Kiwi English. Yeah. Nah.

Last updated 13:20 05/10/2012

Oh English, mother tongue of mine and favourite plaything, you are as broad and marvellous as Bill Bailey's beard. But golly, are you a tricky beast to tame (like Bill Bailey's beard).

Which is why I'm glad that someone is taking the time to demystify you, for new New Zealanders. Settlement Support in Wellington are running Kiwi slang classes for new migrants and all I can think is...well of course, why didn't anyone think of this earlier?

Slang, vernacular and idioms are real barriers to anyone who wants to learn a language so they can use it (as opposed to someone like me who took beginners' French for a) the necessary credits in my linguistics degree and b) so I'd know how to pronounce things on menus). Real people, I think we all agree, do not engage in conversations that sound like this:

Pierre: Hello, my name is Pierre.

Jacques: Hello, Pierre, my name is Jacques.

Pierre: Your bicycle is very nice, Jacques.

Jacques: Thank you, Pierre. This is the bicycle of my uncle. 

This the kind of exchange that is common in language textbooks and is the reason that one of the few things that I still remember how to say in French is "the cheese is on the table" and in Mandarin Chinese I can still express the desire to buy a sweater (even though honestly, I'm more of a cardigan girl).

In reality the above bike convo would probably go more like this:

Stranger: *eyebrows*

Moata: Gidday.

Stranger: Nice wheels.

Moata: Thanks. She's a Pashley. They're made in England. I love her very much. *lovingly strokes front fender*

Stranger: *backs away slowly*

Truly, textbooks cannot prepare you for either the real world of language use or crazed bike enthusiasts.

And even if you are fully fluent in a language you can find yourself hopelessly lost if you move to a place where a different variety is spoken.

When I moved to England I spent weeks in a constant state of confusion. I said "Sorry, what does that mean?" and "I don't understand" about 15 times a day. It was exhausting. For everyone. 

For instance, I spent the first few weeks paranoid that there must be something wrong with me because everyone I spoke to asked me if I was all right. I started to worry that I wasn't getting enough sleep and that it was showing or that all the jaffacakes I was eating were making my complexion sallow. Maybe I didn't seem cheerful enough and people wondered if I was homesick? Why wouldn't I be all right? Of course once I figured out that "Awriigh'?" is often the way Londoners say "hello" to each other, things started making a lot more sense.

I also once had a bar patron express a desire for me to "come round and clean my gaff". Which sounded an awful lot like a come-on to me, until it became clear that "gaff" meant his home and that he was inquiring about my willingness to make some extra cash as a cleaner, at which point it definitely sounded like a come-on.

And here's me thinking I already knew how to speak English. How difficult must it be for people who have to start from scratch, as it were?

So good on the educators at Settlement Support for getting stuck in and trying to equip people with the language tools they need to survive in the world. 

My only question is, how exactly do you explain what "yeah-nah" means?

Have you ever suffered from slang-caused confusion? What was the slang term or phrase involved? Have you ever learnt another language from a textbook only to find on your travels that you never once met a bike-admirer named Pierre?

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