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  • Writer's pictureKimberly OLeary

Intercultural Communication can be a Challenge, Even When You Speak the Same Language!

Updated: Mar 19

We all know that communication if a two-way street. When you’re in a country where English is not the primary language, you expect to spend time figuring out how to communicate. Funny though, when we visited Lisbon, London, Paris, and Helsinki in the first half of 2022, it was London where we found ourselves most confused. Why? Because it was “our” language, but not quite. As I said to my friends, they spoke English everywhere we went except London!

Since November, we’ve been in Australia and New Zealand, where the accents are different and some of the words are not quite obvious. A friend of mine sent me a chart showing a comparison of American and Aussie English. You can see it here.

After he shared the chart, we had a lengthy text conversation about what we agreed or didn’t agree with. For example, we would not say “larder” any more, but “pantry” the same as the Aussies. This also caused questions: why do they call a napkin a “serviette”? Isn’t that French? (Ditto with calling eggplants “aubergines” and summer squash “courgette”). Yet, we’re the ones who pronounce buffet “buffay”, which is French.

While we’re onto pronunciation, best I can tell, Aussies manage to put two or three vowel sounds in every vowel. For example, there was a commercial on Australian TV where the person ends by saying “Nice!” But, it sounds like this: “Noice!” Americans tend to make “R” sounds very hard. So we would want to call the city where we were staying “Melbourne” like this: “Mel-born.” But the Aussies would say “Melbuhn.” It’s actually harder than it sounds to ignore a lifetime of saying all your “R’s.” In New Zealand, there are yet again differences. Much of their accent is similar to the Aussies, things like “to-mah-to” instead of our “to-may-to” or “ba-nah-na” instead of our “banaana.” But, some parts of the kiwi accent are different from the Aussies and from us. Kiwis tend to make short “E’s” sound long, as in “beet-ah” instead of “better.” The poor cashier at the local grocery in Wellington had to ask me four times, “EFTPOS or credit” because I couldn’t quite make out what “Eeeftpos or creedit” meant. (EFTPOS in this context means a bank card - which I knew, I just couldn't make out that she was saying "EFTPOS"). They also tend to say the short "i" sound as almost a short "u" - so my name, "Kim" often sounds like "Kum" (and famously, "fish" sounds like "fush").

My Aussie friend and I also got into a discussion of regional differences in the U.S., and my delight that over here, they tend to side with me in U.S. regional language wars! For example, they pronounce "caramel" as “care-a-mell” - the way we said it where I grew up, in Kentucky and Indiana, not “cahr-a-mull” – the way they say it in the Northern U.S.. They also say “Ape-ri-cot” not “App-ra-cot” – just ask my daughter how to get a rise from me, and she’ll say mischievously, “Hey mom, you want an “App-ra-cot”? And, they call sodas (pop, coke) “soft drinks” just like they say it in Kentucky. It felt disproportionately satisfying to hear "my" pronunciations used as a matter of course. As the ice cream vendor in Cairns said, "I've never seen anyone so excited by hearing me say "caramel" (care-a-mell).

Paul and I notice that the Aussies love to shorten words making them end in “o” (“arvo” means “afternoon”, “avo” for “avocado”, or “bottle-o” for “liquor store” (bottle shop). Kiwis, on the other hand, tend to abbreviate with “y” or “ies”, such as “rellies” (relatives”, "roady" (roadtrip), “mozzies” (mosquitos), or brekky (breakfast). But this is not a hard and fast difference as Aussies also say mozzies and brekky.

Some phrases are charming to our ear, almost like something from the middle ages or Victorian England. “Fairy floss” for cotton candy, "wee" for small, or “whilst” for “while”. These words I try to fit into as many sentences as possible. It makes me feel like I’m traveling back in time – but to our friends here, it sounds like normal English. "I'm going to eat a wee bit of fairy floss whilst walking on the boardwalk..." I might say.

A different form of time travel involves use of Cockney Rhyming Slang, which developed in London in the 1840s. Some Australian friends learned it when they were growing up, and it is sometimes referred to as "Australian Rhyming Slang" (but not referred that way in Australia). Some of my New Zealand friends also learned it from English parents. It involves rhyming a word, then substituting the rhyming word for the original word, then dropping the rhyme. For example, you might say, "Oh, we're in for a bit of Barney." which would mean, "Oh, we're in for a bit of trouble." How does this rhyme? Barney Rubble rhymes with trouble. Or, "We stopped at the rubbity for a drink" means "We stopped at the pub for a drink" (rubbity-dub rhymes with pub). A word for Americans is "Sepper" (septic tank rhymes with Yank).

