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The Devil is in the Minimal Pairs

Communicating in any foreign language can be an arduous task, especially when the language you are trying to speak contains phonemes 1 that are absent in your L1 2. This is the case and struggle of Spanish speakers when they learn English, and my dad is no exception…

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Language comics, languagecomics, Spanish, Foreign, English phonetics

These amusing happenstances occur because the devil is in the minimal pairs: two words that have a very similar pronunciation, but differ from one another by one phoneme in the same position in each word:Expat Gone Foreign, linguistics comics, phonetics, IPA, English, phonology, language

Whereas Spanish has one phoneme for <i>, English has a long /iː/ and short /ɪ/ one. No wonder Spanish speakers are confused when they start learning English. This madness would the phonetic equivalent of going to bed with two feet and waking up with four. One needs some practice to figure out how to navigate the world with additional extremities – or extra phonemes one had never had before.

To make matters worse, you will stumble upon words that contain the same graphic vowels, yet each one is pronounced differently:Expat Gone Foreign, linguistics comics, phonetics, IPA, English, phonology, language

But don’t fear, dear language learner! All it takes is a bit of practice, and you can train your ear to the different phonemes of the English language with online resources like this super cool interactive phonemic chart. If you are unsure how one word sounds, look up the pronunciation in dictionaries that include the IPA transcription and sound clips, like WordReference.

In conclusion, I think English learners should get more credit for their Herculean efforts.Expat Gone Foreign, linguistics comics, phonetics, IPA, English, phonology, language

In fact, anyone who stumbles upon words like these ↑ and doesn’t give up, deserves a standing ovation.

American English in Britain

Just when I thought I had figured out British accents, I encountered yet another linguistic challenge in the UK: the abundant lexicological differences between the American English that I grew up with, and the vocabulary that Brits actually use in their day-to-day lives.

Most commonplace words are fairly easy to figure out: lift, loo, biscuit, rubbish, parcel, jam… no problem there. But some might be a a bit trickier. So, without further ado, here are some book illustrations depicting memorable awkward situations 3 . Expat Gone Foreign, tXc comics, language comics, British English, American English, language learning, Britain

For instance, Brits refer to pants as “trousers”. If you find yourself in a clothing store and indicate that you don’t wear pants, they’ll think that you are THAT weirdo who goes through life without ever using underwear.Expat Gone Foreign, tXc comics, language comics, British English, American English, language learning, Britain

There was also the time when a colleague invited me to a party after work, and immediately thereafter asked if I had a rubber. Of course he meant eraser, not the birth control item. I’m glad someone clarified this to me and no one had to be reported to human resources…

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc comics, language comics, British English, American English, language learning, Britain

If someone offers you a meal from their boot, don’t be grossed out. They mean their car trunk 2.

Truth be told, learning these lexical differences turned out to be an amusing experience. What I didn’t find that amusing was the self-righteous attitude of linguistic supremacy that some Brits hold towards British English.

My colleagues, polite as they might have been, always felt the need to point out my spelling “mistakes”. An acquaintance gave me a list of British shows in the hope that I would “get rid of that horrifying American accent”. Some even told me that, whenever they heard someone speaking American English, they automatically deem them to be uneducated folks 3.

But here’s the thing: thinking that your version of the language is the quintessence, the most lustrous and the only one acceptable is like saying that X is the best food or Y is the best book ever written. There are tons of delicious meals, thousands of inspiring books and multiple versions of any given language, each as fascinating and enriching as the next. Diversity is key.

I wonder if it’s an island thing.Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, British Isles, United Kingdom, Britain, Drawing map, I love maps, living abroad comics,

Do you have a preferred version of English? Do certain accents have positive or negative connotations for you? Leave a comment!

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If you liked this article, click here to decipher the cultural enigma of British politeness.

British Politeness

“Getting around in the UK will be a piece of cake, I’m already fluent in English!” – Boy, was I wrong. I had to learn how to read between the lines, a skill only found in the British genome.

You see, successful communication in Britain is all about the implied meaning rather than what is actually said. In fact, Brits are the best at not getting to the point. But worry not! Here is a comprehensive guide to decipher the cultural enigma of British politeness.

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, culture clashes comics, British politeness, life abroad

If you liked this strip, check out British sinks.

The Finno-Ugric Enigma

When you arrive in a new country and speak none of its language, you might find yourself in somewhat awkward situations. This is basically what happened to me on my first day in Finland: the Finno-Ugric enigma of non-anthropomorphic signs in restrooms.

Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, foreign language comics, Finnish, Suomi, faux-pas, abroad

When I first arrived in Finland, “sauna” and “perkele” were the only words of Finnish that I knew. Of course everyone in Finland speaks English, but that didn’t stop me from getting myself into embarrassing situations. Up until then, not knowing the local language hadn’t posed any problems in getting around Europe 4.

I could always resort to the few Romance and Germanic languages that I already spoke to figure out the situation. Lost in an Italian town? Mix Spanish and Latin. Interacting in Denmark or Sweden? Pull out German. To my surprise, the althochdeutsch 2 literature courses really came in handy when deciphering the Morgunblaðið in Iceland.

Finnish however, belongs to the Finno-Ugric linguistic family, along with Estonian and Hungarian. How do you crack a language when there are no similarities or linguistic strings to pull from? I knew all the letters, but their combinations didn’t make any sense to me. How do you navigate life when you can’t even read? I felt almost illiterate, but also genuinely intrigued by the Finno-Ugric enigma. And it was then, in a coffee shop in Turku, that I decided to learn Finnish, the beautiful language of the bazillion cases and insane grammar categories. ♡

What about you? Why did you decide to learn a particular foreign language? Leave me a comment!

If you are into Finnish, check out Poronkusema and the Finnish Linguistic Landscape.

The Geordie Accent

Before relocating to Britain, I truly believed that getting around would be a piece of cake, mostly because I already spoke English – or so I thought. Then the Geordie accent happened. From being greeted with “Alreet wor kid?” to deciphering my roommates’ conversations, the accent in Newcastle certainly posed a few challenges that I hadn’t anticipated.Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, Geordie, Newcastle, British accents, language comics, linguistic diversity

[Translation]
– “I’m heading to [my] bed, I’m really exhausted, mate.”
– “You are kidding, man! We are going down town tonight to get wasted!

In addition, there’s an interesting phenomenon when it comes to accent diversity in this country. Brits happen to change their accents depending on who they are talking to. John Doe could be talking to their colleagues in RP 3, switch to Cockney when he phones that friend from London and later on chat up his neighbors in Geordie.  Linguistic chameleons at their finest.

This skill certainly makes communication much easier, since most Brits will rapidly switch to RP when they notice that you are not from town. Besides the occasional befuddlement when Geordies interact with one another, you’ll be just fine getting around.Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, expat comics, expat humor, uk, tea time

If you liked this strip, check out British Sinks.