British English I’ve Had to Learn

It’s been pointed out on countless blogs that the schools in Spain teach British English and that American auxiliares every year have to figure their way through this different dialect of our language. It’s really not that difficult, but I’ve assembled here a list of the words I now use on an almost daily basis but still manage to mess up somehow. I try to stick with the vocabulary they know so as to not mess them up on their standardized Cambridge exams.

  1. Rubber/Rub out (eraser/erase)– This is my biggest one. I somehow always manage to say eraser and confused looks always greet me. The Brits (and thus the Spanish) call an eraser a rubber and thus the verb becomes “rub out.”
  2. Marks (grades) -Another one I regularly mess up with. Students also here use “note” as an attempted translation of their notas so sometimes I end up using that just so they’ll understand me.
  3. Bin (trash can) -Students will raise their hand during class and I get exited to answer a question only to realize they’re only asking permission to “go to the bin.”
  4. Rubbish (garbage) – The actual garbage itself is called rubbish, which
  5. Toilet (bathroom)– For Americans it seems really gross to say you’re going to the toilet, as it refers to the physical white porcelain item in the bathroom. However, in British English it’s the preferred term over the American restroom or bathroom. I can’t still get over how gross it seems to ask to go to the toilet.
  6. “Have got”– This is the correct British grammar instead of the simple American ‘have.’ For example, it’s correct to say “I have got three sisters” which to me sounds strange and unwieldy.
  7. “Family are…”– Another strange construction to my American English. Group nouns like family or band carry the third person plural verb conjugation instead of third person singular.
  8. University – In the States, you can refer to community college or university as college  but university is only referred to as university or uni in British English.
  9. Cinema (movie theater)- This one we use occasionally in American English but only if we are trying to be fancy
  10. TV program (TV show)– I’ve messed this one up a few times as well. It just seems so natural to say ‘show’, but I always get confused looks from my poor little students.
  11. At the weekend (over the weekend)- For some reason, the Brits and Americans like to use different prepositions in this phrase. It sounds very strange and stilted to me to say ‘at the weekend’ and I always have to remind myself not to overzealously correct it in my students because it just sounds incorrect!
  12. Diary (planner/agenda)– While agenda is a perfectly fine word to use, the teachers at my school will correct students to use diary instead, though in any case I would say planner. This also confused me when I read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I couldn’t figure out why someone would write about a dentist appointment in their diary, before realizing that in Britain a diary is something less secretive.
  13. Full stop (period)– This feels so unwieldy as well. I don’t know how the two different countries came to have their own names for such a small punctuation mark, but it makes me wonder if there’s anything named a partial stop. A comma, perhaps?
  14. Holiday (vacation) – I also learned this from Harry Potter so it doesn’t confuse me as much as the others. I feel strange saying ‘on holiday’ but I soldier on anyway.
  15. Mobile phone (cell phone OR phone)– Nowadays, so few people have a landline that cell phones are now increasingly just referred to as one’s phone. However, I don’t think that shift has yet reached British English and I cannot get my students to drop the first word of the phrase.
  16. Sweets (candy OR baked goods)-  At first I thought this only referred to candies, but it can also refer to things like cookies or brownies, essentially anything with sugar that isn’t cake. 
  17. Pulses (legumes) – This one I’ve only heard while lecturing students on nutrition. One asked me what pulses were, and I told them that it was your blood pumping in your body. The student seemed confused and then asked how that was high in protein, as their textbook had identified. After puzzling over the sentence they showed me, I realized that the word referred to lentils and beans. This seems to make things more confusing for Spanish students who use the word legumbre, which is almost the same as legume!

I’m sure that as I keep teaching, I’ll find more derivations. I knew going into the program that I’d be teaching British English because it’s the one learned by Spanish students, but I didn’t realize how hard it is to re-teach yourself vocabulary in your native language!


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