Toastmaster — November 2012
We take our native language for granted. When I moved from England to Vancouver, Canada, in 2001, I was jolted from my comfort zone by the confusion I felt at times—when a word that had meant one thing to me now appeared to mean something entirely different. But as with all challenges, I grew from this experience.
I thought I was familiar with the Canadian accent, having seen many North American films and TV programs. However, some surprises awaited me. For some inexplicable reason, Canadians “miss off” the letter “h” when they say herbs. Instead of saying basil, Canadians say baysil, and Cecil is pronounced Ceecil. Football became soccer, players were ejected from the game rather than being sent off, and offense had replaced attack.
None of this caused me any real problems. But there were occasions when differences in meanings took me out of my comfort zone. The first instance was the time my wife, Tania, and I stayed at a bed-and-breakfast near Kamloops in the interior of British Columbia. After checking us in, the owner looked at me and asked, “Would the gentleman like a comforter for the night?”
I looked at her for roughly five seconds, opening and closing my mouth like a goldfish before blurting out, “No, not tonight, but thank.s for asking.” I started giggling and had to turn away from the reception desk.
“Why were you laughing?” Tania asked when we were in our room.
“She asked me if I wanted a comforter. A comforter! I’m 41.”
“It’s a quilt,” Tania said. “A bed quilt.”
In England, a comforter is a dummy teat used to pacify children. That night, I had a strange dream in which a woman tried to insert a quilt-sized dummy teat into my mouth.
A few days later, I was using a pay phone to contact someone at a government department. The voice at the other end of the line said, “Press the pound key for further options.”
I stared at the keypad for about 20 seconds, checking and rechecking. There was no pound key! At least not one showing the British currency sign— the only pound I knew. When a man walked by, I explained my dilemma.
“Here’s the pound key,” he said, pointing at the key with a # symbol on it. I thanked him and pressed the pound key, but the line had already gone dead.
Two weeks later, more confusion ensued. Approaching a shopping mall, I saw a sign at the entrance: “Warning—Automatic Door.” About one foot from the door, I realized it wasn’t going to open, so I stopped and walked backward about six paces. In England, most automatic doors operate by pressure pads, so I tried my best to find the pressure pad. I must have looked like a cross between a traditional Irish dancer and a man trying to detonate a land mine. Of course, I failed to find any pressure pad. After a few seconds, a woman walked past me and grabbed the door handle.
“Handle,” she said slowly, looking at me pityingly. “Handle.”
“Yes,” I said, blushing profusely, “the door handle—to open the automatic door.”
Most of the time things went well as I settled into my life in Canada. I could understand and be understood. However, on occasion events would go awry and for a few minutes I couldn’t decipher what was happening. These experiences made me grow as an individual and appreciate the richness of the English language. It’s important for people whose first language isn’t English to realize that even native English speakers have problems when moving to another country.