oh! I don’t know why you were saying ‘zee.’ That letter is called ‘zed.’ Shouldn’t you know that if you’re a native English speaker?”

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. British English is quite frustrating. I think more so because you’re pretty sure how to say something only to find out no one knows what you’re talking about…

    1. I agree! And then I feel like I can’t say “Actually, in AMERICAN English…” without sounding like the stereotypical obnoxious American.

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