American Living In Other Countries: Picking Up The Lingo Question

This is a question to Americans who move to other countries, particularly other English speaking countries and have lived there for a long time.

My question is did you pick up the, for lack of better word, “lingo” or speak of the other country. I don’t mean the accent, but the words.

What got me to wondering was this:

I was watching Prisoner (Prisoner: Cell Block H) and Betty Bobbit, plays Judy. Now Bobbit is an American who moved to Australia. In the soap opera she plays an American who was living in Australia. Though Bobbit’s character Judy was meant to be short term, she wound up staying with the show, longer than anyone except one other.

It’s odd, in the first three episodes Bobbit appears as Judy, she talks fairly American. She says SEC-RE-TAIR-EE and SOL-I-TAIR-EE. But by about the fifth episode, Bobbit suddenly switches to saying it the English (or in this case Aussie) way of SOL-I-TREE and SEC-RE-TREE

And then Bobbit starts saying “me” instead of “my”

For instance, she’ll say “I forgot me robe.” Or I’ll go get me stuff." And Bobbit also starts referring to Santa as Father Christmas.

I find it hard to think of living anywhere so long that a person who lived for 20 or more years and grew up in America would naturally switch over from Santa to sayhing Father Christmas. Or changing their “my” to “me”

So I assume Bobbit is just reading the script without making any changes.

This is what got me thinking, if you grow up in America and spend the first 20 years of your life here, would you eventually adopt the minor speech patterns if you moved to say Australia or England or even a non-English speaking country.

So has anyone been in this position?

Perhaps you should ask Kristina Keneally, a woman who is trying fairly hard not to sound too American, given her wish to win an election in about a month’s time. (link to video of her speaking here)

I go the other way: an Australian who moved to the US and has been living here about 10 years. I don’t have an American accent, and probably never will, but I do try to use some of the local vocabulary in order to be understood.

Sure you do.

When I lived in China most of my foreign friends were British and for the past four years 90% of the English speakers I talked to used British English. Over the years I started feeling kind of silly being the only person I knew to call football “soccer” and got tired of the constant minor miscommunications (“Can you pick up some laundry detergent?” “What?” “Whatever, washing up powder. We’re out”) Eventually you start to feel like the odd one out, and it seems a bit silly to doggedly hang on to expressions that literally nobody else is using.

Imagine a conversation like this:

Brit: Are you going to watch the game tonight? I love football.
Brit 2: Yeah, football is the greatest!
Brit 1: I have a song I sing a lot. It goes “Football, football, football…”
Brit 2: Yeah, Sven, are you going to watch the football match?
Sven: Yeah, I’m always up for soccer
Brit 1: Great, let’s meet for the football match at 9:00
Brit 2: I’ll be sure to wear my football jersey
Sven: Are we going to get some beers for the soccer game?
Brit 1: Yeah, I love beer with football.

See how you’d feel weird just calling something a totally different word than everyone else? I started to just go with the flow because it felt easier than saying some weird and conspicuous all of the time. It was kind of surprising, but nobody really noticed when I started referring to taking the “lift” to my “flat.” And when you think about it, why would they? You shouldn’t raise and eyebrow if you heard a British guy refer to a “truck” instead of a “lorry.” They are just normal words to you.

Eventually it becomes habit. Upon coming back to the US, I switched the obvious stuff back, but now and then a British expression comes out…“bank card” is one I can’t seem to shake…and sometimes I’m not 100% sure what the right word is.

I have a (slightly off-topic) story that even sven’s post reminded me of.

Me (koff) British mate (koff koff) and I were riding the ski-lift, when suddenly he looked down and said, “mate, look at that bairn eh?”

“WTF Shrek, speak English. Look at the what?”

“Bairn. That bairn right down there. WTH is wrong with you?”

“I don’t see any fucking barns, you freak. What are you talking about?”

“BAIRN, ya daft tart. BAIRN! Right down there!”

Finally, frustrated, he yells こども!Kodomo! (child in Japanese).

We both had a good laugh and were glad to find we could rely on Japanese when our shared language was sadly useless to us.

I am still adjusting for this. My SO of many years is a Brit who has a home in England. I’m in MN. I write a lot as part of my job. Just today I was writing about companies and found myself referring to a company in the plural, as you would in the U.K. instead of the singular as we do in the USA. It goes the other way too.

When I’m in the UK I have to talk about ironing my trousers, not my pants, “American football” not “football” “crisps” not “potato chips”.

When I come back home, people accuse me of putting on airs when I say “bloody” or “loo” or “pub” instead of “damn” “bathroom” or “bar”. I just laugh it off.

And I see by reading the above that I need to remember to put my punctuation inside the quotation mark here.

