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International Student Lucy shares her experience of British English vs American English

4 min read

My name is Lucy. At one time or another I have probably been in your shoes as an International Student at the University of Portsmouth. 

So far, all my international friends and I have commented on how it is to adjust to UK English. Most of us speak it as a first or second language, and yet we still have moments where we might as well be speaking a different language.

I write this to show that every International Student has interesting, funny, and sometimes downright embarrassing moments when they are adjusting to a new culture. If you experience one of these moments, there is never any need to feel shame. You will find that we are all working through the UK English language in our own ways. What can seem like an embarrassing moment will (almost always) turn into a hilarious story you can tell for years to come. 

1. The Language

Now, I am an American—from New York State, to be specific—and I have interacted with UK English through movies, books, and English friends. But that hardly prepared me for the differences in accents, vocabulary, and slang between American English and UK English.

For example, one rainy day as I was getting a haircut my first week in England, the hairdresser looked over my shoulder and grimaced at the rainy scene outside the window. “Man,” she said, “It is really peeing out there!”  

Some things are easier to adjust than others: calling a trash can a ‘bin,’ and greeting people by saying ‘Y’allright?'. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure how you’re supposed to answer when someone asks you ‘Y’allright?’ and everyone I have asked says to do something different. With that said, watching British YouTube channels or reading books set in the UK can definitely help you to adjust.

2. Accents

You will find that the UK is a melting pot of different cultures and languages, and Portsmouth, being a university city as well as a port, has its fair share of people from all over the world. It’s not uncommon for me to be talking to someone and need to ask for clarification over a word or phrase. 

I spoke with a man in the elevator who said he was off to the store because he broke his ‘plight.’ “Plight?” I wasn’t certain I had heard him. “Plight,” he nodded, “I broke ma plight.” We said it back and forth a few times before I realised what he was saying.

“Oh, you broke your plate!”

My best advice is never to pretend - if you’re confused, ask questions. Don’t be ashamed to ask people if they wouldn’t mind repeating what they said until you understand it, no one expects international students to understand everything right away.

3. Slang

Similarly, I’ve noticed that after hanging around with English students, you start to pick up bits and pieces of English slang and inflections. I, for one, speak with lots of English expressions that any Brit would consider normal, but I will be teased about them when I get home for holiday. If I have to refer to, let's say, a 'wrench,' I know that my British friend will say 'spanner' instead. So rather than wait for them to figure out my word, I speak to them using their word. 

Don’t be afraid to use bits of English expressions in your speech like that, you're not betraying your own language and you're not stealing someone else's. Hardly anyone will call you out on it, so just speak in a way that feels natural.

4. Terms of Endearment

That is to say, people use them a lot more here. I’m traditionally from the Northeast of the US, where you only use endearments to your immediate family. I went to school in the South, where people in the service industry give endearments—your waitress would call you “Darlin,” or a woman on the street would ask for “A hand with my groceries, baby.”

Here in the UK, people sprinkle endearments like icing sugar on sweets. You’re likely to be greeted by anyone outside of a professional setting with a “Hello darling,” or “Y’allright, my love?” Even your friends will use them, which, depending on your background, can feel a bit weird.

My advice? If you’re not used to it, you will become so, and don’t take offense! People typically don’t mean offense by it.

These are just my observations, and you will certainly have different experience than mine! Try to remember to forgive yourself for what you don’t know. In the end, the only difference between a unique learning experience and a horrible day is your perspective. 

Best of luck with your studies and travels