Home Say What? 8 Ways You Might Fall Foul of the International English Language Barrier

Say What? 8 Ways You Might Fall Foul of the International English Language Barrier

Posted by on January 18th, 2016.

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It can be easy to make the assumption that just because it’s an English-speaking country you’re emigrating to that you won’t have to deal with that pesky language barrier. However, just as regional vocabularies vary across the UK, the English spoken abroad can actually be very different to what you might expect. And while you might know to be on your toes when speaking a second language, the linguistic landmines of international English can ultimately trip you up even more, simply because you aren’t expecting them.

So, with that in mind, here are a few of the interesting, and potentially confusing, differences in vocabulary from four of the most popular English-speaking expat destinations you might find yourself getting caught out by.


In the top destination for UK expats the local language is often better known as Strine. Down in Oz the old Cockney tradition of rhyming slang is still largely alive and well, but as there’s also a generally irrepressible urge amongst the populace to never use five syllables when they can make do with three. So it’s no surprise that it can get a little confusing trying to decipher the connection between some of the words and the object they’re talking about.

Rather than being a reference to the once-suspect contents of certain frozen lasagnes, ‘dead horse’ is instead an Aussie’s rather more oblique way of referring to a more appetising food stuffs, tomato sauce. So don’t get too alarmed if someone at the barbie asks you to pass them the dead horse.

If you’re looking for bedding in an Australian department store it might be a good idea to ask where the Manchester is. This colloquialism is due to the fact that the British city of Manchester was once a major exporter of cotton goods, with the name having stuck through the years in Oz in much the same way that crockery tends to be referred to as china.


Admittedly the proliferation of American films and television means that most of us have already been exposed to a lot of US English, so there’s a good chance you already know most of the differences. What makes this national vocabulary a little more frustrating is the occasions on which a British English word ends up referring to something completely different, which can be particularly confusing when it comes to ordering foodstuffs.

The humble chip is instead referred to as a French fry, whereas to an American a chip is what we’d know as a crisp. Fortunately things do not go full circle, with the word ‘crisp’ not having found any repurposed meaning in US English.

Similarly, a British biscuit would be a cookie to an American. To residents of the US a biscuit is instead a type of bread, somewhat similar to a scone, which is regularly paired with gravy on diner menus.


With Canada an officially bilingual nation, Canadian English takes additional influence from French as well as sharing some words across the border with the US. Although Quebec is the primarily French-speaking region, it’s quite likely that you’ll hear the odd, unusual loan-word crop up in conversation elsewhere in the country. And, like any language, there are also local inventions all of their own that have found their way into wider circulation.

In the colder Canadian weather it’s generally a wise idea to wear some manner of hat, such as a knit cap or beanie. If you find yourself needing to purchase one of these locally, however, you’ll need to ask for a ‘tuque’ instead.

If you hear someone referring to their hydro bill you’d be forgiven for assuming they were talking about a water bill, although the existence of hydro poles might seem a little more mystifying. In actual fact, this term is used to refer to electricity in Canada, as the power supplied to many homes is hydroelectric in nature.

New Zealand

Perhaps unfairly New Zealand English is often conflated with the dialect of its close antipodean cousin, but there are certainly a lot of marked similarities between both the local accent and the vocabulary itself. However, as Kiwis are likely to point out, there’s also a lot of difference between the two with a number of words or phrases in use that remain entirely unique to the islands themselves.

Popping down to ‘the dairy’ in New Zealand doesn’t always mean someone’s off to tend to the cattle, rather it’s another way of saying that they’re going to the corner shop. Despite the use of the term dairy, it’s not a requirement for them to actually buy milk while they’re there.

While an Aussie would refer to flip-flops as thongs, a New Zealander would instead call them jandals. A shortening of the term Japanese sandals, this reflects the nature in which this particular form of footwear is thought to have come to the islands.

So there you have it, a few of the more common linguistic confusions in international English. If you’re living overseas and have come up against any surprising terms or phrases, let us know on Facebook or Twitter!

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