Language barriers cause culture shock

I thought that part of studying abroad in an English-speaking country such as England meant that I would be spared the confusion and hassle of living in a place where communicating with the locals is difficult and generally awkward.

I was wrong.

It’s not that I can’t understand the people here; I can, most of the time, although those accents can sometimes be surprisingly dense to my U.S.-born ears. Yet in my mind, I instantly wrote off communication as one of the few things I would not have to worry about during my time living in London. I was so sure of this, in fact, that when cases contrary to my assumption arose, I was utterly unprepared.

I think this all set in after a few people in my program and I went to eat dinner at a popular burger joint in London called Byron – Proper Hamburgers. There was a 15-minute wait, so we stood outside in front of the restaurant until our table was called. After about two minutes, a group of people came up to us and asked if we were “queuing.”

My friends and I stared at each other blankly. We knew they were asking us if we were in line to get in, but how should we respond? Should we say “queue” back to them? Will they know what we mean if we said “line” instead of “queue?” Can the word “queue” really be used as a verb like that? It was an awkward pause like no other, which led us all to simply shake our heads and reminded us that we aren’t quite locals here in the U.K.

It sounds like an insignificant moment to recount, but since that miscommunication, I’ve become much more conscious of the disconnection between English in England and the U.S. English I know and love. Repeats of this small incident have begun to emerge daily, such as the time my professor said the word “pensioners” when he was talking about senior citizens. Or the sign at the train station that read, “Anti-social behavior will not be tolerated at King’s Cross station. You may be refused travel, removed from the train or arrested.” That seemed like an awfully harsh punishment for shyness, until I looked it up and discovered that here, the word “anti-social” refers to disorderly conduct punishable by law. The study abroad director at our university even told us during orientation that the subway here, known as the Tube, should be pronounced “chube,” but I don’t even hear a difference between the two words. After all that, I’m starting to get the feeling that I don’t know English as well as I thought I did.

I can only imagine that American students living in countries where English is not predominantly spoken are facing far more severe communication barriers than I am. Those people deserve some credit because I don’t think I personally could handle living in a new country and not being able to understand anyone around me.

Yet communication difficulties aren’t one-sided. Something all study abroad students share, in English-speaking countries or not, is the fact that as soon as we open our mouths, locals instantly know that we’re American. We all know that the United States has somewhat of a precarious reputation abroad, and thus, it’s hard not to feel like you’re constantly representing the United States to the rest of the world or being judged for your American-ness. I’ve already introduced myself and had people tell me that Chelsea is “not an American name” or ask me if I know Miley Cyrus. I’ve gotten some stern looks on the bus for talking loudly with my friends. So not only are we attempting to adjust to a new culture and form of language, but we are also battling stereotypes of our own culture at the same time.

If I’ve learned anything in my short time in London thus far, it’s that studying abroad is not really about blending in. There’s no way I could convince anyone here that I’m a born-and-bred Londoner, and I doubt that I’ll ever really start to feel like one. I probably won’t start saying “queue” or using the word “quite” a lot. I might have to ask the waiter at a restaurant what aubergine is (I was recently informed that it’s eggplant). There’s no shame in taking time to adjust to new things, despite the discomfort misunderstandings cause in the meantime. I’ve decided it’s time to embrace the awkwardness abroad.

After all, it seems like it’s not going anywhere.


Chelsea Stone is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. She is currently studying abroad at City University London. Her column “Traveling Trojan” runs every other Friday.