Language Problems Ordering a Subway

Chicago Skyline

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.

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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’m sorry?”


“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.

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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?

23 Comments Add yours

  1. Daniel says:

    I’m from Indonesia. When I was in Malaysia, which has a similar language to ours. I spoke to someone in the street asking for direction, soon as she found out that I am from Indonesia, she insisted on me to speak my own language. The thing is, Malaysian people will always surely understand Bahasa meanwhile I as an Indonesian, never understood them. So I just let her speak, act like I did understand what she was trying to say. I left her, walk away, and ask to another people.


    1. ambigram0 says:

      Haha! It’s amazing that so often we’ll be polite enough to listen to people even if we have no idea what they’re talking about!


  2. Katie says:

    I’ve lived in the Chicago-area my whole life, and it really doesn’t matter where you’re from, if you don’t embrace the vowel shift, you’ll be ridiculed. Saaahsage, not sausage. Also, every sentence must end with a preposition at the end of it. It’s crazy.


    1. rayncatt says:

      OMG! Totally on board with you there Katie! Oklahoma is the same way only without the cockney slang lol..what IS up with the prepositions at the end of every sentence!?!


      1. Katie says:

        I have to make a conscious effort not to do it.


  3. I got mixed reviews when I was teaching ESL in Poland. Some would say my accent was easier to understand because of Hollywood, others would complain I need to slow down and speak more clearly because I wasn’t speaking with a British accent. It really just depends on where you’re at I suppose. As far as a personal story goes, when I was 13 and working at my aun’ts gas station in Arizona. A Southern woman came up to me and asked me for where the “eyes” were. It took several repetitions before I realized she meant “ice”. I’ll never forget that one. She looked at me like I was such a moron.


    1. ambigram0 says:

      [insert joke about there being a lot of Polish people in England]

      I think travel helps with that. If you’ve travelled around a bit and dealt with language/accent issues, you’ll be more understanding/receptive to issues. But if you never leave your hometown you’re more likely to be closed-minded/hostile to people who speak differently to you. I know I’m generalising but I think there’s a lot of truth in it.


  4. because of a poorly timed jaw-breaking incident, my best friend had her jaw wired shut during a trip to Tuscany. Whenever we went out to eat we would have to bring a can of broth or plain soup in case there was nothing she could handle. In one instance her dad was trying to ask the wait staff to hear up the soup for us by saying (quite loudly) “diablo!”. I’ll never forget that…


  5. bwucinski says:

    When I was in Sicily this summer I was attempting to use what little Italian I knew to explain that I needed sun screen. Sicilian is VERY different than typical Italian, both with slang and dialect. I ended up buying ‘sole burro’ or sun butter with SPF 2. I ended up redder than spaghetti pomodoro.


    1. ambigram0 says:

      Ahaha, hilarious! (although maybe not for you at the time…)


    2. rayncatt says:

      omg laughing sorry lol ouch! French is the same north to south it is almost like an entirely different language even though the only thing different really is the slang and nuance and this includes the “F” word hah


  6. Ruth2Day says:

    no funny experiences such as you. But it’s fair to say that us pomms are not all that good at embracing or learning a new language. I think we still feel as if we rule the world and everybody else should speak and understand English…LOL! wonder if we’ll ever change?!


  7. Jennifer S says:

    Very entertaining post… and so true. My eilderly cousins from NYC couldn’t interpret my husband’s southern dialect here in North Carolina. When they used to phone years ago, I had to get on the line and translate. (Not joking.) Of course, many Americans are utterly enchanted with Brits… the way they speak, the words they use… so I’m guessing you found fans of your accent while travling in the U.S.