Shit, I spend so much time on teamspeak with a couple of geordies I am starting to sound like them. :frowning:

On the plus side, I can now swear in finnish =)

Hell, you don’t even have to switch countries. I had to learn alternative vocabulary all the time in the military, because people from different parts of the country have their own lingo.

There’s a possibility that I’m about to work for an Aussie in China. That ought to be interesting. I’m actually more worried about the written communication.

Yeah, there’s about a 50% chance I’ll call soccer “football”. But mostly living abroad didn’t affect my English too much, since I was speaking another language most of the time. Well - I did develop a sort of simple English version of speaking to people who didn’t speak English as a first language, but I don’t use with with native speakers.

I pick up things like way too easily. I swear it’s not a conscious thing, but every summer I spend about a week with a friend of mine (who’s Scottish but has a bit of English in her accent because she went to school there) and my boyfriend gets freaked out by how different I sound over the phone while I’m there. And then afterwards we spend a month in Ireland with his family and I start saying things like “We’re leaving Friday week” and “That’s us!” and “Och, aye.”

Washing up powder? Is that what Brits actually say?


Interesting, I just think it sounds so odd to hear Bobbit say “I have to go to me cell,” with an American accent. I don’t think anything of it when the other characters on the soap say “me” instead of “my” but it seems out of place.

I can see using words you never use, like the Aussies say “cuppa” for cup of coffee/tea. OK fine, but are there Americans who really say “Father Christmas” instead of Santa Claus?

I guess there are. Still sounds a bit “off.”

That’s the one thing I like about the British or Aussie shows, that the more educated characters tend to speak it. Like Erica the highly educated prison governor says “Whilst.” Cracks me up everytime.

Oh, absolutely. I lived in Eastern Europe for a bit over five years (from age 23-28), and a good deal of UK English crept into my US English both because of the mix of US and UK expats, as well as a lot of the English-speaking locals had learned British English, so occasionally to facilitate communication, it was easier to use British vocabulary rather than American vocabulary.

It was actually pretty interesting (for me, at any rate) listening carefully to the English-speaking expat community and noticing how a sort of common English developed across the various regional vocabularies. Most US expats pretty quickly replaced the words “apartment” and “elevator,” for instance, with “flat” and “lift.” It also happened in the other direction, with British English speakers picking up certain bits of American vocabulary or idioms, although I’m completely blanking on examples right now.

In most cases, I think it happens fairly naturally. Some people are especially susceptible to mimicking and picking up local vocabularies and accents, others are almost completely resistant to change. And it can take a little while to revert back to your local vocabulary when you get back to your home country. It’s been seven years for me, and I still trip over the word “flat” every so often or use the phrasing “When I was at university.”

Gah, Keneally <shudder>. I’m counting the days until that stupid woman is out of office. And I’m a citizen now, and I can vote so I can help do it. She’s embarrassing.

That said, her American accent is still stronger than mine, and I’ve only been here in Australia 8 years. I moved all over the US before (Mississippi to California to Michigan to Vegas). I was always somewhat of an accent chameleon because I made an effort to ditch my Southern accent as a teenager. Now I have a tendency to just pick up what I hear. People tell me I sound like Kenealy, but the difference is that she’s trying and I’m not. Plus, I haven’t been back to the US since 2006, and I suspect she goes back more often than me. Would that the bitch would stay…

As for word usage, it just depends. I still say ‘trash’ and not ‘rubbish’ and ‘trashcan’ instead of ‘rubbish bin’. Mostly this is so my husband gets crazy, cause he (Australian) has a thing about not calling it trash. It’s not serious business for him, he’s not really yelling or anything, and it is amusing me to make him go “GAH! IT’S RUBBISH NOT TRASH! GAHH!!!”

Other Americanisms I cling to are flashlight instead of torch, sidewalk and not footpath, and aluminum instead of aluminium. The last because I can’t say aluminium without stumbling on it.

I say ‘loo’ instead of bathroom, because it’s toilet instead of bathroom in the alternate, and bathroom bugs Australians and toilet bugs me, so loo it is.

Have picked up the overuse of the word ‘mate’. I still say ‘pop’ instead of ‘soft drink’. There are handy Australian words that don’t have direct analogs, and I use them - wanker and rort, for example. Onya and Goodonya grace my speech more often that not. It’s coriander and not cilantro, or I’m not eating much or finding it the grocery store, and the same with chick peas instead of garbanzo beans and prawns instead of shrimp.

I also find my self popping round to places, like shops. This is new and I’ve only started saying it recently, and I don’t know why. I also ‘walk up the shops’ when I clearly mean I’m going to the store, but I only catch it after I hear myself say it.

I do not say ‘me’ for ‘my’ unless I mean to do it as a joke, but that’s because my friends and my husband don’t do it. My husband will ever so occasionally, but he has to be really tired or really drunk. I suspect because he’s very well educated but his mother is not and she says it a lot. His mum has a more stereotypical Paul Hogan type accent, whereas my husband (and most Australians) don’t sound like that at all.

