Language problems are an expected part of travel. You find yourself thousands of miles from home, in a country that has an entirely different alphabet to yours — usually a more beautiful one with lots of extra curly bits — and trying to communicate is a problem. You’d probably turn to your phrasebook, or speak slower and raise your voice, or aggressively point at what you want. That’s normal, everyone does it.
Yet I had rather too many problems ordering a Subway sandwich from a fellow English speaker in Chicago.
Before I describe what happened, a bit of context: I speak English. I am from England. I was born and raised in Cambridge where a misplaced apostrophe is a punishable offence and there are weekly elocution lessons on street corners. My English couldn’t be more pure if I vomited attributive ditransitives.
But apparently my English is harder to understand than American English. I was travelling with my American friend in Israel/Jordan this summer and non-native English speakers that we met said he was easier to understand than I was. “Hollywood,” they said, shrugging.
Well, that’s fair enough I suppose. Tom Cruise is more famous than Paddy Considine. But last time I checked, British English was still at least understood in America, even if it no longer inspires fear into hearts as it once did.
So back to this Subway in Chicago. I was tired and my feet hurt after a long day exploring the city and I wanted a sandwich. I’m not sure what it was I ordered exactly, but I’ll never forget it included tomato and ranch sauce.
“Salad?” The lovely Asian-American girl behind the counter asked.
“Err, yeah. I’ll have lettuce, cucumber, tomarto and onion.”
“Lettuce,” she said, scooping up a handful of lettuce and spreading it on my sandwich. “Cucumber…onion…and what was the last one?”
“I don’t understand. Tom–?”
There was nothing for it. I was going to have to humiliate myself. “To-may-to.”
“Ooh, to-may-to. And what sauce?”
Well, I’d already committed treason so I just said, mimicking a sheep, “Raa-nch.”
I could feel ten thousand loud tuts being tutted in unison from back home.
I’d like to say I was annoyed with America after that encounter, and that I missed England and all our quaint eccentricities like crisps and crumpets and trousers, but truth was, I was too far smitten with the land across the pond. I love America. And I love language. Sure, our American cousins have destroyed our language so much that they can no longer understand us, but that’s fine. It’s development. It’s change. And as much as 90s kids and 80s kids and 70s kids all tell you that their TV shows were the best, change is good.
Language is a powerful thing. It’s what connects and divides the world. Take the Asian-American girl in that Subway. She spoke perfect American English and presumably Mandarin or Korean or something. She could feel connected in her home country (or her family’s home country) in Asia as well as fitting in perfectly at 4th of July celebrations. But if I went to China or Korea speaking my pure English, I wouldn’t fit in at all. I’d probably be left aggressively pointing at things and nosing through my phrasebook. I’d be an outsider.
And words and dialects and all sorts else change under the banner of one language. English as we know it today – in America or England or anywhere else that speaks it as a first-language – isn’t the same as it was 500 years ago. If I was a Romeo standing under a Juliet’s balcony and she was crowing, “Oh Romeo, wherefore art thou?” I’d probably text her, “LOL, im in ur garden.”
That kind of language change and development across time and space is why I had to humiliate myself and my language ordering a Subway in Chicago.
Anyone else have any stories of language miscommunication they want to share?