Monday, March 14, 2011

The language I'm learning

 Every American teacher of English overseas encounters it: Why do you say "soccer" instead of "football?" I thought that word was pronounced this way. Why do you say "I have a pencil" instead of "I've got a pencil?

I came to Spain on the premise that I would be teaching English and learning Spanish. But that's not quite the whole story.

Here the majority of English I am exposed to is British. I have British coworkers in both jobs and I live with an Englishman now. The teaching materials I have at school are all British, which means that every once in a while when scanning over a page before I teach it, I come across a word that makes me go "Huh?" My British vocabulary is therefore expanding just as quickly as my Spanish is.

Flat has replaced apartment in my vocabulary, and I alternate between soccer and football depending on who I'm talking to. If I want my students to understand me, I have to say rubber rather than eraser. When writing on the board I am careful the write colour rather than color. Take a gander at these and see if you know the American equivalents:
  • aubergine
  • lift (as a noun)
  • trainers
  • trousers
  • mark (as a verb)
  • boot (hint: part of a car)
  • garden (hint: a little more than where you grow flowers)
  • courgette
  • pram
  • lorry
  • fly-over
  • windscreen
  • biscuit
  • candyfloss
  • chemist
  • sellotape
  • jumper
Other fun facts about the differences between American and British English (Courtesy of Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue): In Britain, the Royal Mail delivers the post, but in the U.S. the Postal Service delivers the mail.  In the U.S. to knock someone up is to get them pregnant, but in Britain it is simply to knock on their door or wake them up. In the U.S. to table a motion is to put it forward for discussion, but in Britain it means the opposite.

These differences make teaching English that much more interesting. Some want to learn distinct "proper" British English, some want American because most media comes from America. When it comes to pronunciation I don't have much choice but to pass on my own California accent (Just like they're imparting their Andalucían one on me). But with vocabulary I try to be as objective as possible. With the adults I work with, whenever I know that a different word exists in British English I'll write down both for them, explaining which is which and that they're both correct. When they use these words in conversation I can see the wheels turning in their head as their sentence approaches that word. They pause, internally debating which to use, and usually go with the American one to make their teacher happy. I have them trained well.


  1. So what are the answers to the words?

  2. This is Jen as in Sara's friend btw haha

  3. So true! But I´d use American English! We are North American assistants, not British ones. I feel like it would the same as a Spanish person coming to the US to teach Spanish and they tell them they must use Mexican words. Tell that to them if your professors try to make you use different words. USA! USA!

  4. Claire, I totally agree, but six year olds can only handle so many new words and they're a lot better off sticking with the ones printed in their books.

    Jen, it was a homework assignment! But because I'm nice:

    aubergine- eggplant
    lift- elevator
    trainers- tennis shoes
    trousers- pants
    mark- grade
    boot- trunk
    garden- backyard
    courgette- zucchini
    pram- stroller
    lorry- truck
    fly-over- overpass
    windscreen- windshield
    biscuit- cookie
    candyfloss- cotton candy
    chemist- pharmacist
    sellotape- scotch tape
    jumper- sweater