Do You Speak British English?

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We are talking about cooking, right? Shop sign in Camden, London

I took English for a couple of years when I was in high school. However, unlike most French students, it wasn’t my main “foreign language”—Mandarin was, which is why I barely spoke English when I met Feng and first moved to Canada.

I remember learning “the Queen’s English”, and repeating sentences such as “how do you do?” and “have you got a pencil?” All our teachers were French and took the mandatory yearly trip to the UK, so we were taught to speak in a British accent and learned British vocabulary.

This is probably why I was so confused the first time I met Americans. I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying. Same went for Canadians, as a matter of fact. It took me a little while to get used to the most widespread “variety” of English spoken in North America, and to adopt local slang and spelling.

I now speak American/Canadian English, not British English. It always takes me a minute or two to tune to regional accents, such as Kiwi, Australian or British (for Scottish accent, it takes me a bit longer… ever watched Trainspotting? I need subtitles!).

And apparently, the same goes for British people, who seemed taken aback by the way we spoke. First, there is the accent: we understand British just fine because we are used to hear different flavours of English in our travels, but some locals were clearly struggling to understand us.

Typical conversations went like this:

“Hi, can I have a sandwich to go?”

“Is it to take away?”

“Yes, to go.”

“… To take away?”

The vocabulary is different too. Signs such as “flat to let” (“apartment for rent” in North American English) made me smile, because while I know what they mean, the way to phrase ideas is completely different. I also smiled when I read signs such as “free cash” above ATMs: I assume it means there is no fee to withdraw cash, but this kind of sign would be taken literally in North America, with people suing for not getting “free cash”!

It reminded me of Australia, where people kept on asking us: “where do you come from?” The first couple of times, I understood the question as “where are you just coming from?”, i.e. which city did you just visit, so I would reply “Sydney” or “Brisbane”. People looked puzzled… and after a few times I understood they meant “where are you from?”, not “where do you come from?”!

In London, we were also confused by expressions such as “single ticket” (one-way ticket), “hand luggage” (when booking our flight, we couldn’t figure out whether it referred to carry-on luggage or to checked luggage), fat chips (French fries) and crips (potato chips). It was sometime a real headache trying to figure out that new vocabulary… but hey, these kinds of linguistic adventures make travel more fun, right?

Ever notice the difference between British English, Canadian English, American English or other flavours of English?

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

18 Comments

  1. Haha, this reminded me of my summer back in 2008. I spent a month in Europe, 2 weeks in Denmark and 2 weeks in Hungary. Almost all of the people I encountered during that trip spoke to me in British English.

    So when I flew back to Buffalo, I decided to switch and speak British English, and I can fake it rather well. My friends were annoyed, because they found it cognitively dissonant for someone to just switch an accent, just like that. I on the other hand found it funny, because I am not a native English speaker, so there shouldn’t be a native accent or dialect of English for me. 🙂

  2. What’s funny too is that as a still loyal British colony, much of the spelling in Canadian English is the same as British, like colour. (Americans spell it color) We love our u’s. 😉

    As an Anglo, I have learned some French from France slang and Québecois slang and frankly, the French from France slang is easier and much less confusing!

    • It took me a long while to get used to Canadian spelling! That’s one thing in French, the spelling doesn’t really change depending on the country/region, only the vocabulary and accent do.

  3. Hi Zhu Zhu,

    I used to feel the same about Irish English: their accent drove me mad for the first month. But then I picked it up. It prepared me for the Highlands.

    Oh yes, I have been fortunate enough to experience several accents of English (including the former African and Caribbean British colonies’s English) – all different, all delicious. But I am used to it, because there are several Portuguese accents as well (even within Portugal itself).

    I see that you had fun: good.

    Cheers

    • Caribbean English is lovely, I love the accent and the vocabulary. We did hear it in Belize and Honduras. Can you believe I’m more familiar with Brazil Portuguese than with Portugal Portuguese??

  4. Hi Zhu,
    Accents are so interesting! I’ve been told that I pick up accents relatively fast (not perfect ofcourse) so when I am travelling somewhere I tend to adapt to the accent there, which results in funny moments on my return home. As for the vocabulary, I still surprise myself with some Indian (i.e. British) words stuck in my head which come out in random situations.

    • Funny! I find ESL speakers tend to pick up accents better than English speakers who haven’t traveled much. We are more flexible in a way.

  5. i always use british spelling… but vocabulary wise, i think am pretty balanced between american and british english hah.

    we have our very own version of english too, and malaysians have a tendency to add “lah” to the end of almost every sentence! 😀

    always love these language posts! interesting! 🙂

    • I do my best to use Canadian spelling, and my vocabulary is definitely American I think, although I understand British English thanks to the novels I read.

  6. As a true Brit,I do speak the Queen’s English. I also had quite a few elocution lessons when I was little, so lost a lot of my local dialect (although alcohol often brings it out again). The thing I love about the dialects of the English is how you can pretty much tell what town somebody was born in by their accent, and those accents can vary wildly between towns that are just a few streets apart. I also love travelling abroad and seeing how easily things can get so eaily lost in translation.

    • You are right, the UK has so many different dialects. I used to be able to tell them apart a bit but now I’m more sensitive to variations of American English.

  7. Really enjoyed this one 🙂 Did they call chips “crisps” as well? I’ve heard they do that in England, but I’m wondering if they do that in Australia, too.

  8. Pingback: Byteful Travel Blog Carnival #14 – 2012 September | Byteful Travel

  9. Aloha again Zhu, 🙂

    I just wanted to thank you again for submitting your article to the Byteful Travel Blog Carnival. It’s been included in the 14th BT Blog Carnival which was published today.

    So, if you could retweet, stumble, or “Like” the blog carnival, I would really appreciate it. It would also help people discover your article, too!

    Thanks again. Looking forward to your submissions next time! 🙂

  10. Pingback: Byteful Travel Blog Carnival 14 – 2012 Sept • Aravinda Loop

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