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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.

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 4, 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.

British Sinks

Being abroad can be a nerve-racking adventure in which even the most common daily routines become a hilarious challenge. Take washing your hands for instance. British sinks are the place where dragon fire meets penguin tears. They have two taps: the hot one will scald your hands, whereas the cold one will shatter them into frozen pieces. So, why do British sinks have separate taps for hot and cold water? Foreigners around the world have asked themselves that question for decades.Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, British sinks, cold and warm water taps, faucets

Back in the day when our grandparents were toddlers, houses didn’t have hot running water, just cold water that came from a main supply. Later on, hot water systems were added separately to each building for safety and health reasons.

British plumbers were concerned about the pressure difference between cold and warm water. The first came from a main supply with a much higher pressure than the latter, which was stored in a tank inside each house and relied on gravity. In case of an imbalance of pressures, one stream could force its way into the other and pose a number of problems.

There were also health risks involved. Old tanks were made of galvanized steel, which corrodes easily; and they didn’t usually have a proper lid, which made the tank an AquaLand for errant birds, distracted insects and sweaty rodents in need of a swim. Squatting fauna aside, hot water sitting in an attic tank was not considered safe to drink, for it created the optimal conditions for bacteria like legionella to proliferate and wreak havoc on human stomachs. So, what did the Brits do? They came up with regulations to keep them separate and prevent the hot water contaminating the cold water supply.

You might be thinking: “Sure, but that was YEEEARS ago. Why haven’t they switched to mixer taps yet?” – Well, in a word: tradition. Whereas continental Europe reinvented its water supply system after the war, Britain rebuilt its houses clinging onto the separate taps tradition. Chances are that mixer taps will take over in the future, but in the meantime, have fun flapping your hands between the two taps when washing them.Expat Gone Foreign, tXc, travel and language comics, tea, United Kingdom, British problems