An English Lesson for Americans

If you’re from North America and are participating in the aptly named North American Language and Culture Assistants program like me, you’ve been working in a Spanish public school for the past two weeks now and are probably a bit overwhelmed.

You’ve been thrown right into the classroom, most of you with little to no teacher training, and are expected to be the ultimate authority on anything English related in your school. Well, even if your teacher skills aren’t up to par, surely your English is Grade A.

Or not. Because you’re not from the UK and you don’t know anything, yet.

Flashback to two years ago when I was given a “curriculum” involving lots of British language and culture, and also happened to be living with the sweetest Scottish girl. I thought I could at least be confident in my English skills when teaching the children, but then I started questioning everything! Is that really how we say it in the US? What is the word for that? Is that really an expression? WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?!

And then, when your students make a mistake and you correct them, they’ll assure you that in British English that’s how it’s said. Luckily I had my very own Brit right in the house so I was usually able to resolve these doubts, because never, in any version of English, will “funny” describe something that you really enjoy doing, despite what your students may insist. The word for that is fun. Also, don’t let them (or anyone) get away with that crap that UK English is the “most correct” form of English. Such BS!

Anyway, despite the fact that I usually triumphed over the kiddies when it came to grammatical issues, vocabulary was a pretty big kick in the ass. I practically learned an entire new vocabulary because I had to teach the English that was found in the students’ books, and although now it’s become slightly more second nature to say “university” rather than “college,” beginning a new year in a new elementary primary school I’m reencountering some of these language differences again and I figured I’d share so we can actually look like we know English.

The Alphabet

Z. Zed. I’ll leave it at that.


Though the vast majority of animals have the same name in the UK, a couple might catch you off guard. For example, ladybird. That means ladybug. I don’t know why they would call it a bird when it is in fact an insect, but to each his own. Also, they pronounce zebra “zeh-bra” rather than “zee-bra” so you can let that pronunciation slide, if you want.


When I taught clothing to my third graders I also learned many things. Staring at their crossword puzzle with pictures as the clue, I was totally confused when 1. Across, the picture of the sweater, only had six spaces. They promptly taught me that it’s called a jumper. Pants are trousers and sneakers are trainers and you’ll also have to learn the difference between a cap and a hat, and the specifics of what is a shirt and what is a t-shirt. Oh yeah, and on Halloween you don’t wear a costume, you put on a fancy dress. I don’t know how to verb that properly.

The Time

Americans like to be specific about time, and I for one like that. If you ask a stranger on the street in the States they’ll look right down at their digital watch or cell phone and tell you that its two thirty-eight. None of this half past or quarter to gibberish that requires a half second to process. Nice and succinct, as it should be. Not here, though. You’ll have to teach twenty past and ten to and you always have to be sure to add that ‘o clock or else you’ll get blank stares. I still do it wrong after 2 years here… so good luck!


I was baffled when we started teaching the buildings and places you can find around town, because half of them aren’t places that many United Statesians frequent. When talking about stores shops, you’ll have to keep these in mind and engrain them into your memory. Because even if you think you’ll only need these in your schools, if you make any Spanish friends who speak English they’ll use these words too. So here you have it. The pharmacy is the chemist. The fish store (is fish sold at a butcher at home?) is the fishmonger. It may make me sound ignorant but I’d literally never heard that word in my life before. Don’t forget that the produce store is the greengrocer and the candy store is the sweet shop.


Here are a few for you to chew on pun absolutely intended. Sweets are candy, chips are french fries and crisps are chips. Biscuits are cookies… but I don’t know what they call real biscuits. If you say jelly you’re referring to what we think of as Jell-0, so understandably a PB&J sounds strange. Produce is fruit and veg, and speaking of fruit and veg, eggplant is an aubergine and a zucchini is a courgette.

There are so many others that come to mind but not necessarily in categories, so I’ll leave them here in list form.

