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American living in Australia, Pretending to be Bilingual

At our favourite wildlife sanctuarly... or shall I say 'favorite'?

Kissing a kangaroo…. At our favourite wildlife sanctuarly… or shall I say ‘favorite’?

My biggest Aussie language blunder EVER… Do you want to know it?  I was doing my student teaching at some high school and we were going on an excursion (American, field trip).  We had some tickets to carry around and they put me in charge of keeping track of them.  Here was the conversation that happened in a staff room full of about 15 people:

Me: “Do we have anything to carry these around in?

Staff Member: “Sure Kate, what are you after?

Me: “Oh, I don’t know… maybe one of those fanny packs?

Staff Memeber + 14 other staff members present: Hysterically laughing, “A what?!?!

Me: ‘A…. fanny pack…?”  I said slowly…

More hysterical laughing… until someone kindly explained to me that what I was looking for was a ‘bum bag‘…. (bum, as in your butt).  Because fanny is referring to the female genitalias.  Doh!!!

Another moment I will never forget.  A good friend of mine was visiting me after my older daughter had been born.

Friend: “Is it alright if I have a little nurse?

Me: Severe look of confusion and inner voice saying, “WTF?! Nurse my baby?!” (Ok, now I’m a bit more open minded than I was then.  Now, I probably would say, “Sure, no problem, mind if I go take a shower while you do that?

She saw the look on my face and laughed and explained to me that a nurse is a cuddle…

My husband and I struggled for at least a year after moving here to try and understand people.  I clearly remember wondering why I could not understand what people were saying… I had traveled the world and never had trouble understanding people from anywhere… until I moved here.  They were speaking English, right?!  We liked to describe the way Australians talk as the ‘Aussie mumble‘.  Aussies love to talk quiet and mumble… very opposite to us LOUD and verbose Americans (whom I can now, often see and hear, coming a mile away, or shall I say a kilometre away).  Aussies love to abbreviate and shorten their words and use acronyms.  Instead of saying afternoon, they say arvo.  Sunglasses are sunnies, bikkies are biscuits, trackies are track pants… it goes on and on.

My blog readers come from all over the world.  About half are from America, another quarter are from Australia and the UK and the rest are from all over the world.  I cannot tell you the number of times I have to actively think about which words to use to make my posts universally friendly and to not sound painfully American.  I often write them in ‘American‘, although, I actually mostly think in ‘Australian‘ now.  Depending on who I’m talking to, I have to translate in my head.  It’s not that the Aussies won’t understand me if I use American terms… they hear everything American on TV and through the internet.  It’s actually that I have to translate BACK into American because I’ve grown so accustom to saying and spelling things the Australian way when I was a school teacher here.

Here is my list of annoying words that I have to translate on a regular basis when writing my blogs, when talking to friends and talking to my children.  I know… I’m hardly close to bilingual.  But, I like to pretend I am.  There are a plethora of other confusing variations in words.  But, these are the main offenders.

Annoying Parenting Related terms
Aussie USA
mum mom
bub, bubby baby
cot/port-a-cot crib/port-a-crib
have a nurse have a cuddle
pram stroller
nappy diaper
dummy pacifier
singlet tank top
pilcher water proof diaper cover
kindy (short for
or daycare
school, refers to grade school ONLY school refers to grade school, and almost all higher education
college a type of high school
uni university or college
Words ending in -ise vs. -ize
Aussie USA
realise realize
visualise visualize
utilise utilize
finalise finalize
organise organize
Food Terminology
Aussie USA
capsicum bell pepper
coriander cilantro
rock melon cantaloupe
jam jelly
jelly jell-o
pronouncing tomato as ‘to-maaah-to’ pronouncing tomato as to-mayyy-to’
pronouncing banana as ‘ban-aaaah-na’ pronouncing banana as ‘ba-neh-na’
All non-English words, like fillet and fajita
are completely butchered and pronounced
exactly as they are spelled. The, Mitsubishi Pajero,
is a common car in Australia. Pajero means
wanker in Spanish.
Non-English words are pronounced as
they almost naturally occur in their native language.
There are too many Spanish speaking people in America
for any car to be called Pajero.

