it’s British to me

Even though I knew the English textbooks in Mongolia were in British English, I’d only ever planned to teach my students American English, since that’s what I speak. Of course, I’d explain that both versions are correct; I’d never “fix” accurate British English just so a student or teacher sounded like me. With all the exceptions that any version of English already has, I never considered the added complication of learning different vocabulary and grammar as you are trying to learn the language. But, the real assumption was that I’d have no trouble understanding the textbooks and making the distinctions in the first place, let alone be able to point out the differences to my students.

I should have known better. Several years ago, in the Glasgow airport, I had a taste of what it is like to be aware that you must understand the words, and yet have no sense of the meaning.

Here’s what happened when I’d ordered a coffee:
Scottish barista: two sitor too tay quay?
Me: pardon me?
Scottish barista: tosit orto takeway?
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
Scottish barista: to sit or to take ’way?
Me: OH! To take away. Thank you.

You’d think the context would have clued me in, and maybe I was lost in a traveler’s fog or succumbing to jet-lag, but I literally had no idea what she was asking. In my defense, some gestures on her part would have done a lot to clarify the meaning on my part. It wasn’t merely the Scottish inflection that threw me but the phrasing as well; in my part of America, we’d ask “for here or to go?”

Back in the classroom, what began as an absent-minded activity, “translating” words (torch=flashlight, post=mail, maths=math, football=soccer, cloakroom=coatroom) in my head, morphed into a sometimes frustrating attempt to decipher my mother tongue. On more than one occasion I assumed something to be a typo rather than one of the ways American and British English differ. “Have you got a brother?” Who talks like that? I didn’t know that a “jumper” was a sweater. I straight out told a teacher that the book was wrong because “sledging” is not a word. Turns out, it’s what you do when you go “sledding” in the U.K. And, apparently, a “zebra crossing” is what I’d call a cross-walk.

Early on, I wrote about the absence of prepositions in Mongolian. If we were only dealing with “on holiday” vs “on vacation” perhaps there’d be no confusion. Alas, these textbooks teach “at the weekend” which I can’t bring myself to say naturally, preferring “on weekends” or “this weekend” depending on the situation. And why do they have “at THE weekend” but “in hospital” when I’d say “in THE hospital.”

If I—a native English speaker—can suffer such confusion, what must it be like for my students?

4 Responses to it’s British to me

  1. One that got me when teaching 9th grade was “athletics”- a word we use for sports. In the matching exercise there was no picture to match my understanding of athletics, but an extra picture of someone either vaulting or running. Later I discovered that “athletics” is British English for a specific group of sports activities. I wouldn’t want to be studying English as a foreign language!!

    • Priscilla A. Arsenault says:

      No wonder English is so tough as a second language! Between different accents (imagine learning English from someone w/a thick Bostonian accent compared to someone w/a thick Southern accent here in the States, or w/an Irish brogue or a Scottish accent, etc, yikes, very confusing!). Love, a coworker of mine turned me on to a bunch of English authors and all of those words you mentioned (torch, post, football, cloakroom, flat, etc), I’ve come across. Like you, the 1st time I read “jumper,” it was referring to a MAN and I had to look up the word when I got home from work to figure out what the heck the guy was wearing! Although the textbooks you’re using are British English, if most of you teaching over there are using American English, hopefully your Mongolian students, if and when they venture out either physically or reach out thru written word or the internet to use their English skills, they try America or an American first, just so they don’t get too discouraged by blank looks from people when they hear English but don’t understand it, like this sentence: When a Londoner tells a resident of New York that she has left her child’s DUMMY in the PRAM and its NAPPY in the BOOT, she will merely be greeted with a look of bewilderment. If the New Yorker then tells the London woman that she has nice PANTS, he may well wonder why she doesn’t seem to take his remark as a compliment. (dummy=pacifier; nappy=diaper; pram & boot=baby carriage; pants=what you wear under your trousers).

  2. Kathy P. Willis says:

    Totally understand… when I came to So. Carolina from Boston, there were some people with such thick accents, I didn’t think they were speaking English! And – they weren’t from a foreign country, they have lived here all their lives!
    I worked at a church where one of the pastors was from Australia – he got me on the “jumper” (sweater)… he had complimented mine, but when I looked at him like he had 2 heads, he realized he had used an “odd” word reference & asked me to correct him with our usage.
    I wonder what your students would think of such a phrase as, “Calgon, take me away!” lol
    Love, Auntie Kathy

  3. Priscilla A. Arsenault says:

    Labelled vs labeled – I occasionally write out this word at work and always use the double “Ls” because I like how it looks. I decided to look it up to actually make sure that my assumption of it being totally choice-wise an either or thing, using one “L” or two, depending on your fancy, what mood you’re in, was actually accurate, I discovered that yes, you CAN use either spelling but the online dictionary lists the one-L spelling as “American” and the double-L spelling as “British.”

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