Then there are everyday words that we think we know but they mean something else.

In the U.S., a "biscuit" looks like this

They would call this a scone.

In Australia and New Zealand, a "biscuit" looks like this

We would call this a cookie.

Just to add a little more interest, in New Zealand there often are Māori words thrown in. These words are understood by everyone here, not just Māori people. They tend to be words that are not fully captured by English equivalents. Here, everyone would say “marae” – which is really hard to actually translate because it evokes a whole bunch of social and cultural understandings. Wikipedia defines it as: “a communal or sacred place that serves religious and social purposes in Polynesian societies” - a lot to say when you can just say "marae". Expect to hear Māori words and phrases scattered into Kiwi conversations – words such as “tikanga Māori” (Māori custom and rules, or the way things are done in Māori spaces), “te reo Māori (Māori language), “kai” (food), and most frequently, “whānau” (family group). Every Kiwi I’ve known who lives in the North Island has asked me at some point, “How’s your whānau ?” to ask after our family. “Mana” is a way of achieving honor through behavior and “tapu” is forbidden conduct that will bring shame if violated. An “iwi” is sometimes translated as “tribe” but is really more of a genealogical descendant group of Māori people. The phrase ”kia ora” is heard throughout New Zealand – I can only translate it as “Aloha”. It means “hello”, “good-bye”, “be well” and many other things, all of them positive.

Paul (who is half Japanese) and I both grew up in the United States, but after more than 37 years of marriage, it is clear to us that we don't always hear what the other one intended. He has been telling me for years that inter-cultural communication requires two things: first, listening. If you want to understand someone, talk less and listen more. Second, ask questions. If you don’t understand what someone is saying, or what they mean, ask. That will lead to learning. You can only do this if you slow down and admit there are some things you don't know.

When we left New Zealand back in 2018, I published a blog about what I learned about Kiwi language. You can read it here.

To have fun with language differences, I altered the lyrics to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” written by George and Ira Gershwin in 1937.

Here's the lyrics modified by Kim (spelled phonetically by an American from the Midwest)

LETʻS CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF by George & Ira Gershwin (as modified by Kim)


We’ve been spending a lot of time in Australia and New Zealand, and they have a different way of saying things….

Things have come to a pretty pass, our romance is growing flat,

For you like this and the other, while I go for this and that.

Goodness knows what the end will be, oh I don’t know where I’m at.

It looks as if we two will never be one.

Something must be done.

I say either and you say eyethah, I say neither and you say nythah,

Either, eyethah, neither, nyethah, let’s call the whole thing off.

I say tomayto and you say tomahto, I say potato and you say – well, everyone says potato,

Tomayto, tomahto, potato, potato? Let’s call the whole thing off


But oh! If we call the whole thing off then we must part;

And oh! If we ever part then that might break my heart!

So, you can like banahnas and I can like bananas,

You can rent cabahnas, and I can rent cabanas,

For we know we need each other so we better call the calling off.

Let's call the whole thing off!

[spoken]: Then there’s the words that we think we know, but they mean different things

I say cookies, and you say biscuits; I say biscuits, and you say scones.

Cookies, biscuits, biscuits, scones, let's call the whole thing off!

You say jelly, and I say jello; I say jelly, and you say jam.

Jelly, jello, jelly, jam! Let's call the whole thing off!

We say grocery cart, and you say trolley, we say candy, and you say lolly

Cart, trolley, candy, lolly, Oh, let’s call the whole thing off!

[spoken] You might hear some Māori words in New Zealand…

I say food and you say kai; you say Kia Ora, and I say hi

Food, kai, Kia Ora, hi, let’s call the whole thing off.


But oh! If we call the whole thing off then we must part

And oh! If we ever part then that might break my heart!

[spoken]: Then there’s the Aussies!

You say mayte and I say mate; you say grayte and I say great

Mayte, mate, grayte, great, let’s call the whole thing off.

[spoken]: Then there’s the Kiwis!

I say better and you say beetah, I say weather and you say weethah,

Better, beetah, weather, weethah, let’s call the whole thing off.


But oh! If we call the whole thing off then we must part.

And oh! If we ever part then that might break my heart!

So, you say ahftah and I’ll say after

You say lahftah and I’ll say laughter

For we know we need each other so we’ll be beetah if we could be maytes!

So Let's call the calling off off!

Let's call the whole thing off!

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