These are all just a few.  There’s also color/colour, flavor/flavour.  Lollies are candy.  Whipper snippers are weed whackers, and so on. My most recent discovery was these terms don’t exist in Australia: ‘crunchy‘, ‘scrunchy‘, ‘silky‘ and ‘chunky‘, relating to a person’s style, in other words how much they are either like a hippie or how much they are mainstream.

I know.  I know.  Some people learn entire languages other than their native ones.  And, here I am talking about some small differences.  Well, I can pretend to be cool, right?  Are you really bilingual?  Do you ever get confused talking to someone, even if they’re native language is the same as yours?

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(Please feel free to tell me about any typos.  Late night blogging=almost certain mistakes).

13 Responses »

  1. We are ar bi-lingual household. My husband is from Ecuador and is only beginning to learn English so we use both at home. Often I find I can’t communicate my point in only I english or I throw in spanish words when speaking to others who speak only english. I can think in both languages so sometimes it’s hard to separate the two. I feel your pain! And even thought its English, it’s still another language. Within the spanish language there are different dialects and every country has different slang. Sometimes within a country you can tell if someone is from the coast our out in the country based on the worlds and accents they use.

  2. This difference is called British English and American- English.

  3. Haha, As soon as I saw the title of this blog post I knew it would be about ‘fanny packs!’

  4. I had to laugh at the last one “All non-English words, like fillet and fajita
    and completely butchered”.
    I have had this argument many times with my American friends. There are many foreign words Americans pronounce wrong, such as Hyundai & Nokia. BTW it’s Knock-iya not NO- kiya, and Hyundai does not rhyme with Sunday.
    Also some of these are area specific, I would be so confused if someone asked to nurse my baby. I never knew it could mean cuddle.
    I have taken some American terms back with me causing an Aussie-US English hybrid. The ones that get me strange looks are when I call Rubbish, Trash; Say I’m going to the bathroom insted of toilet, and I have referred to the gutter as the curb (which I was ashamed of lol)

  5. We thought it was hilarious when the Pajero was released here and gleefully explained it to all our ‘Aussie’ family and friends 🙂 This must happen elsewhere in the world, when we travelled I thought I was going really great with my Spanish with my in-laws in Bolivia but then we went to Argentina and I had to check with my hubby that they were in fact speaking Spanish!

  6. I enjoyed this post Kate. I remember the first time I heard an American refer to a fanny pack and thought it was hilarious too 🙂

    And here’s a few more for the list that immediately springs to the mind of this born & bred Aussie:

    Fringe (Aus); bangs (US)
    Maths (Aus); math (US)
    Handbag (Aus); pocketbook (US)
    High heels (Aus); pumps (US)
    Mobile phone (Aust); cell phone (US)
    Herbal tea (Aus); ‘erb (silent H) tea (US)
    Milk (Aus); cream (as in coffee) (US)
    Soft drink (Aus); pop/soda (US)
    Shopping trolley (Aus); grocery cart (US)
    Take away (Aus); take out (US)
    Toilet (Aust); bathroom (US)
    Car park (Aus); parking lot (US)
    Doctor (Aus); physician (US)
    Petrol (Aus); gas (US)
    Footpath (Aus); sidewalk (US)

  7. Hi Kate, Love this blog entry. As you know I live in Oz and have travelled extensively. You may not know that I went to the USA, California about 5 times. It was the first country I ever went to. You know the allure of Disneyland, surfing and snow in one place. Here’s some that will make you laugh.
    US Men’s name they still make me laugh.
    Randy – in Oz this means horny yes it does!
    Guy – means man, you know that guy what Guy is his name. LOL
    Buddy – means friend
    What do you call a backpack where your from? English people say rucksack.
    Thongs English say flip flops and Kiwi’s NZ say jandals.What do you say?
    What about the simple one Shop in Oz and US is store.
    High School in Oz in US middle school.
    Hope to see you in the waves one day.


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