Expat Confusion: Are We Speaking English?

by missfootloose on March 12, 2011 · 35 comments

in Culture and Customs, Humor, Kenya, life abroad

NO PICKING OR ALIGHTING

It is a truth like a cow (a Dutch expression) that as an expat or a world traveler you have a great advantage if you speak English. You’re especially lucky if you live in a foreign country that actually has English as its official language. It makes shopping for food and reading signs so much easier, don’t you agree?

So, having learned English in school paid off for me when I lived in Kenya, East Africa, where both English and Swahili are official languages. I did learn some Swahili, like Cho iko wapi? (Where is the bathroom?) and other such useful phrases.

My mate was an American Peace Corps volunteer at the time and we lived in a shabby little house loved by spiders and army ants. The kitchen was a built-on little shack without a fridge or oven. But I was delighted with the little lemon tree in front and other (to me) exotic plants and flowers in the garden.

A maize field started at the bottom of our lawn and often we would see women tending the corn. Kikuyu farm women toil like no others. Most stunning to me was seeing women carrying huge loads of firewood on their backs, often with a baby strapped on in front.

Photo credit | Creative Commons License

I was home one afternoon when a rain storm hit. A deluge of water poured forth from the heavens, drumming on our corrugated metal roof. Somehow, above the noise, I became aware of voices outside the front door. I opened it to investigate and found two young Kikuyu women hiding under the roof overhang, farm implements clutched in their hands. They were drenched. They must have  come running over from the shamba below to take cover.

They looked at me wide-eyed and terrified. This was a new experience for me, since it’s not usually the reaction I get when people look at my most ordinary person. Clearly these girls – they were teenagers, really – had not expected to see a white human emerge from this little house. They may never have had a close encounter with one of my kind before, since not many wazungu lived in the area.

Since the rain kept a-pouring, I did what was the right thing to do: I invited them in to wait out the deluge. Their eyes grew wider and they looked even more terrified than before, they with the pangas (machetes) and other sharp tools in their hands.

What to do? Clearly, they’d be happiest if I just closed the door and left them alone out there under the overhang. I understood this, although it made me feel uncharitable. So I decided to do the other proper thing, at least for a Dutch person, and offer them a cup of tea.

 

A green field of black tea. Kenya is the largest exporter of black tea in the world. India is the largest producer and consumer.

 

“Would you like some chai?” I asked. Chai is the Swahili word for tea, a most beloved beverage in Kenya.

“I don’t mind,” one of the girls said. This took me aback a little. I looked at the other girl, who had said nothing.

“Would you like some chai?”

“I don’t mind,” she said.

Well, sheesh, I thought, you don’t mind? You can take it or leave it? If I really want to make the effort to fix it, you’ll do me the favor of drinking it?

Peeved a little, I went to the shacky kitchen and brewed the chai, the Kenyan way. I steeped tea leaves in a pan with boiling water, then poured in a copious amount of milk, added a motherload of sugar and brought the lot up to a boil again.  No spices like the Indian variety. I had a package of British cookies (biscuits) and put some on a plate, because in Holland you never just offer tea and coffee without something sweet to go with it. The girls said thank you very nicely when I handed them the tray. I left the door ajar, since it seemed so rude to just close it in their faces.

After the storm blew over, I went outside again and found the girls gone, the cups empty, the cookies eaten, the world sparkling.

It wasn’t until later that I learned that in Kenya “I don’t mind” simply means “Yes, please.”

As in many countries that have English as their official language, Kenya too has its own local usages and idioms. It’s often referred to as Kenglish. Here are a few:

“Let me give you a push.” No, that does not mean your Kenyan friend will shove you in a corner. It means that when you’re leaving to go somewhere, he’ll walk along with you.

Say you’ve been gone for a while, on vacation, or on home leave. After you’re back in Kenya, people are happy to see you again and will comment: “You’ve been lost!” (And been found again!)

“Can you pick me?” Pick you for what? To win a prize? To join your team? No, it means: Can you give me a ride/lift? And when you’ve reached your destination you ask the driver to stop because you want to alight. Now you can make sense of the sign at the top of the post.

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Have you ever been flabbergasted by some language confusion? Do share! The more colorful and embarrassing, the better.

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Rambles with Reese March 12, 2011 at 1:55 am

Karen, this was fun to read! I had no idea that the adoption of English into another’s language would change meaning in its entirety, but I’m slowly learning by living here how Italians do it as well. They say “footing” which means “running”. E.g. “I went footing.” I’ve corrected people so many times that I don’t say anything anymore, cause’ it’s exhausting.

Have a great weekend!