  • A truck is a lorry
  • A stroller is a pram
  • Your least favorite subject is maths, not math
  • You fill your car with petrol, not gas
  • A child asking you for rubber is normal… he just means an eraser
  • Garbage is rubbish
  • Your throw your trash in the bin
  • Your school may have given you a shitty time table and when you confronted them about your schedule they were confused
  • Cilantro is coriander
  • The trunk of a car is the boot of the car, but boots are also boots
  • You live in a street and do things at the weekend
  • Your family and favorite soccer favourite football team are referred to in the 3rd person plural (ex. My family are coming for the holidays)
  • Full stops go at the end of sentences, periods stay in your underwear pants
  • Backyards are gardens
  • A vacuum cleaner is a hoover, even if it’s not a Hoover
  • An elevator is a lift
  • A mummy is your mom, not a monster wrapped in toilet paper
  • And can’t forget have you got rather than do you have.

So, what other differences have you noticed? I’m sure I’ve missed tonnes (not a typo) so let me know!



14 thoughts on “An English Lesson for Americans

  1. I just corrected a sign in a teachers classroom and got an evil stare from here. I changed “open your books at page X” by putting a sticky note over, “at”, changing it to to what is rightfully, “TO”


    • You know what, this one has been nagging at me for the past 2 years! I think in England it might be “at page X”! Can anyone confirm?? We would never say that in the States but more than one of my high-level english speaking spanish friends/coworkers assure me that it’s correct like that so I’ve stopped correcting it.


      • I think the differences between U.S., U.K., and Australian English are so interesting. There are so many I’d never thought about before. Great post!

        Emma, I’m so glad you cleared this up! Like Chelsea, I thought my Spanish teachers were making a mistake, but I’ve already corrected non-mistakes and decided to leave it.

        One example is the word “revise.” I thought my teachers were using the word incorrectly because, in the States, “revise” implies the act of correction. “I’m going to revise this paper” means you’re getting your red pen out to fix or change errors. We’d say “review” for studying/going over a chapter again. My Australian coworkers set me straight on that one, though. 🙂


  2. I have totally noticed some of these things and have told them that there’s definitely a difference in how Americans say things and how the Brits say them.

    One of the words I definitely could not explain to my 2º ESO class was what “rubbers” sounded like to me, hahah.

    And I’ve been correcting them on the “I’ve got four sisters…” (as an example) thing. I didn’t realize that that was how “I have four sisters…” is said in England.


    • Yeah the verb “to have got” is hard to adjust to. An now that I have, I find myself saying it when speaking with other people from the US and I get weird head tilts. Haha there were so many things that I “corrected” at first to later be told it was the British way and actually correct!


  3. Love this post!!
    Please, someone let us know about “at” v. “to” page 10… I too have been wondering about that. Also, signs calling the secretaries in the front Janitors? Very odd to me… And I laughed out loud when I saw the sign of phrases including “please, could you lend me a rubber?” British English is too funny… More anecdotes!


  4. I’ve just seen this post and it is really interesting! I’m english ( that’s another difference, most people here would call ourselves english as opposed to british). I’m trying to think of some more for you… So we call soda either a fizzy drink or pop, the sidewalk is the pavement, mall is shopping centre, your butt is your bum, panties are knickers, bathing suit is swimming costume etc! Oh and don’t say the word fanny here unless you want some extremely weird looks haha. I think we know a lot more American words than you guys know british simply because there’s a lot more American tv over here than there is british in the US.


  5. Because of its status as a ‘world’ language. British English is neither superior nor inferior to North American English, it is just part of English as a world language. One thing British (and Irish, Australian and NZ) teachers have an advantage of in regards teaching the language is that most of us know North American English words and phrases through the saturation of American media in our countries therefore, most British English teachers have quite an in-depth knowledge of North American English and are pretty comfortable teaching it, which I don’t think can be said of North American teachers regarding British English.

    British English is still an important variant of English, especially in Spain, least of all because the chances of a Spaniard coming across a native English speaker who is British or Irish is probably a lot higher than it is than meeting an American or a Canadian. Bottom line, if you want to teach English in Spain (or anywhere in Europe) – you need to know British English.


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