Learning to speak English

I always knew British and American English were different, but never realized how different they were until I started living in Europe and attempted to order food at restaurants with English menus. My first failure was at a restaurant in Dresden, when I asked the waitress what a “courgette” is.

“Courgette is an English word,” she replied, patiently, as if to a small child. “It’s a vegetable.”

“Um, right,” I said. “Courgette! Delicious. I’ll have that.” Since I was in a vegan restaurant, I knew I was safe from meat. But it wasn’t until I saw my soup that I realized I had ordered zucchini soup. (At least they didn’t ask my how many liters I wanted. I may have accidentally ordered enough soup to fill a swimming pool.) 

Zucchini/courgette soup.
Zucchini/courgette soup.

It’s beyond just how to say tomato, though I’ve had younger students attempt to correct my pronunciation of this one. (Just wait’ll they hear English people say “controversy,” or Canadians say “lieutenant.”)

When I taught in Turkey, I just took the cards for “quince” and “aubergine” out of my flashcards. Aubergine means eggplant, and comes into English through Arabic. It’s a pretty word, and as the tastiest eggplants I’ve had have typically been in Arabic cooking (baba ghanoush FTW!), that made sense.

I’ve never heard of a quince before, though. According to an English friend of mine, quinces are yellow fruit that make good jam. I would try and make jam out of them, but I’ve never seen them for sale, anywhere. I’ve also never seen okra for sale in Europe, but I’m totally ok with that. (Not a fan…)

The variations of UK versus US English also gave me sympathy for my students. While teaching in the Czech Republic, the teacher I worked with gave me a copy of the English textbook and CD she was using. Except that the book was an old one, and didn’t go with the CD exactly. Still, I attempted to prep for my class at home, but discovered I didn’t really understand the people on the CD. It was a dad and his son ordering food in a restaurant, and the kid appeared to order something called a “jf!umdsie*k potato.”

I played the darn track over and over, and had no idea what the kid was ordering. Was this some new, delicious variety of potato? A fancy style of cooking potatoes? But when I got to work the next day, and saw the right edition of the book, the mystery was solved: the kid was trying to order a jacket potato. Which was a baked potato.

Speaking of potatoes, the worst is chips versus fries. I actually thought that everyone used chips in Europe, because British people keep insisting on calling them “chips.” Except that it depends, as I discovered in my classes.

“What are these?” I asked, holding up the flashcard with French fries.

“Chips!” the kids hollered. Later, the card for potato chips came up, and again asked my students what they were.

“Chips!” they hollered again. Um. Well, that does simplify things. Later, the teacher I worked with explained it to me. Thanks in part to Lay’s selling their chips in the huge chain store Tesco, the word “chips” now means both the fried potatoes McDonald’s sells and the thinner types sold in bags.

But in my latest children’s class, their British English textbook calls fried potatoes… wait for it… “fries.” And my children keep yelling, “Teacher, the book is wrong!”

I cheerfully ignore them. If they travel to the U.S., I’m sure they’ll figure it out.

From my English textbook. Guess I need to study more...
From my English textbook. Guess I need to study more…


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