Five Minutes In The US And My English Is In Big Trouble


I didn’t spend long in the US, just past customs and a few hours between terminals, but I can tell you straight away that if I came to live there permanently, my English would quickly be in big trouble.

For starters, my cute semblance of a cockneyish intonation due to my being born on the wrong side of Paddington (is there a good side to Paddington?) would disappear. No sooner had the waitress asked me if I wanted tomEEto’s, I responded in the same American way, my personally pronounced tomARtoes with a very soft last “T” having gone out of the window. In fact, I was so taken aback by the sudden change in pronunciation that I immediately lost all confidence in speaking English to Americans, too scared that I was of using the wrong words or pronouncing the right words in the wrong way. I really felt separated by a common language – English.

I asked for my side salad to be “aubergine free” only to get a puzzled look on Regine’s face – yes, American waitresses are very quick at giving you their first names – who could not quite figure out what an aubergine was. Having got my, “Rescue me in Trumpland – a guide for the bemused” handbook out from my trouser pocket, I came up with the solution, “no zucchinis,” that I proudly shouted across the crowded restaurant room as if to tell everybody that I was a native American and not a foreigner

My son looked at me in a puzzled way when the same Regine, who was doing her utmost to help us, gave him the choice of ordering a yellow omelette or a white one. He played it safe and ordered the yellow one, giving him a semblance of security by expecting that the omelette would have the same colour and ingredients as the ones served at home. Maybe it’s the chlorine that is bleaching the eggs, I thought – something for the UK to look forward to, after Brexit.

The other American trait that wrong-footed me is the virtual friendliness that all shop vendors showed me. “And how are we doing today?” is as widespread a saying by US employees as “what the f**k are you doing passing an order,” in Europe. It takes some getting used to but I just love the use of “we,” that bestows a feeling of royalty. My first reaction of, “do we know each other?”, ended up in a quick “fine,” not to insult this guy or girl by a, “you don’t mean what you are saying,” sort of answer.

I suppose that there is a certain juvenile frankness and naiveness about the Americans’ choice of words and use of sentences. It could not be otherwise in a country where everybody is told to “have a nice day,” even though life sucks most days, and men and women who have this naughty habit of wanting to relieve themselves in public places, are labelled as “Men” and “Women,” and not, “Gentlemen” and “Ladies,” respectively.

There’s a scientific theory that endeavours to explain how living in the US for more than five minutes would represent serious hazards to the well-being of the English language I possess. The, “communication accomodation theory,” emphasizes the adjustments that I would make when interacting with American speakers, and ranges from changes in the use of words and even the acquisition of an accent. A good enough reason for never wanting to apply for a Green Card even if I were 30 years younger because although I don’t use rhyming slang, I do quite regularly drop my “T’s” and “H’s,” and sometimes pronounce my “F’s” rather like “V’s” – well, “sor’ov!”