The Language Barrier

The Language Barrier

Moving to a foreign country can be a wonderful opportunity to learn a new language and to experience a new culture. Moving to Canada is no different. Canada is officially bilingual so you will have the opportunity to put those school French lessons to good use (depending on the region). The First Nations of Canada have their own languages such as Ojibway and in my current location Kwak’wala and many people are making efforts to preserve their native languages and traditional cultures. Canada is also a multicultural country with immigrants from around the globe so hearing people speaking a foreign language is not uncommon. It’s not surprising therefore that I have at times experienced communication issues while living in Canada.

Canadians speak Canadian English and while I understand them (almost) entirely, there is definitely a language barrier for us Brits. Simple questions such as ‘Is this the queue for the toilets?’ can be met with a combination of bewilderment and disgust. As a second language teacher, I often have to fight back urges to say ‘Use your context clues. Now what could I possibly be asking?’ Canadians refuse to call toilets what they actually are and refer to going to the loo as visiting the washrooms or needing to use the bathroom. Saying ‘I need the toilet’ seems to be the cultural equivalent in Canada to referring to it as a bog in the UK (something I would never do!). As for queueing… I refuse to call it a line-up, unless it is something children do at school and since I have read Canadian publications which use the word queue I think Ontarians particularly have become too Americanised if they can’t even recognise English when it’s being used correctly!

Since I first set foot on Canadian soil I have moved further and further to the west, finally landing in British Columbia. As the name might suggest I do find that the people here understand me a lot better than in my previous locations and some other aspects of Canadian living are a lot less irritating (eating out and pub culture) nevertheless I do still experience communication issues: having to repeat “diet coke” literally every single time I try to order it.

While I could write a list of all the ways that Canadian English differs from British English I may do that in a different post. Here is a list of words I have learnt from my Canadian friends:

  • Tuque – A woolly hat or beanie.
  • Runners – Running shoes/trainers.
  • Robertson Screw/Screwdriver – I really should have known this one!
  • Mickey – A measurement of alcohol, usually 13 ounces (375 millilitres) – I don’t think Brits buy alcohol in such a small bottle!
  • Give’r – To put in an enormous amount of effort.
  • Hydro – Electricity. It’s largely hydro-powered across Canada so is referred to as Hydro.
  • Kleenex – Obviously, I knew what this is referring to but it really annoys me when people refer to an object by a brand name, especially if it isn’t even that particular brand. They are tissues, people!
  • Thongs – Flip flops, not underwear.
  • Eh? – Before coming to Canada I had never even heard of this cliché but Canadians seem to think they are famous for saying ‘eh?’. When I lived in Manitoba it became clear as to why. It’s used to turn a statement into a question.
  • Double-Double – A coffee with two creams & two sugars from Tim Horton’s (Apparently the UK now has Timmy’s. Canadians are insane about this place; We will likely not be.)
  • Loonies/Toonies – One dollar and two dollar coins respectively.

After years of living in Canada, I have obviously modified my vocabulary to be understood. The worrying thing is that I feel as though I’m losing my British accent and part of my identity as I rarely experience the language barrier these days. Now, if only I could get my car’s voice activated commands to recognise my accent – sadly the only way that behaves is if I sound like an American.

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