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Do You Speak British English?

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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