No Lessons Required: How An American Girl Learnt a New Language (Hint: It's Called "British")

Hey everyone, today's I'm very excited to welcome a second guest post from Alice Morell. She writes about the world of music over at, and you can also find her on Twitter. But today, Alice is on Fluent to share her own foreign language experience, which might be a little different from what you'd imagine.

Over to Alice..

I'd spent a fair share of my free time over my teenage years studying the English culture, being especially engrossed in its literature and the romanticism of the Victorian Era. What can I say—though I quite love literature and many other forms of art and expression, this particular time and place has always been outstandingly magical to me. While this gave me some introduction to what I was about to experience, the reality of it was to completely blow me away. As I got off the plane at one of the busiest airports in the world, London Heathrow Airport, my head swam with images of Big Ben and the Palace Gardens, imagining what it would be like to have memories of being in those places. Little did I know it was going to be the differences in our use of English that would be the most surprising memories I’d make, and the thing that let me know that though we shared a language, I wasn't in Kansas anymore.

As I stood in the baggage claim with the other students from my class, listen to them talk excitedly about what they wanted to see and do first in England, I had a conversation that encompassed my first bit of culture shock.  A man had just gotten off the same plane, and we had been chatting amicably about our trips.  Things had seemed relatively normal until his suitcase came by. Scooping it up off the conveyor belt, he waved to me and said “Well! Was great meeting you, now I'm off to knock up my girlfriend!”

As you might imagine, this set us all laughing among ourselves, and even our teacher had to laugh. “He means he's going to go visit her, 'knocking up' just means to knock at their door to wake them. Now get your minds out of the gutter!”

Asking For The "Non-Swimming" Baths

The next thing I encountered about the oddities of language involved the word 'chips'; this one, however, was thankfully quite a bit less embarrassing.  I had envisioned having Fish and Chips while here in London, a decidedly simple but popular food, and a classic staple of Britishness.  Little did I know I was going to wind up with a plate of deep-fried fish and French fries!  They call potato chips “crisps” there, and that's what I was actually after.  But the fries weren't unwelcome. Come on, I was raised in the U.S.

Fish and Fries

Fish and Fries

We had arrived in the middle of the summer, and on a particular hot day were asked if “us birds would like to go the bath”.  After a momentary shocked laugh at their forwardness, we once again were alerted that the language caught us “baths” in England are American swimming pools, and “birds” are young women like we ourselves were.  That one I actually thought made a lot of sense, it being close to our “chicks”.

I also got a disapproving look from a severe older waitress at a restaurant when I asked if they had biscuits, apparently they agree with mothers at home that cookies aren't breakfast food.  They don't have anything like what we call biscuits at home. 

In England, if you ask for biscuits, this is what you’ll get.

In England, if you ask for biscuits, this is what you’ll get.

After having breakfast I asked one of our new British mates (which means friend rather than partner) where the bathroom was, and he directed me to the bog, but not before he gave me some grief about how they didn't have bathtubs in a restaurant restroom, just closets (Which is what we typically think of as a standard bathroom, with just a toilet).  I in turn told him that in America we were civilized and used toilets, rather than still going out to to a swamp or a wardrobe to do our business.  So much confusion was just trying to relieve myself! 

The other point of confusion in conversation had to do with our education, where colleges in the UK is applied to a type of institution similar to our high schools.  When I started talking about the Theater Conservatory at our college back home, they seemed quite confused about our theater classes being held in a greenhouse, as that is what the word “conservatory” means there.  I had to explain that we use the term to describe places that teach music, among other things like drama.

A “conservatory” in Great Britain.

A “conservatory” in Great Britain.

It was a great experience, and I made some wonderful friends while I was there.  While I occasionally talk about how awe-inspiring the tourist sites were, it's the laughs and fun that was had just trying to figure out what we were trying to say to each other that will forever stick in my memory and be what I tell the funniest stories about. 


Thanks for reading this article on Fluent - The Language Learning Blog. Don't forget - if you sign up to our newsletter, you will receive a free Guide to the Best Language Learning Resources!

And if you're into more articles about the quirks of British vs American English, I strongly recommend you check out the separated by a common language blog by Lynne Murphy.