You don’t sound British!

London big ben image

It’s almost three years ago since I landed in London. When I first started telling my friends in Canada about the impending move, most of them thought I was moving to London, Ontario. Eventually I added “the real one, not the fake one” to my “I’m moving to London” announcement.

The confusion didn’t end there. Soon enough speculation started about when I would start speaking with a British accent, and of course when I would move back to Canada. In reality I’ve been dividing my time between Toronto and London in the past few years, and that has worked out really well so far. Nonetheless, on both sides of the pond people have perceptions of what I should sound like now.

I realized that I’ve always taken it for granted that in Canada I didn’t sound like an immigrant. My accent is North American, and even if I did have a pronounced or regional drawl, Canadians don’t care about such things. The moment I started spending so much time in London my perception of life with an accent changed. All of a sudden I was very much an immigrant, and even in a city as diverse as London I felt like a bit of an outsider. The question “where are you from” became a common occurrence. Compared to my experience in Canada, where that just didn’t come up, this was something I had to get used to.

On the flip side, I now had something new to get used to whenever I went back to Canada. I was far too often greeted with a “well you don’t sound British yet” comment somewhere in the beginning of the conversation. As if spending a lot of time in London means I would suddenly grow a British accent and develop a strong fondness for milk in my tea (eek!)? The most alarming part is that very smart people made these assumptions. Although as I am writing this out I realize I have to give them more credit. Perhaps they assume I am an accent acrobat given that I sounded very much Canadian as soon as I moved to Canada. Even adopting the “eh” at the linguistically appropriate times. I’ve spent the past 13 years of my life explaining to people why I sound American, and sometimes even running into funny situations thanks to my accent. The “Eh” part was easier to explain however. In Dutch we have a very similar expression, and some of its uses are similar as the Canadian “Eh”. Extrapolating from here, it may be a reasonable assumption that I pick up accents easily. Then there are always the token celebrities who have absorbed a (faux) British accent within two minutes of being in the UK.

Adopting Linguistic Flexibility

It’s not like I’ve resisted adopting a British accent, but I just don’t think I will. Nevertheless, I am adopting some British expressions and adapting my word choice to my geographic location. When I am in Canada, I can refer to “baseboard” without getting strange stares, and in London I need to stick to “skirting boards” to avoid confusion. It has become clear that day-to-day life is a lot easier when people understand what you are saying, so I am trying to be linguistically flexible and I’ve noticed a certain Brit-speak-creep happening in my conversations. It surprises me, still, when I catch myself doing it and I never feel entirely legitimate because I am simply not from here.

For a laugh, I decided to write down some of the words and expressions I’ve caught myself using lately that are decidedly British.

The 6 British expressions I use regularly

1. Flat vs Apartment, or Condo

Forget using the word condo in London. Whenever I am in Toronto this is one of the most practical adjustments I need to make. Although in Canada people do understand what I mean when I say flat, or apartment. In London however, condo is not a very useful word. House hunting? Look for signs that say flat to let, instead of for rent. 

2. Taking the tube or riding the subway?

I had a hilarious expat moment some time ago when looking for a tube stop in London. When I first started travelling to London I used to say tube or subway interchangeably. I’ve since learned that doesn’t work in the UK, so I stick just to “tube”, and often say it in Canada as well.

british expressions image

The Toronto Subway. In London, a ‘subway’ is literally an underground walkway, often found by busy intersections so pedestrians can cross underground.

3. Getting (something) sorted

I’ve used this expression so often that I’ve adopted it as well. Mostly for day-to-day convenience. There are a number of varieties depending on your situation, but either you are “getting it sorted” or you are “sorting yourself out”. Whether you are making dinner or working on the plumbing in your house, getting it sorted is a delightfully versatile way of describing that you are taking some action.

4. Getting on with it/ cracking on

Before anything gets sorted, you may just have to get on with it. You can then also ask people, how are you getting on? Which can literally refer to a task they have to complete, not how well you are getting along with another human.

5. It’s the way forward

Imagine a conversation with someone where that person is very excited about something, or they have evaluated several solutions to a problem and have landed on one conclusion. It may be followed with It’s the way forward, mostly for emphasis as far as I can tell. You’re not actually saying that this is the only way to do something, or all other options are invalid. I’ve inadvertently used the phrase with non-British people and they have taken it very literally, challenging me on what I thought would be the way forward.

6. Brilliant!

I’ve resisted this one the most, and still use it sporadically and reluctantly only. Simply because I do not believe many things in life warrant the assessment of being “Brilliant”. Simply having printed out a sheet of paper, fetched lunch, or shown up on time are not moments of utter brilliance in my mind. It’s used so much though that I couldn’t help but occasionally adopt it myself. Even when if someone else uses it in relation to something I’ve done, my natural inclination is to tell them I don’t think being able to make a cup of tea is really all that amazing.

We’ll see if I continue to add to my British vocabulary over time, but this rounds up the words and expressions I have been using the most recently. Have you noticed any changes in how you speak, or your choice of words, since moving abroad?


Christine Buske is a former academic who left science at the bench, and now considers herself a woman in tech. She is a frequently invited speaker, and enjoys talking about career transformation (particularly leaving academia for the business world), tech, issues around women in tech, product management, agile, and outreach. She is a proud Canadian resident, and qualifies as a "serial expat".

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