25. Un-learn English

Us kiwis, we love our slang. Already, a perfect example. We don’t even call ourselves ‘New Zealanders.’ Which has actually lead to a few funny looks here in the EU. There was some serious confusion as to why we would name ourselves after a bird/fruit instead of just refer to our country. I don’t even know if Denmark has a national animal – it was really hard to explain to Europeans who share borders with other countries!  Animals don’t respect borders like humans. In fact, as I write I am imagining animal border control in my head. It consists of a polar bear at a little customs desk telling a squirrel he has too many acorns to come to Scandinavia. Giggle.

Most people I have met so far are fluent English speakers of various backgrounds. The Danes speak brilliant English, and most of the exchanges students are European, but our classes are taught in English, so fluency is required. There aren’t, however, many native English speakers. And I am the only kiwi here.

I was asked by a few of the students to slow down because they couldn’t understand me, so I tried to pace myself and speak more clearly. However, after a while I realised that a lot of phrases I used were drawing blank stares. Much of the time, people weren’t correcting me, but assuming that their English wasn’t good enough and it was just a phrase they didn’t recognise. The gravity of the situation really sank in when the Americans couldn’t understand me.

One such example happened yesterday:

Harriet: Up to much tonight?

French student: What?

Harriet: Are you doing much tonight?

French student: I don’t know what you mean!

Harriet: Do you have any plans tonight?

French student:  Ooooh yes we’re going out!

It doesn’t seem so much of an issue with American English, or UK English, because the rest of the world watches American/British TV and movies and therefore understands their pop-culture references. Outside of the pacific, no-one watches NZ TV, so the net result is kiwis sounding like muppets idiots in foreign social situations.

Sharing witticisms and phrases you think are funny is an international cultural trend. It brings a sense of collegiality, like you are part of the group. Understanding what your friends mean is a way to share a common bond.  While a lot of my language is specific to my family, friends or others in New Zealand, I am quite sure the idea is universal. At least in the English language, anyway.  Back in NZ, however, it seems part of some of my friends’ entire social comedy routine to come up with the most ridiculous and outlandish phrases possible and bring them in to common usage.

Within my immediate family, we have a number of Geoghegan specific phrases that have evolved over time. Many of them actually derive from when my parents lived in the UK in their twenties. I think at the time they thought Cockney Rhyming Slang was just the bees knees   the best thing since sliced bread  hilarious – a perfect example of language as a social/cultural trend.

My favourite Geoghegan slang is “he’s got tickets,” used to describe someone who thinks of themselves rather highly/has a big ego. It originated from a conversation where my mother, when describing one such person, said he would “buy tickets to his own show.” I don’t even know if she was the first person to say it, but it has really caught on in the Geoghegan household!

Another classic moment was in my Integrated Marketing Communication class today. We were tasked with analysing ways to market alcopops to males. The first example that popped in to my head was Woodstock Bourbon and Coke – quite successful at targeting males I’d say I think, so I played my classmates the ad. I immediately realised I had to explain why ‘Crack a woody’ was funny. Which lead to a million and one colloquial euphemisms running through my head until I finally remembered the actual word I was looking for: erection.

I then thought I would tone it down a little and show them the L&P ‘Nothing Much ad,’ which really hits the nail on the head describes the situation well.

So now, whenever I am spinning a yarn, rallying the troops, having a mare, when something rips my knickers or grinds my gears, I have to really remind myself to describe my feelings and actions with proper English so those around me can actually understand. Either that or ASB Exchange Students Spring 2012 are going to learn some pretty messed up English.

Calling ourselves ‘Kiwis’ leads to quite a nice metaphor for why we love our slang – someone described it to me as sounding like we were a sports team, rather than a nationality.

2 thoughts on “25. Un-learn English

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