I originally started writing blogs when I moved to England, to keep the homefront updated on my adventures. Of course, this early blog died a quick death due to the 101 other distractions that came with exploring a new country, but it was also written in my native Dutch, which I found couldn’t quite capture the challenge to my English language skills living in Britain has at times presented.
Britain is rightly famous for its linguistic eccentricities, and its wide range of accents and (slang) vocabularies provide a never-ending source of entertainment and inspiration. However, we all get that moment when something just doesn’t feel quite right and the conversation comes to a stutttering halt. And if you’re anything like me, it’s likely to be for any one of these three reasons:
1. From the Rain in the Drip
(Translating expressions to English that only exist in your native language)
All nationalities tend to do this, but in Holland we are generally a bit overconfident about our English, with sometimes embarrassing results. I’m not even joking when I say people call this brand of Dutch English “Dunglish” – and it’s hilarious. A popular passtime here in Holland is collecting the blunders of your colleagues and friends for everyone’s entertainment in books or on the internet. My favourites include:
“we should stop coffee thick looking” (we should stop guessing)
“I have not fallen on my behind head!” (I’m not stupid)
“The meeting is walking out” (The meeting is running late)
“Please thank your cock for the excellent meal” (Unfortunately, ”kok” is Dutch for cook…)
2. Oi, W*nker. (You’re careless with your insults)
I know, I know. The best thing about any new language is without a doubt learning all the best swear words (you don’t want to know how many times I’ve been asked for the Dutch for the F-word by now) As it happens, English has an enormous range to choose from, especially to describe the male genitalia. While words like “bollocks” or “bell end” are pretty generally applicable, it’s surprisingly easy to take it too far, particularly if you speak in a Germanic accent.
In fact, the art of the British insult lies in slipping it by your victim unnoticed. You should always beware the understatement (“we have a bit of a problem” is code for “a catastrophe”) but nothing stings like the the back-handed compliment, and the isles have mastered it.
So the next time someone tells you, “wow, you speak English much better than I expected”, give it some pause before saying thank you.
3. Come again? (Local accents confuse you)
Oh, god, I’m really bad with this one. Let’s say I was really not prepared for the enormous range of accents between different parts of England. They’re everywhere, tv, on the bus, the people you meet during the week. And naturally, every geographic region uses its own slang as well. Ever heard of a “Scouser”? No, I hadn’t, either.
On the other hand, all these different ways of speaking give the UK a lot of colour, and you will never cease to hear something that surprises you. To quote David Mitchell, who is a much better dialect writer than most:
The relationship between dialect and place [is] really rich. I can’t think about the North of England without thinking about the Northern accent… because of course the grammar is different too. Dialect is a landscape feature.
But fear not, for the British Library has an entire website dedicated to telling the difference between a cob and a scuffler, and tracing the connection between the ‘Geordie shore’ and Scandinavian Vikings (we ain’t got nowt). It makes for some fascinating listening and, more importantly, will prevent you from “standing with your mouth full of teeth” the next time you ride the London tube or accidentally find yourself in Liverpool.
What has your most awkward foreign experience been? Let me know in the comments!