Meet the English

My Embarrassing Language Barrier Moments in England

How to deal with the language barrier and avoid awkward moments

English isn’t my first language and, like any other language learner, I’ve been in many embarrassing situations due to the language barrier. In 2013 I visited England for the first time. My language was neither amazing nor really bad. People understood me and I sometimes understood them. Yet a day wouldn’t go by without me feeling ridiculous. And even during my second trip in 2015 and now at work and social events I still have my awkward moments. So let me tell you about the times I experienced communication difficulties in England.

Would you like a bag?

2013. Bournemouth. My first time in England. I was doing a short-term English course while staying with a nice English family.

The fear of not understanding someone was, and actually still does, haunting me. It’s especially embarrassing when you still don’t get it after the person repeats themselves a couple of times. Based on that, I was reluctant to engage in any conversation outside of school or my host family.

In 2013 there were no self-checkouts in Bournemouth or I might’ve just missed them. As I was at the checkout, a nice cashier lady said something to me and kept looking waiting for an answer. I had no idea what she’d said so just replied ‘No’. Then she asked another question and I said ‘No’ again. So I ended up carrying all my purchases in my hands because one of the questions turned out to be: ‘Would you like a bag?’.


I was queuing up for a Sunday roast buffet where a nice guy promptly served everyone a few slices of meat and other foods to complete this ensemble. I was about to try the famous British Sunday roast for the first time. So exhilarating.

The guy said a few words to the first customer in the queue then spoke to the second one. I was trying to make out what he was saying to prepare for the conversation. As we got closer to the counter I heard him going: ’Yorkshire?’ And the customer replying yes. The next person in line was also from Yorkshire and the one behind him. I was shocked at how many customers there were from Yorkshire given that we were in the heart of London.  Well I wasn’t from Yorkshire so I was going to say no. And so I did and didn’t get the lovely Yorkshire pudding.

Conversations in noisy places

There are no words to describe how much I hate talking to a group of people in a noisy place. I just literally can’t hear a thing. Lip-reading and then matching it with the sound doesn’t always work well. I am rubbish at lip reading. I frantically nod, smile, laugh or make a sad face keeping up with the muffled conversation. At times I manage to hear ‘water’, ‘fun’, ‘brother’ or ‘school’ to at least get the faintest idea what’s going on. But when someone says: ‘So, Kate, and what do you think?’. I start to panic and awkwardly say: ‘What was the original question?’

Street names

Once I got lost in London with google maps in hand. I knew the street I was looking for but couldn’t work out how to get onto this street. I was tempted to ask someone for directions but quickly realised that I hadn’t had a clue how to pronounce the name of this mystery street. And what do you even do in this kind of situation?

Well, luckily in my case a passing man asked if I was okay. He probably realised I needed help seeing my face full of agony and utter confusion. I pointed at my google maps and he said that I was standing on this street. I felt a complete plonker. Fine, at least I found out the right pronunciation.

Gym registration failed

I used to have a phone phobia. And to cope with it I prepared scripts for every phone conversation to make sure I was in complete control of the situation. I had a chat with my GP following a script, I was looking for a job with a script and even obtained my national insurance number while reading off my notes.

This is a very good idea for those who are scared of speaking on the phone. But let me tell you that it doesn’t always go to the plan.

Going to the gym is something I used to do in Russia and wanted to get into this routine in England too. Instead of going there I decided to ring them to register. Out of the two ‘evils’, I felt more in control being over the phone.

My speech was written down and well rehearsed so I dialled the gym. A man picked up the phone and said hello. And I rattled out my long introduction articulating every single word. ‘Sorry it’s not the gym’ – he said.

Oops. At least I was more confident reciting it for the second time to a real gym receptionist.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve also experienced a language barrier in English or any other language that you are learning 🙂

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