Learning a language isn’t just about words and grammatical constructions. It’s not about figuring out how to say exactly the same phrases in a language that is different from your own. Many words, metaphors and idioms are just impossible to translate.
This means that to communicate well in English, you have to go further than simply learning vocabulary. You need to try and go a little bit deeper, learning how people really think. You need to understand the cultural values in the country you are visiting in order to truly understand why they speak and use language in the way they do.
Let’s take a simple example: “sorry”.
In most cultures,people only say sorry when they have done something that has harmed or offended another person. To say sorry is the same as saying you are guilty of doing something wrong.
That’s not always the case in the United Kingdom. When you walk down a British street, you will hear people say sorry all the time!
British people say sorry to each other when they accidentally bump into them. They say sorry when they really mean “Please can you let me past you” or “Can I put my bag here?””
They say sorry to try and catch someone’s attention, or because they want to ask for something in a restaurant. They say sorry after they have asked for something, as well as saying thank you. They say sorry when they mean “Can you repeat that please?” because they didn’t hear what you said the first time. They say sorry for almost anything.
If you were visiting the UK for the first time, you might think that people there felt terrible all the time because they permanently seem to be sorry. It’s almost as if they think they upset people all the time!
Of course, British people don’t really feel deeply, truly sorry about every tiny thing they do. They don’t really feel sorry every time they say sorry.
But it does tell you something very important about their culture. Something that will help you to understand British English - English that is spoken in in England - much faster.
What this shows you is that politeness is very important to British people and to the way that they speak English. British people often feel very uncomfortable when they have to tell you something directly, or sound like they are being bossy.
This is why many British people use so many unnecessary words or seem to “hint” at what they mean instead of just saying it in a straightforward way. It is a style of speaking can sometimes be very confusing t6o a non-native speaker.
For example, when you are talking to someone in England, rather than say “I would like..”, “I want to...” or even “Please can I have…?” they are likely to say something like “I’m sorry to ask, but…” or “Do you think it might be possible to…?” or “Could I maybe…?
The first time you hear someone say these things, it can be very confusing. However, once you get used to hearing them at the start of a sentence, you will begin to understand that this is just a British person’s way of turning a question into something more polite. That makes it easier to cut out the opening phrases and listen out for the most important vocabulary: the words that tell you what the person is really asking you, or wants you to give them.
Saying things like “maybe’”, “possibly”, “I think that…” or “I was under the impression…” are also common words or phrases that British English speakers use frequently. Again, these can make it sound like the person isn’t sure of the answer, but often it just means that they are afraid of sounding rude, arrogant or threatening, and so they “soften” their language instead.
Of course, every country has it’s own particular customs and idioms, and every country in the English-speaking world has slightly different ways of being polite. But in the UK, as soon as you understand why different ways of saying sorry are so important in British English, it will increase your comprehension straightaway.
It will be much easier to understand what the people you speak to in the UK are really trying to say. What’s more, it will help you to understand why it is so important that you make an effort to be polite, too!
If you’re not sure about why people around you say things in a certain way, don’t be afraid to ask them. It will help you to understand their culture - and that will help you to become fluent much faster.
What surprising cultural differences or unusual idioms have you experienced in English-speaking countries? Please tell us in the comments section below!