Opinions Thu, 29 Sep 2016

How American is your English?

By Kwame Yeboah

Whiles I do not claim to be William Shakespeare nor Charles Dickens, I have always been known for how well I speak and write the English language. Unless everybody else has been lying to me. I always did pretty well in English back in school and my commitment has always been to learn new words and more importantly their right pronunciation.

In 2013, I had the opportunity to migrate to the United States and the prospects got me thrilled. For the obvious reasons that America is the greatest nation on earth and the fact that it is an English speaking country should make it easier for me to settle into my new environment. But upon touch down at the John F. Kennedy airport, it quickly dawned on me that my English which I cherished so much was not American enough.

The ensuing couple of weeks were perhaps the most frustrating of my life. I have been to countries like Egypt and The Ivory Cost, and I am in no way oblivious of the frustrations that come with living in a country that does not speak your mother tongue.

But I bet you these frustrations are in no way comparable to the one you experience when you are in a country that is supposed to speak a language that you have a degree in and yet you can't seem to communicate. That was the exact situation I found myself in, and am sure many others have before and will continue to have.

I have always been of the opinion that English speakers can afford to be lazy, because of course English is the world's linguistic common denominator. When a Greek meets a Norwegian, they speak English ( What Greek speaks Norwegian anyway?).

It never crossed my mind that the different accents aside, even English speakers had different ways of calling the same thing. And if you fail to research on how people call certain things in different English speaking countries, it could determine whether you urinate in your trousers or you actually urinate in the toilet.

So back to my story. When my plane landed at the JFK airport, I had the unfortunate experience of a losing my luggage. I had to do the back and forth with the authorities to try to locate my bag which seemed to have been lost in transit in London. By the time I was done sorting out all the paper work I was totally exhausted and even worse I had missed my connecting flight ( which happened to be the last for the day).

I spoke to the ladies at the ticket centre and I was informed that the only available option to me was to go by road. I have conquered the road from Elubo to Enchi several times in my life time, this shouldn't be a problem, I said to myself. They said to me; " you can either go on the bus or by a Limousine, the Bus is $75 and the Limo is $ 100".

In my head I thought- Wow! hundred dollars to ride in a Limo? I have always dreamt of riding in one of those fancy cars. Well, am sure they are making a huge mistake, I said to myself. Let me just quickly pay for the fare and pick up my ticket before they realize their mistake and charge me the correct price. I paid them off and they directed me to the boarding gate. In about 30 minutes the gates were opened for boarding.

To my utter most surprise, the car that was being boarded was no Limousine. It was actually one of those Ford cars that ply the Accra-Kumasi route. I was livid. I approached the driver and explained to him that I bought this ticket for 100 dollars with the expectation of taking a ride in a Limo.

The driver looked at me like he had just seen an alien ( am sure he was saying to himself; where is this idiot from). He said yes this is the limo. " No" "No" I protested vehemently. "A limo is very long, you know the kind you see in music videos", I tried explaining. He looked at me and smiled and said " Welcome to America".

A few days later, I braved the cold and ventured into a grocery store ( what we call provision stores in Ghana) across the streets from where I lived. I was looking for some breakfast items. I found all of it but one. I looked around the store for a while and when I could not locate what I was looking for I decided to speak to the manager about it.

This was the conversation that unfolded: " madam I am looking to buy some groundnut paste". " What paste" was the lady's answer. "Groundnut" , I reemphasized. At this point I was making silly gestures with my hands as though I was a contestant on 'it takes 2'. " Sorry I don't know what you are talking about" she said politely. I was getting irritated. " you don't know common groundnut, how long have you been working here" I asked sarcastically.

The poor lady seemed even more confused. " sorry, we probably don't have it in our store". I was not taking that answer because my host had assured me before I left the house that they had some in that particular store. I began telling her all this stupid stories about how groundnuts are harvested from the ground, and how you can either boil them and eat the whole thing or take the groundnut from the husk and eat them or turn it into a paste to be used as bread spread.

She looked at me with the face of a guy who is meeting his twin brother for the first time and said " sorry gentleman, I still don't know what you are talking about". At this moment, I saw my friend walk into the store. He had become concerned about how long it taking me to get back and decided to check up on me.

He burst into uncontrollable laughter upon hearing my experience with the store manager and then he explained to the manager that we were actually looking for Peanut butter. " Oh peanut butter" the manager said, whiles trying to conceal his laughter. I stood there looking as foolish as a Chief who just farted in his palanquin.

Years have passed by, I have gone through lots of similar experiences. I have learnt, and I have become even more American than Donald Trump! If you are ever considering coming to live in the USA or even just visiting, I have the following information for you:

If you want to be understood when you are having a conversation, my advice is that you keep your messages grunt-simple. Try pronouncing each syllable in the word, for example ( po-ta-to chips) will help a lot. Whiles it is important to speak slowly, if that fails don't hesitate to use gestures.

Like if you ever have to 'pee' that badly and the people can't seem to understand you because they don't know what a toilet is, don't be shy to point to your private parts. If you are shy to hold your 'balls', then you obviously will be too shy to borrow someone else's trousers after you've peed into yours.

When everything fails you, a note pad can work wonders. I always kept a note pad on me just incase I had to write something down to make it easy for people to understand you.

As a quick guide I will list a few items and how you must expect to call it should you visit America for the first time. Minerals is called Soda, petrol is gas, toilets are called rest rooms, car booth is called trunk, Pick up cars and 4x4s are are all called trucks. Holidays are called vacations in America, the ground floor of a building in Ghana is called the first floor in America.

Again, trousers are called pants, underground is called subway, taxi in Ghana is a cab in America, the dustbin is called trash can , toffee is candy whiles biscuits are called cookies. If you don't want to end up in the wrong stadium don't tell the driver you are going to the football game, remember to say soccer.

If you want to see a doctor , don't say you want to go to the hospital, you may end up at the emergency room. Its better to say you want to go to the doctor's office.

These are but a few of the things that are said or called differently in America. You may make further checks online if you so wish. It will come handy one day when the gods in your family go to sleep and you manage to get an American visa.

Writer's e-mail: pinsonchapta@gmail.com
Columnist: Yeboah, Kwame