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Miss Footloose March 13, 2011 at 8:02 am

It’s lots of fun (or embarrassment, confusion) to figure out how “plain” English isn’t so plain when you’re in another English-speaking country. And it’s interesting to hear foreigners speaking English and doing their own unique translations, as you’re experiencing. I like “footing” for running 😉

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Lady Fi March 12, 2011 at 9:28 am

What a fun read! I love the confusion of the English language…

I think it was Bill Bryson who said, “The US and the UK are divided by their common language.”

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Mara March 12, 2011 at 12:28 pm

When I first moved to England and became a hotel receptionist, I had to learn the job from the ground up and I think my boss was wondering why in the world she had hired me! Especially after asking her what to amend meant (to change). And then what to alter meant (to change). Why they couldn’t use one word for all three is beyond me, but I’ve learnt the different versions now!

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Miss Footloose March 13, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Mara,

English is a very versatile language, and very confusing with so many synonyms for every word. The differences are often difficult to learn for a foreigner unless you live in a country. I remember an Armenian friend (who spoke beautiful English, but had never been to an English speaking country) looking at a photo of my two daughters and saying: “They are very similar.”

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Aledys Ver March 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm

What a lovely anecdote. It is fun to discover new idiomatic expressions, isnt it. English has been adopted by so many different cultures around the world that it not surprising that you’d find that phrases like, “I don’t mind” would mean something different from what you’d expect back home.
I remember being totally shocked once when a friend of mine from Perú referred to another friend as being a “conchuda” which for us in Argentina is something truly horrible to say, while for her it only meant that he person was a bit stuck-up.

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Miss Footloose March 13, 2011 at 6:48 pm

It can be very embarrassing to find that a perfectly innocent word in one country is something different in the same language in another country. What comes to mind is the word rubber, which in England can refer to the thingie you use to erase pencil marks. In the US a rubber usually refers to a condom. If you’re looking to erase your pencil marks, you ask for an eraser.

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Maria March 12, 2011 at 8:37 pm

I was deeply confused when a co-worker in Singapore told me he wanted to “shift.” Shift what?, I wondered. Shape shift? Vowel shift? My British father used to tell me to shift when I was in the way, but that didn’t seem to be what my co-worker was talking about. It took me a while to realize that he meant he wanted to move to a new home.

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Miss Footloose March 13, 2011 at 6:54 pm

To shift = to move to a new . That is definitely a difficult one to guess! You wonder how these word-changes happen, but it may have to do with the original language spoken in the area and be a kind of direct translation. Anyway, it all ends up adding to the fun of the expat experience!

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Laural Out Loud March 13, 2011 at 1:56 am

This is more a testament to an idiotic brain lapse (I knew the answer deep down inside, I’m sure, lol). I was standing in line with some friends to get a Tube pass in London, and loudly asked, “What on earth does QUEUE mean?” To which a kind gentleman near us said, “Why don’t you learn effing English?” My friends were rather embarrassed to be standing next to me, and I’ve never forgotten what queue means since that day. I’ve also never forgotten to ask those questions quietly or IN MY HEAD (and find out with an internet search later).

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Miss Footloose March 13, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Thanks for the laugh! Don’t be embarrassed, we all do these things. Actually I think the effing Englishman had not been brought up properly. Clearly, he had never traveled beyond his own turf.

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MaryWitzl March 13, 2011 at 4:15 pm

That’s a great story! I had a feeling that ‘I don’t mind’ was ‘yes, please’. I love the green of that field of tea. In Japanese, tea is ‘cha’. Close, isn’t it?

One of my Turkish students told me he was thrilled to have had me as a teacher because when he did auto-stop, he could understand everything the lady told him. I had no idea what he meant — until I figured out that ‘auto stop’ means ‘hitch-hike’ in Turkish English.

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Miss Footloose March 13, 2011 at 7:04 pm

Chai or something very close seems to be a popular word for tea in many countries.

I love auto-stop for hitch-hike, but without context I imagine it might be hard to figure out.

Glad you like my picture on the homepage. I was told by some blogging gurus that I should have one up there, but wasn’t eager. I guess I’ll try it for a while.

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MaryWitzl March 13, 2011 at 4:16 pm

(That is a lovely photo of you, by the way — you look exactly as I’ve pictured you!)

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Welshcakes Limoncello March 13, 2011 at 5:21 pm

It’s very interesting how people make a language their own, isn’t it?

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Miss Footloose March 13, 2011 at 7:09 pm

Yes, it’s great fun to see how people outside of England make English their own with all the variations and nuances and so on. Lots of material for amusing stories. thanks for letting me know you like the photos; I enjoy finding them to illustrate my tales. I especially love the field of green tea. I remember seeing the fields in Kenya and they are really very green. Like the rice paddies in the far East, also very, very green.

