Do We Speak English Here?

Do We Speak English Here?

I live in a foreign country but my language skills are, well, I actually don’t have any. I’m not one of those people who are blessed with the ability to pick up a foreign language easily. South Africa has 11 national languages. English is one of them, so I lucked out. However, after nearly 7 years of living outside my home country, I’ve learned that English word choices from one land to another can vary as much as the weather.

Just see what I mean.

When you go for a surgery here in South Africa, you don’t have it done in an operating room. No, it’s called a theater. Calling up a friend on the phone, “Tomorrow I’m getting my appendix removed at the theater on Silva St.” It sounds like an invitation to a horror film.

Here’s some more.

In the USA, we call the soft cloth to wipe our hands and face after a meal a napkin. In this part of the world, best to call it a serviette or they’re going to think you’re talking about, ahem, a sanitary pad. “Um, do you have a napkin for the lobster bisque?” Cue, wide eyed, flushed cheek emoji and an embarrassed waiter.

If you ask a store clerk where the bathroom is, they will look at you quite puzzled, because in their mind they’re thinking, “Why on Earth would someone ask to take a bath while they are shopping?” I’ve learned to interchange “bathroom” with “toilet” to avoid any confusion.

This one is the best.

In America, the item used to make pencil marks disappear is called an eraser. In South Africa, it’s called a rubber. Can you imagine asking to borrow one?  Though it’s a sensible word for the time in question, it took some getting used to. I turn into a giggly school girl just thinking about it.


There are other words and phrases that I’ve added to my daily vocabulary to sound less like a foreigner and more like a local. “I’ll phone you,” and “Can you fetch my son from school?” are common utterances that come out of my mouth. “Pleasure” and “shame” have also gone from slightly dormant words to regular expressions. Instead of saying, “You’re welcome,” I would say, “It’s a pleasure.” Shame is quite versatile, but most commonly, instead of saying, “I’m sorry,” you would replace it with “Shame” or “Shame shame” for added effect.

The real trick is switching from South African English to American English. I don’t always do it well, which reduces my teenage son to eye rolling, because I’m like the most embarrassing mom ever. In London Heathrow on our way to America, after asking if he needed a serviette, he informed me that it was time to go ahead and switch over. If I showed up in Texas talking like that, well, people might stare.

The moral of the story is this. If you talk to someone and they look at you puzzled, resist the urge to ask, “Don’t we all speak English here?” because chances are, the answer is yes. Sort of. And now you have a few pointers for your trip to South Africa.

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Jen Price

Jen currently makes her home between two continents, one in the great state of Texas and the other in a small town in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa. She wears many hats such as wife, mother, photographer, storyteller, communications director, writer, traveler, and lover of dark chocolate. She writes for several websites including her personal blog, I Believe In Love, where she shares her creative ventures, her photography, and the stories of the orphans she loves on in S. Africa.


  1. Elisa :

    ‘Shame’ is the one that sticks out to me most when talking with South Africans’. The first time I encountered it was with a friend in London, and I found it so endearing! I never know how to pronounce serviette…

    • Jen Price :

      Oh, yes, South Africans use “shame” and it means so many different things!