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?