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Welshcakes Limoncello March 13, 2011 at 5:21 pm

PS: Love your photos for this post, Miss
F.

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maria altobelli March 14, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Always a great post and fantastic photos, Mis Footloose. I agree with Kristy that menus translated into English in a foreign country are often a fun read. I sometimes think I should tell the management but then decide it would only rob other travelers of a good chuckle.

Who needs homogenization of that order. I enjoy the read and only hope other people enjoy similarly the fluffs I make in their languages. Often, they are much more than fluffs but for the right people, that only makes the error better.

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missfootloose March 15, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Like you, I’ve been tempted to tell restaurant managers of the mistakes on their menus and like you I’ve given up because, hey, why not let other customers have some fun, too? Who needs perfection? It’s so boring!

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GutsyWriter March 15, 2011 at 12:21 am

My problem is I’ve lived in the U.S. for too long. I cannot remember all the things my British friends thought strange when I returned after a few years. My American kids laugh at the way I pronounce certain words like “blouse.” Sometimes I wonder where I belong. Why do people in poor African countries seem happier than in the U.S? That’s my question.

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missfootloose March 15, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Why are people in poor African countries happier than in the US? Well, in some African countries, especially in West Africa, people rate higher on the happineness scale of some polls or research studies. Why are people in the US with all its prosperity not the happiest folks on earth? It must be that having lots of stuff isn’t the road to happiness. The secret isn’t in money and possessions. It’s something else.

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GutsyWriter March 15, 2011 at 10:48 pm

I know you’re right. Another blog post.

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marja March 15, 2011 at 3:46 am

lol i can see the confusion. I am stil confused sometimes in New Zeland as they have a lot of expressons and slang and often I have no clue what they are talking about. Here in NZ you don’t offer only one cookie like I did but a whole plate. Real cookie monsters here.
My daughter recently offeren me chai tea very nice

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missfootloose March 15, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Yes, I can imagine New Zealand has it’s own idioms and expression! As for chai, the Indian chai is also very sweet and milly, but has lovely spices in it too, like cloves, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and even black pepper. In the US it is now all the rage and you an get it pre-made. Needless to say, making it yourself would be more fun.

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Walter Knight March 15, 2011 at 10:33 am

I be kicking (relaxing).

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missfootloose March 15, 2011 at 2:23 pm

I be kicking — Kenyan English?

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guyana gyal March 15, 2011 at 1:00 pm

I’ve always taken English for granted, not realising how difficult or totally weird it can seem until my aunt and cousin started teaching English as a second language, sharing anecdotes. Then I started to teach too and discovered for myself, similar stories with students. [Sometimes I’d get a good, hearty laugh].

I really admire people who go live in a place where the language is not theirs, and they manage to get around, have long conversations, share thoughts, ideas, and WRITE. Oh boy, that really impresses me.

Even in English-speaking places, there are expressions that baffle others whose first language is English. Try Aussie-speak 🙂

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missfootloose March 15, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Yes, Aussie speak is fun and can be totally incomprehensible when they really try! I enjoy your blog, certainly not written in the King’s English 😉 What do you call Guyana’s English vernacular?

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guyana gyal March 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm

I write in some sort of Creolese. There’s the super ‘raw’ kind that even some Guyanese don’t understand. Then there’s the one that moves closer [sort of] to English.

I grew up speaking Creolese too.

I’m enjoying everyone’s comments here!

I don’t remember this language confusion when I was trying to learn French, Spanish, Portuguese.

By the way, that Luxury Highway Butchery is the best 🙂

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Kelly March 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm

I love reading your blog – your stories make me feel as if I’m right there. I could completely imagine these two terrified girls with machetes in their hands. 🙂

I’ve not had any serious confusions with language, since few Peruvians speak English to any great degree. I do get a giggle every time I’m looking at real estate and see that a bedroom includes a “walking closet”. And as mentioned above, the English translations on menus can sometimes be quite a chuckle too!

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YTSL March 20, 2011 at 7:53 am

From Hong Kong: “you are so poor” doesn’t just mean that you are financially not well off but, rather, is meant to be an expression akin to the more conventionally English “poor you” (loosely translated, “oh dear, I feel so sorry (for you)”)! 😀

From Malaysia: Can you “on” the air-con and “off” the fan? (Rather than “switch on” and “switch off” respectively).

Also from Malaysia: In e-mails, “Please revert” = “please reply”.

😀

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