Thursday, December 19, 2013

Language Barrier

photo courtesy of

“The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.”
 -George Bernard Shaw
“We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”
 -Oscar Wilde

One summer, my wife’s college internship took us to Atlanta for a few months.  I was between my first and second years of vet school and got lucky enough to find a job in a clinic north of the city.

I was at an awkward stage- just educated enough to be dangerous.  Fortunately, the two doctors at the practice, Dr. H and Dr. M, were very patient with me.  While I was assisting with surgery or cleaning teeth or running labwork, they put up with me picking their brains.  Both of them were absolutely brilliant at interpreting diagnostic testing (bloodwork, etc.) and took the time to explain things to me.

I wasn't the only person to benefit from their tutelage.  Another veterinary student had a summer job there as well- Her name was Barb, and she was a third year student in the U.K.  As I recall it, she was from outside London, and was going to graduate school at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

She flew into the States on July 4th, which I thought was ironic.  In a rare display of restraint, I decided not to wish her a happy Independence Day.

Barb was likable and quick-witted, but I had trouble understanding her speech. There were three reasons for this:
  1. Brits use a very different vocabulary.  It’s not a bus, it’s a lorry.  He’s not an alcoholic, he’s a bumper.  It’s not a bathroom, it’s a loo.  Several times a day, we would have to try to figure out what the other person was trying to communicate.  Common language?  Hardly.
  2. Pronunciation.  Something as simple as asking for iodine became a head-scratcher when the other person pronounced it “E-oh-deeen”.  
  3. She had a habit of speaking very quickly when excited.  When you compound this with the other issues, hilarity and frustration ensue in equal measure.

We worked together pretty closely for a few weeks.  We would compare what we had learned so far in classes and our differing experiences in clinics up to this point.  One day, I asked her where her education was taking her when she returned to the U.K.

“I’m going on holiday, and then I am bound for abattoir.”

I went into translation mode.  Holiday equals vacation.  Got that one.  “Abattoir” was a different story. I took two years of French, and the pronunciation was French…

“Is that in France?”  I asked the internationally-traveling vet student.

Barb looked at me as if I was from Mars. That (as well as the immediate snicker from Dr. M) told me that I was off base. She composed herself and explained to me that abattoir is another term for slaughterhouse.  Veterinarians in the US and U.K spend time in slaughterhouses/abattoirs as part of the food safety training we receive.  My bruised ego and I realized that we would be scoring no points for the Red, White, and Blue that day.

The only real revenge I got was when she had a day off and decided to go sightseeing in Georgia. She wanted to see Stone Mountain and find some trails to hike.  Not being familiar with the native animals, she asked the logical question… do we have any animals she should look out for on her hike?

Me: “Well, we have bees, wasps, and hornets.”
Her: “Okay.”
Me: “… and a couple of venomous spiders- the black widow and brown recluse…”
Mild concern started to appear on her face. “Right-O. I’ll just stay away from spiders, then.”

Me: “Oh! We also have three types of venomous snakes, with a few subspecies.”

Genuine alarm now.  Her eyebrows were rising higher with every word.
I continued: “There’s the rattlesnake, copperhead, and the water moccasin. I almost forgot- we have scorpions as well, but they’re not as bad as the snakes. You might see a black bear if you go far enough North, too, but that would be unusual.”

I don’t know what pushed her over the edge- the snakes, the scorpions, or the bears.  The expression on her face told me that she was seriously reconsidering her plans to see nature in the New World.

“How do you people even live here?! Everything here wants to kill you!” she shouted.  We both laughed.  I thought of it as a victory for the local creatures. In my mind, Georgia black bears were having The Second Tea Party in Lake Lanier.

One afternoon during her final week in the States, I looked from the back of the clinic to see Barb do a double take over something she was seeing out the front window.  Her mouth dropped open.

“What’s going on, Barb?
“Therearetwoyouthsontheroad, withacatinapram!”
“Therearetwoyouthsontheroad, withacatinapram!”

I couldn't make it out. I went up front to see what was going on.  On the 4-lane highway out front were a young man and woman pushing a baby buggy down the roadside.  From inside the buggy, a cat’s head slowly rose up and looked around like a periscope on a submarine.  They turned into the clinic driveway, and I watched as the cat’s head sank slowly down again.

Now I understood. “There are two youths on the road, with a cat in a pram.” She was trying to tell me that there were some kids on the highway with a cat in a baby buggy.

I don’t know why she didn't just use plain English.

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