Language in the USA

Not an issue you normally think about, is it? From LA to NY, it’s all pretty much the same, and not vastly different from ours!

This is certainly true – to a degree. But one thing I discovered on a recent trip is this: outside the main tourist spots, a lot of people are totally unfamiliar with varieties of English other than the range on offer within the United States. When people in small communities in Utah were suddenly confronted by a question asked in my strange dialect, there was often a moment when they looked as though they’d been confronted by some alien who’d just landed, as aliens always do, in the desert down the road. Even after that initial moment had passed, there was still often a longer period of incomprehension, and I was sometimes obliged to translate what I said into something more familiar to American ears (I know they call the toilet the “restroom”, but you’d think they’d at least recognise other ways of saying it…)

And this was just the native speakers! The USA is now home to more than 40,000,000 people with Spanish as their first language; there will soon be more Spanish speakers in the USA than there are in Spain. Although most of these people also speak English to varying degrees, they are even less familiar with non-American varieties of English than the Anglos. When I told the Hispanic car hire guy that I wanted the car until “the seventh of May”, he didn’t get it until I managed to come up with “May seven”!

When it comes to potential for linguistic crises, the USA may not be the most worrying of destinations, but there is in any case an easy way round some of the problems: when the people you are speaking to are obviously Hispanic… just speak Spanish! Not only will you be understood much more readily, but you will instantly win new friends. Just a few cheerful words in Spanish can set you apart from the majority who don’t really want to know, and it’s almost guaranteed that a little conversation will follow on.

The USA is a great place in which to practise your Spanish. You can watch Spanish-speaking TV wherever you go, and even be amused by their version of Desperate Housewives (“Amas de casa desesperadas”) if you’re finding the original is getting just too improbable for words. Pick up a Spanish newspaper to catch the Hispanic line on Hillary Clinton. Read the bilingual notices that you see around the place. When speaking, you do also have a safety net, in that if you do get stuck, the chances are that your English, however strange its tones, will be generally understood as well!

Buen viaje, amigos, en los Estados Unidos…

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1 Comment

  1. kenleong says:

    Sounds like we should consider teaching American English to travellers making their way to the US.

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