Lost in Translation: U.S. vs. British English

british english

I thought Spanish and Euskera would present my biggest linguistic hurdles here in Bilbao. Turns out, I’m having more trouble with U.S. vs. British English. Students in Spain learn British English, for obvious reasons of geographic proximity, just as students in California tend to learn Latin American Spanish. So this means that almost all printed and oral material is in British English–which may make little prince George happy, but it’s giving me quite the headache. It’s more than simple doubt as to whether my students enjoy playing soccer or football. It’s problematic as a teacher, because at times I don’t know when to correct my students. For instance, a boy I tutor wrote, “I am meeting my friend at the evening.” Sounds like horrible English to me. But I had read in a textbook here that “at the weekend” is how they say it in the Motherland, so maybe with that same reasoning, “at the evening” is correct? These people pay me good money for one thing: knowing English. And all I could manage was, “Sure, that might work.” (Turns out, it is right.)

This poor kid threw me another curveball the following week. He wrote, “I lay the table for dinner.” Never in my teenage table-setting duty did I hear my mom ask me to “lay the table.” I told him, no no, the idiom is “set the table.” He dutifully agreed, and erased his “mistake.” I looked it up later, and once again, it was correct.

Next session, this SAME kid (he has the highest level of English out of any of my students, and I cherish him for it) told me he was going to meet his friend to play basketball “on the evening.” Poor guy. He was getting so confused by the prepositional differences between British and U.S. English that he chose one that was unequivocally wrong. It can be “in the evening,”  “at the evening,” “on the weekend,” “at the weekend,” even “on Monday evening,” but in no version of English (that I know of!) can it be “on the evening.” I didn’t have the heart to correct him, though, so just this once I let him keep speaking, uninterrupted.

Sometimes I try to teach my students the differences. I’ve told them that we say “trash” instead of “rubbish,” and usually “movie” instead of “film.” I’ve also explained–probably way too in-depth–that in the U.S. we say “eraser,” not “rubber.” This was followed by a ten minute question-and-answer session about slang terms for condoms, with a group of 14-year-olds, no less. It’s a wonder I still have my job here.

Anti-contraception methods aside, there are other differences that are proving difficult. In British English, apparently, they say “have got” for nearly every situation where “have” is appropriate. “I have got green eyes.” “Have you got a brolly?” (umbrella). “I haven’t got any idea as to why the grammar varies so widely in the same bloody language.”

And here’s what really got me. In San Sebastian we ate at a Mexican restaurant, where they took one look at our blonde heads and gave us an English menu. I ordered the “chips with beans, cheese, and meat,” thinking it would be hard to mess up a plate of nachos, even in a country that does Mexican food so poorly. My dish turned out to be more like animal-style french fries–no tortilla chips in sight. Of course!! In British English, “chips” equals french fries. Fooled by my native tongue! My linguistic naivete managed to ruin a rare opportunity for Mexican food.

I studied Linguistics in college (“university”) and these subtle dialectical nuances should fascinate me. But in reality, I am sick of explaining to every group of students that I did in fact NOT forget the ‘u’ when writing “favorite” on the whiteboard. Or maybe I’m just sick of looking like an idiot after correcting imaginary English errors from a 13-year-old Spaniard that, truth be told, seems almost more native than me.