English-to-English Language Barrier

american to britishSummer of 2010, I backpacked alone through parts of Europe.  I never thought about how I would communicate with people because, well, it was never a problem before… and it wasn’t a problem then…  That is until I met people whose native language was my own!

What?!!  How does that make sense?!!

Out of all the countries I traveled through that summer [Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France, The UK, and Ireland], you would think that England , Ireland, and Scotland would be the easiest for me – language-wise…  Think again!

Everywhere else I traveled through where English is the locals’ second, third, or fourth language, I could understand them just fine when they spoke English…Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Holland – no problem… we talked for days!  England, Ireland, Scotland – I had absolutely NO IDEA what the heck they were trying to tell me!

I thought that when I got to London it would be the easiest place for me to get around due to the lack of language barrier… but on the contrary, I had no idea what those Brits were talking about!  How I am able to understand people with German, French, or Dutch accents, but I can’t understand people with English accents?!

At the pub in London I felt so bad because I made everyone repeat themselves about 8 times.  Conversely, they had no idea what I was saying either.  For example: my response of “I’m cool” when they asked if I wanted a drink.  They then asked “Oh no, you’re cold, would you like my jacket?”  I then explained that that is not what I meant and with confused looks on their faces I tried to re-answer with “I’m good.”  They had no idea what that meant or why I would let them know that “I’m good” and they responded with “Yes, you are great company, we like you very much!”  So, through my half frustration and half laugher, I said just “no thanks” and they took that as I was done drinking for the night all together.  They finally understood me only when I said “Thank you, I do not want a drink at this moment but I might get one later tonight.”

MAN!  I’m not sure why that was so difficult but it definitely made me realize that I would rather talk to someone who’s SECOND language is English, hands down.

Hmm… If I said “hands down” in England, would they put their drinks and hands by their sides?!

Have you had a similar experience with not understanding someone that speaks the same native language?  Was it due to different accents, word usage, local lingo, or phrases?


  • Patricia S.

    A friend of mine visited from Leeds (England) in 1971 and went out alone to some clubs in NYC. He told me later that the girls were friendly but strange. He would “chat them up”, buy them a drink and then ask to phone them. Actually what he said to them was “I’d like to take a tinkle on you” because they used to say in his town that the phone tinkles instead of rings. Of course in NY, only little kids tinkle (urinate). You can imagine the confusion….

  • I’m English and tried to order half a pint in Australia and they asked me did I mean a jar?!!

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