Embarrassed when you forget basic English vocabulary? I know the feeling.

I shared this picture with clients in class this week. They could all give me “tree” but none could provide “fence”. Some of them were embarrassed, because it seems like the kind of word you should know.

But hey, there you go. Next time your neighbor’s tree falls and crushes your shared fence, you can tell the story in English. Excellent.

Sometimes, in my real life, in that existence outside the classroom, I forget my words too.

5 year old: Where’s my dance bag?

Me: It’s in the…the thing at the back of the car, the thing you open. I know it’s not a boot here. Ah, dammit.

I feel this most keenly when speaking to children (who, when I forget the American word for something basic like “trunk” or “closet”, think I’m playing some remarkably unfunny practical joke — because how can an adult be that dumb for real?) and the team of professionals, we’re currently employing to make sure our house doesn’t fall to pieces.

Electrician: Where’s your breaker box at?

Me: I’m not sure…I’m…we might not have one. Do we definitely have one of those, you think?

My wife is tired of acting as my interpreter. I should cowboy-up, fully assimilate, but I have a problem with packing the first 40 years of my language — Britain had mostly terrible weather but I’m proud of our ability to create social awkwardness and gratuituous embarrassment — British English is a gift of understatement and back-handed insults — how could I ever give that up?

Quick vocabulary review from Maisy — the word is “tree”. Example sentence: This tree belongs to Maisy, so back off.

Teaching English to furriners fits perfectly with what I want to achieve professionally in the United States. One small issue is that when you teach English in America, you are expected to teach American English. Which is a little inconvenient for an immigrant like me.

Overall my American English, as it turns out, is pretty good. I can make myself understood in the usual situations, and as long as Americans don’t pay attention to how I pronounce words like “lasso”, “secretary”, “sauce” or “missile”, they don’t laugh in my face, just as I won’t worry too much about how they say “duty” and indeed any word with a “t” in the middle.

11 year old: It’s better that the seat of your bike is black, ’cause no one can ride on it.

Me: Why? What? That’s what it’s for…

11 year old: You want someone to ride on your seat? With a marker?

When a nation of geniuses pronounce “write” and ride” exactly the same way, the Brit can get confused. (And this is one that I can never adjust my tongue to; I’ll always want to be a writer, not a wrider — which isn’t a thing.)

As long as there’s an Internet, there will be the need for live human experts to give real guidance about differences between British and American English. Don’t greet the immigration official at Newark airport by saying “Howdy”. (and “How do you do” for British situations isn’t much better).

Hey, there’s a big difference in being understood in a language and teaching the language.

In my Working English sessions, I’m routinely told by clients, “I can understand you, but it’s harder with other native speakers.” (That’s not an observation the folks here in Tennessee share).

I take this feedback as a professional compliment, but in truth, I don’t slow my language down when speaking with clients, I just choose my words carefully and provide plenty of pauses. And yeah, I provide plenty of authentic listening practice with a variety of accents. Because it’s true, not every native English speaker is going to sound as clear as me.

Do I speak like the average guy in Walmart? It turns out that I do not. Of course, snob that I am, I reckon I’m better qualified to teach American English than that guy.

For a while, for years here, I worried that I was stuck half-way, a linguistic air-lock. Not because I was talking American but because I’m caught in the middle between British and American. I sought to translate from UK to US, to compromise, and I know I’m away from home, it’s my job to cross the street and make myself understood.

Initially I was scared of losing myself, of developing the worst of American language habits (of which you have none, by the way) just like I was afraid of driving to Sonic for a breakfast burrito because a bowl of cereal is too much effort.

Truth is, I can no longer sneer at the American way of speaking with any honest enthusiasm. Because it turns out that there is plenty of American English, especially pronunciation, that’s much clearer than the British version. Sword-swallowing is an impressive talent here; word-swallowing much less so. The British ability to miss the final R, with car or offer for example, is not a gift I’m planning on passing to my clients.

I love this terrible attempt to show the difference between British and American English. In truth, asking someone in either culture whether they have a problem increases the chance of both of you having a serious problem.

I need to know American English backwards, but I don’t need to become it. I don’t intend to ever speak 100% American, certainly not outside of class, especially given that when you change your vocabulary, you can change your way of thinking, and I’m happy with my current levels of enthusiasm. (It is currently pretty good, it’s typically fine. It’s not awesomely phenomenal, I’m just not that guy).

And for business, I don’t want to lose my sense and understanding of being from somewhere other than here, because while teaching American English is inconvenient for a Brit, it is more than counter-balanced by the fact that I know how it feels to be furrin in America. And when you’re teaching immigrants or foreign-based workers, that’s comes in real…really handy.

Teacher Hamish

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