Separated by a Common Language

Being an exPat—anywhere—can be amazing and ridiculous all at once. I’ve been one in countries where I didn’t speak the language very well and am one now in a country where supposedly they speak my mother tongue.

During my first stint in the UK as a student, I had both Brit and American housemates (flatmates) so we were evenly matched in the power struggle of US/UK house language/culture politics. Even if I did pick up a really strange accent that my brothers eventually teased out of me when I got back to the States. They didn’t break me from using certain phrases or finding it difficult not to add a “u” in the word color, though.

Now that I am back in the UK for the foreseeable future trying to cling to my American accent while still making myself understood on the daily, I have realized that the adoption of phrases and spellings boils down to simple communication (and autocorrect on my UK phone).

You want to be understood. You don’t want to accidentally offend someone. There are certain things you learn right away like “pants” should be called “trousers” unless you’re talking about your underwear, “biscuits” mean “cookies,” and an old-fashioned word for “booty” in the US means something totally different in the UK. Basically, I find myself using whatever phrases that I think will get me understood the fastest. I adapt my language, mentally “translating” on the fly, because some days, you just don’t feel like having explain yourself twice. “We should go to the cinema (not the movies).”  “The letter after “Y” is Zed (not Zee).” “Put that in the rubbish bin (not trash can).”

It mostly works until I adapt so well that my US family and friends make fun of me for saying “I’m going to have a think” instead of “I’ll think about it” or doing something “straight away” instead of “right away.” It can be exhausting, I tell you.

I have required my husband to essentially minor in US English at home because I get really cranky when he doesn’t understand me. And as a voracious reader who lived all over the States, as well Puerto Rico and Switzerland, my language is an amalgam of words and phrases picked up and adapted into my own eclectic vocabulary. He has fun with that.

For my book Watermarked–written in American for an American audience–I made sure I hired an American company to proofread it to catch out all the little words and expressions that might be too European. And there were some surprises in there. Things I didn’t even realize were wrong. We (Americans) say “no prob” not “No probs” (English).

Still, like remembering which side of the street to drive on (left in UK/right in US), I think the mental switch up helps keep my mind limber. Or that’s what I tell myself as I toggle the language in Word from US to UK English and ignore everyone laughing at my pronunciation of (fill in blank) on either side of the Atlantic.

It could be worse. When I lived in French-speaking Switzerland, I surfed the cultural learning curve and lived with the frequent frustration of foreign language misfires. This was not helped by my French-speaking boyfriend-at-the-time letting me mispronounce a word for months because he thought “it was so cute.”

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