My son is 15 and came here when he was 8, but his accent sounds (to me) to be stronger than mine even still - although he now goes to a country boarding school and he’s lost a lot even in the last year. He says all the expected Aussie boy things, most recently trending toward ending all sentences with “I know, hey?” which is driving me mad - although I suspect this is an Aussie kid slang thing that will go away and be replaced with something else. Last year it was ending everything with the word ‘but’ as in, “Yeah, I was gonna go but…” He also uptalks, so everything he says sounds like a question, which is another Aussie kid thing.

As a family thing, my son calls me mom and when he writes (on Facebook for example) he refers to me as mom, and not mum. This is our choice. He cops shit (heh, there’s an Aussie phrase for you) from his mates, but he tells them that it is what I chose to be called, the same as his Sudanese friends don’t call their mother ‘mum’ but the word for it in Sudanese.

Your son has fallen victim to the country or rural Australian dialect. Where every second sentence is completed with an “Eh” or “Hey”. I grew up in North Queensland, but have been in Brisbane for almost 20 years now, and I seem to have mostly dropped it but my wife stills catches me doing it from time to time. If you ever meet someone from North Queensland especially, but it seems to be rural Australia in general as well. Actually listen out for the ‘eh’ and you’ll hear it a lot!!

Yup, you sure do. It depends a lot on how long you are there and at what age, but local lingo slips in, especially if you don’t spend a lot of time with your own countrymen.

In Thailand resorts like Pattaya or Phuket there is(*) a sort of English pidgin in common use. (I’ve wondered how close it is to other such Asian pidgins?) Westerners speaking to each other often adopt parts of that pidgin. On more than one occasion in Pattaya an American tourist asked me where I was from, expressed disbelief, but then agreed as I quickly reverted to non-pidgin English.

(* - was? I’ve not been either place for several years.)

Oh, I know, hey? :smiley:

Yes, though, you’re right in that. We’re Sydneysiders but we chose a regional boarding school for him after a lot of issues he was having. Most of the kids are from Southern Queensland and the middle and north bits of NSW, with a few more remote than that. He’s picked up a lot from living out there, which is cool - it’s a good school but it’s funny to hear what he takes as his own in his speech and what he rejects. He doesn’t do me for my either, but all his mates do. What’s actually more amusing is that his word choice is changing but his accent is still fairly heavy - so he hasn’t quite got that drawling “Maaaate” thing going on yet, but I suspect he will do.

I work with a bunch of Kiwis and the sentence ending “eh” or “hey” is much in abundance there, too. Also “it’s sweet, bru” and “choice, bru”.

I was born and raised in the US Midwest and moved to the UK 15 years ago when I was 32. My accent is still American but some people will guess Canadian when they meet me for the first time. I’m pretty much fully converted to using the right localised words (pavement, trousers, loo) when speaking and even when writing (tyres, centre, localised).

For clothes I’d say laundry powder. For dishes it’s washing up liquid.

When I spent two years in Malaysia, where British English is the standard, and I saw practically no other Americans during the entire stay (except for my kids), nevertheless my speech remained 100% American. I don’t know why. Perhaps because I learned to speak Malay there, and if I wanted to go native, I would just use that language, and leave my American English undisturbed.

But my daughters’ best friends were two English sisters. I was close friends with their mom, excuse me, I mean “mum.” My daughters aged 6 and 8 quickly picked up British vocabulary, like “bum.” But what shocked me was that they picked up non-rhotic pronunciation too. When they said “The cuttin is dutty,” I had to translate into “The curtain is dirty.” Oddly, they didn’t pronounce the words with the /ɜ/ central vowel which is common to both American and British pronunciations of those words. Instead they substituted the back vowel /ʌ/ as in “cut,” which made the words less recognizable. I figure it’s because a bare non-rhotic /ɜ/ doesn’t exist in American, so they substituted the nearest phoneme they were familiar with from American pronunciation.

They attended an Arabic-language school where all the other kids were Arabs. But at recess time, all the Arab kids shifted to English to talk with the four Anglophone girls. We all remarked at the time that English seems universally preferred by kids, so much so that it will override a completely foreign-language environment. We noticed this in every multilingual environment my kids went to. Either that or it’s just my kids who are so charismatic that it made everyone else want to use English, I don’t know. So the question of linguistic influences for expats is not so simple for me. It can go any number of ways.

Oh, and the other British feature they picked up was to pronounce the intervocalic -t- in curtain and dirty as an unvoiced stop /t/, instead of the American voiced alveolar tap [ɾ], which sounds in between d and r. This is a very distinctive boundary between the two accents.