  8. Chan Vi says:

    LMAO (…learnt that one from an American friend)
    I speak basic Mandarin with a Cantonese accent. Living in Hebei, I always get asked where I’m from. Nearly every taxi ride involves a conversation about the differences between life in London and life in China (if I’ve told them I’m from London) or the differences between Cantonese, Mandarin and the Northern Chinese dialects (if I’ve told them I’m from Guangdong, home of Cantonese).
    I can’t complain as that’s mostly how I’ve improved my Mandarin since being here 🙂


  9. Piggletino says:

    Yea that always happens, it’s almost like British English is foreign to the Americans and vice versa. 🙂


  10. I live in Israel and deal with this daily occasionally from other Americans!


  11. I once had to have ‘quarter’ translated by a woman behind me in the checkout at Walmart because I refused to humiliate myself with trying to American up my word! I have conceded with ‘to-may-to’ though, probably because I was hungry!

    You forget that it’s a mandatory condition of working in a Subway over here that you can’t speak English anyway!


  12. Great post…amusing, I did get a chuckle this morning reading it. And sorry for the communication difficulties you encountered…but at least they spoke some version of English in Chicago. Down in my part of the world, South Florida, you’ll often need to know Spanish in order to order that sandwich, get gas (petrol, to you Brits) or simply get directions to the expressway.


  13. Early on in my time in the USA (I’m Australian) I also had to commit the ‘tomayto’ heresy to get the food I wanted. But I also love the USA and have great respect for the multilingual out there. P.S. A New York taxi driver was puzzled when I said that we like cricket. When I’d said I was from Australia he thought I said ‘Israel’! P.P.S. Don’t you love it when (some?) Americans say ‘momentarily’ when they mean ‘in a moment’.


  14. B Gourley says:

    I’m always shocked where I run into language problems. I’m in a remote Hmong village in northern Thailand, somebody will speak perfectly understandable English. I’m at the main tourism office on the square in Valladolid, Mexico (a touristy town in the Yucatan that gets mostly American tourists) and no one in the office even knows word one.


  15. Tina Schell says:

    Hey, I’m from New Jersey, and live in South Carolina, and they can’t understand ME in Chicago either so don’t worry about it!!! Heck, they don’t understand me in South Carolina either and I’ve lived here for 15 years! Fun post.


  16. rayncatt says:

    What a great read! Thank you for posting ;o) and for liking my photos! I am not a world traveler though have extensively traveled the US as well as have family from all over the US and friends across the pond.
    I suppose being exposed to different dialects growing up and learn French at 2 years old didn’t hurt because I seem to understand much more than others I know when someone has an accent of *most* any kind. There are of course exceptions to this. Smiles thinking back….
    Funny story well I have a couple one my grandparents did travel world wide and had friends in many countries. One year they had friends from Australia come out to San Francisco. I was about 10 years old at the time and I will never forget having to translate not only in general (made me wonder how the hell they ever got along whenever there though!) but for the word refrigerator. I sat and watched for maybe several seconds as this was going back and forth till i finally said ‘Grandma she is saying refrigerator!’ that got a good laugh though even years later I would get called on to ask how I understood any of what was being said lol…Shrugs I dunno I jus do (yes country southerneese there) haha…
    One thing that even still puzzles me to this day is when Latinos or Koreans try to speak to me in their native tongue. I am not Latin by any stretch of the imagination nor am I Korean (though told I look a little bit like them). Luckily where I do live I can get by with broken Spanish when speaking to Mexicans who try to talk to me. It still though is funny when they start talking and I get wide eyed and say ‘si habla espanol un pico’ and they get all riled up and excited wow we thought you were us! too funny…anyways ….
    A lot was mentioned on different dialects here in the US and it amazes me to think how big yet small this country is yet can sound SO vastly different from one state to the next! Coz I tell you whut, that there southern drawl or Cajun slang is vastly different from the northern proper southern spoken only a state away! As far as Chicago goes though it depends on the parish I guess i ahve friends there some I can understand and some well…yeah no lol….


  17. Jenny says:

    Had the same problem in a Subway in Florida when i tried to order Tuna and Tomato!!

    PS. Glad to see you still spell ‘colour’ the right way!!


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