English dialects and trying to blend in


When “to go” becomes “takeaway” and “cool” is no longer cool.

Before taking a trip to England with my mom when I was twelve, I remember embarrassing myself by clarifying “they speak American in England, right?” In retrospect, I’m beginning to think my question wasn’t so far off. The answer is no—they absolutely do not speak “American” in other parts of the world, and even Americans would be hard-pressed to agree on the words that should constitute that particular dialect (you will never, ever, hear me say y’all). Over the past six months especially, I’ve come to understand the term English as a very loose interpretation of one language.

For some reason, when we first arrived in Singapore, this came as a surprise to me. “I thought they spoke English here!” I wailed after a week of confusing exchanges. But then, without realizing it, I assimilated. When taxi drivers would alert me to toll fees, my response went from “yes, that’s fine, thank you,” to simply “yes, can” or sometimes “can—thank you, Uncle.” At a hotel, when my plea “could we please have another room? The mattress in this one has stains all over it” didn’t land, I pivoted to “it’s dirty, lah” and was promptly assisted.

Still, doing so felt awkward, phony, or, worse, like a sure way to embarrass myself. After all, I vividly recall the street vendor in Paris who rolled his eyes at me when I attempted to order a pastry in French during my semester abroad. “You want this one?” he responded pointedly in English, and I got his real message loud and clear: Don’t pretend to speak my language.

But a trip to Australia with my mom in March shed some much-needed light on my relationship with these linguistic adjustments. One evening in Melbourne, she and I asked our friends where their trash can was—and were met with a momentary pause. "You know . . . garbage? Or rubbish? Oh, rubbish!" Mom exclaimed, proud to have remembered the distinctly non-American word. She turned to me, helpfully explaining, "they say rubbish here." 

“I know, Mom” I responded quickly, looking self-consciously over her shoulder to see if anyone else had heard. I wasn’t sure why, but in that moment I felt embarrassed about drawing attention to my Americanness.

Later, Mom would feel it, too, when our friend uttered the phrase “it was really cool,” while regaling her partner with the details of our day trip.

“Did you just say . . . cool?” he responded with distaste.

Apparently, “cool” and “awesome” are seen by Aussies as annoyingly overused Americanisms, and, while I can’t speak for Mom, I was acutely aware of how many times I used either word the remainder of that trip (side note: it was surprisingly a lot. A good practice in mixing up my vocabulary). Instead, I stuck to “no worries.”

What I realized after these interactions is that my adoption of others’ vernaculars isn’t about imitation or even necessarily clear communication—it’s about blending in. In a country where the color of my skin, or my accent, or the side of the street that I walk down might as well be a flashing neon sign on my forehead that reads “TOURIST,” switching from “to go” to “takeaway” is just one small way to shield myself from the emotional exhaustion of standing out.

That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my appreciation for different words and expressions. During a recent visit to physio, I was still charmed when my London-born therapist asked me what my diary looked like the following week, and still pleased when she said "that one’s a bugger" while stretching my injured limb a certain way. All it means is that I’ve learned not to make a point of it. To me, I suppose, it’s sort of a badge of global proficiency. I may be foreign, but I’m no tourist—and you shouldn’t treat me as such.

In a wonderful book I read recently, author Tsh Oxenreider quotes her then six-year-old son as having said, “I like Australians—they almost speak English.” Antone and I shared a good laugh about this, but I also think the boy was spot on. Indeed, we all—almost—speak the same language.