Embracing a new language

“My favourite food blogger. A very special friend. A witty, fun writer. An amazing baker (she’s recently been in the Great American Baking Show – how cool is that?). A scientist who spends her days in a lab studying bacteria (yes, I know, that’s amazing!). A person who shares with me the love of languages – and their subtleties, and their power. A woman who multitasks – at all times. A dog lover. A people lover – someone who doesn’t find obstacles to help others. Do I need to say more? It’s a great honour to have Salete Newton as a guest writer in my blog. Over to you, Sally!”

Denise Santos

When I left Brazil for the first time, decades ago, I thought I had reasonable knowledge of English. It was the type of knowledge offered by classes in school, by listening to music and figuring out lyrics, and by going to movies and trying to not rely on the subtitles. But I was not prepared for what the experience was really like: “total immersion.” The first thing I learned was that people speak faster than I expected. And, the proper grammar and well-structured phrases that I used to see in old textbooks were rare. Slang and shortcuts abounded. I’ll never forget one of my first awkward moments, in the grocery store with a long line behind me, and the cashier asking something I simply could not understand.  It was clearly an important question, one that demanded a quick answer, but I was lost, totally lost. After a back and forth that seemed to last forever and that wasn’t winning any brownie points with the people behind me, I got it: she was saying “cash or charge? Cash or charge?”  Do you want to pay with “cash,” or “charge” it with a credit card?  It turns out that I had no idea that “cash” meant real money, and that using a credit card was expressed in short as “charge.”

That was just one small example of the learning process for a new language, when you go from classroom to real life.

But even when you feel comfortable and fluent, your new language will surprise you every now and then. It took me a long time to accept that when the alarm clock wakes you up in the morning, “it goes off.” How can it possibly go OFF while it is actually going on and on and on?

So another important point of embracing a new language is accepting its little quirks, incorporating them and moving on. In the beginning it feels strange for a Brazilian to say the alarm went off in the morning, but soon it becomes second nature. Just like the New Year bringing with it a lot of snow instead of the warm sand of a beach in Rio.

Recently I had the opportunity to deal with another interesting aspect of the English language: the differences between the American and British varieties. Baking is my hobby and a few months ago I was involved in a little cooking adventure in London. That led me to explore recipes in British cookbooks, and use ingredients in that country.

I thought it would be fun to list just a few of the many things that differ between the two regions.

Biscuits, cookies and scones

Biscuits…  In the UK, biscuits are what in Brazil we call “biscoitos.” So the translation is almost literal between Portuguese and British English. But in the US, biscoitos are called… COOKIES! If you refer to them as such in the UK, they will gently correct you and insist that you use the “proper term.” American biscuits are totally different entities, having originated from British scones back in the 1600’s. Confused yet?  Maybe a picture will help you out.

Scones also exist in the US, and they are usually flavored with other goodies, that take them into a sweet territory. Raisins, chocolate chips, fruits, they all find their way into scones, whereas the biscuit is for the most part kept savory and served with gravy. Very delicious, all of them.

Chips, crisps and fries

Another interesting difference. When you think of British food, I’m sure that “fish and chips” comes to mind. Having had the chance to try the authentic version in England, and other versions in the US, I can tell you the fish and chips you get in the UK is unbeatable. It’s one of those things to put on your gastronomic bucket list. But once again the USA and the UK do not use the same terms for the potatoes.

Americans who order the classic dish at a London venue might be surprised when their chips turn out to be quite a bit heartier than they expected from the name. And obviously a much better match to the fish sitting next to it…

Barbecue, grill and broil

Not only are food items named differently, but also cooking methods. If you go out to buy a grill, depending on the country you are in, you’ll come back with two totally different appliances!

In the US, we grill outside, in the UK it means using a very hot oven, to perform what in the US is known as broiling. Also, in the US we use a blender, but in the UK a lot of people use a liquidiser (not that far from our very own liquidificador in Brazil).

Those are a few examples that show how flexible languages are, always evolving, always changing. A person learning a new language will always face many challenges, and that’s ok. My advice, don’t worry about making mistakes, and as we say in Brazil “mantenha o senso de humor.” Be able to laugh and move on, but make sure you learn from every little mistake. Ask questions, and use all the technology available for you today (which is much better than what I had in those days). Websites will tell you how to pronounce words in any language, and of course an online translator can be a life saver. 

I think even the desire of learning a new language, that first mental commitment we make of giving it a try, is a wonderful thing. Never easy, but always rewarding. And totally worth it.

14 thoughts on “Embracing a new language”

  1. I loved reading this Sally, and as a Scot married to a Turk, I completely understand the process of learning a new language. I too was great at the grammer, but I have found that for real-life conversations, watching their tv programs on-line is an enormous help. I watch with subtitles mostly, but can point out when translations are wrong. And learning in situ, is another great way to move forward.

  2. Absolutely delightful (not delicious] read about some delicious (not delightful} food. Another little subtlety… English is a sweet crazy language.. Well done, Sally, you sure have a way with words!

  3. Wait. Sally’s Brazilian?? She had NO ACCENT AT ALL on that British baking show! Incredible. (But I was under the impression she studies viruses, not bacteria.)

    What an amazing person Sally is, a true polymath if ever I met one. And other than my own, Sally is the only blogger who’s recipes I would trust to make. I can’t think of a higher compliment than that. You did well to get her as a guest blogger…although you should have insisted on at least one dog picture. It’s not a true Sally post if there’s no dog picture.

    • Hi Dangerspouse. Yes I know I’m lucky to get Sally to be a guest on my blog! And you are absolutely right that the dog picture is a notable absence in the post. Which gives me an idea – what if I persuade her to write another post, this time about the English language and dogs??? Sally, the invitation has been made! 😉

  4. You write so very well, Sally. As a volunteer English as a Second Language teacher, I have learned that teaching grammar isn’t enough. There has to be time in each class for the students to ask about words, expressions that don’t make sense to them, approaches to speaking. The different constructs in their language vs English often lead to confusion and sometimes to laughter.
    Such a joy to try to help them learn. And, they bring wonderful food!!!

  5. In the fries/chips section, you might note that the British refer to skinny fried potatoes like one gets at McDonald’s as “skinny fries.” British chips are closer (but still differen) to what Americans might call “steak fries.”

  6. An absolutely hilarious offering 😉 ! Am a longtime follower of Sally’s – an European-born Australian – oh, how I understand her woes even after ten years on social media !!

    • Sally says: “@Eha – I guess we know too well the pain and pleasure of embracing not only a new language but a new culture… I do think it opens the mind and it’s one of the greatest experiences ever.”


Leave a comment