Lost in Translation: The Unseen Struggles of Language Barriers for Digital Nomads

Hugh Jackman in Australia

English is an interesting language, and as a native speaker from Australia, I've had my fair share of experiences with it while traveling to corners of the globe where it's not the first language. I'm lucky to have grown up speaking it because it's almost a universal way to communicate. However, even though English is so widely used, there are still many other language barriers, like different accents, local slang, and varied words for the same things. Before I moved to the US, my travels as a digital nomad made me aware of these challenges, but living in a place makes you realize how much confusion it can create. It also makes me appreciate the difficulty that non-native speakers must face.

Once in India, I visited a local restaurant with an Indian friend. What ensued was one of the most surreal conversations I've ever had. We were handed the menus, and the waiter spoke English. I understood him and told him what I wanted. Confused, he looked at my companion, who relayed what I said — in English. The issue? Accents. He'd been taught English via an American system, and my Australian accent was unintelligible. Over the years, this has made me curious about linguists and how accents develop.

How Accents Develop

Please Like Me TV Series
Image Credit: Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Of the 7.88 billion people on the planet, 604 million have English as a first language, and another 1.5 billion use it as a second language. According to linguist Mary Linn of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, American accents were shaped by isolation from the mother country and exposure to diverse languages, including Native American languages, Indian English pidgin, and interactions with Dutch, Swedish, French, and Spanish-speaking settlers. These factors played a significant role in the development of varied American accents.

The major difference between American English accents and other parts of the globe is something called ‘rhoticity.' This basically means that people who use the ‘r' sound at the end of their words use a rhotic accent, and those who don't use a non-rhotic accent. For example, the word ‘Winter' is my surname and a word I have so much trouble relaying my meaning to people in the US. The conversation usually goes a little like this:

“What's your name?”

“Ree Winter”

“Sorry?”

“Winter.”

“Can you spell that for me?”

“W-i-n-t-e-r – like the season!”

“Oh! Winter!”

Honestly, if I try to copy the American accent, I feel like a pirate trying to say the word ‘arr.' 

To the person hearing me say my name, it sounds like I've just said “Wintah.” I've resorted to using apps to order things because it saves me the trouble of conveying my name. My favorite was a coffee I ordered from Boudin's Bakery in San Francisco. After several attempts to understand my name, the server asked me to spell it. Even pronouncing letters is sometimes difficult for the listener to understand. When I received that coffee cup, it had the name ‘Greary' written on it instead of ‘Ree.'

Weird Words and Phrases

A family answers questions for a documentary.
Image Credit: Mungo Productions/Screen Australia/SBS Independent.

You would think that the longer you spend in a place, the more you'd get used to things, but despite being with my American partner for the past four years, many things still get lost in translation. While at dinner, I took a fry from his plate and said, “I'm pinching a chip.” The blank stare I received had nothing to do with my actions and all to do with what on earth I just said. ‘Pinching' is another word for stealing in Australia.

Until then, I had no idea Americans didn't use it. Of course, I also knew I used the word ‘chip' instead of ‘fry.' I try to translate my Australian before I say things out loud, but sometimes, it still pops out. “I'll just throw this in the rubbish bin (trash can).” “Can you open the boot? (trunk).” 

However, the word that irritates me the most is ‘biscuit.' I realize this is irrational, but I have gotten into social media fights over what a biscuit is and how it's the same as a scone in Australia! I even wrote an article on the topic and, after some research, discovered that an Australian scone is similar to an American biscuit, but an English scone had developed into something slightly different—with the main difference being that the English use egg in their recipe. Of course, an American scone is very different—a dry, triangular-shaped baked good that I've never been a fan of. They're similar to a ‘rock cake' in Britain and Australia. I know it's a petty gripe, but I can't help myself.

Australia Has Different Dialects and Accents

The coast of Haggerstone in Australia
Image Credit: Tourism and Events Queensland.

Sometimes, people will ask me if I'm English. In the same way, I need help distinguishing between a Canadian and an American accent—my partner has difficulty distinguishing between Australian, New Zealander, South African, and English accents. However, people are sometimes confused when I say where I'm from because I don't sound like Steve Irwin. You probably won't hear me say ‘G'Day' or ‘crikey' because these words aren't natural for me. However, if the person comes from Queensland, you might hear something that sounds more like the famous crocodile hunter. 

At one point in our history, it was thought Australians had one general accent, but linguists suggest there are three main accents in Australia: ‘broad,' ‘general,' and ‘cultivated.' As I mentioned in my Steve Irwin example, there are also regional differences. I grew up in Newcastle — a smallish town just north of Sydney — and used phrases like “that's me car over there” and the pluralized “you” to “yous.” When I moved to Melbourne, I quickly adapted to the local accent because I felt like an uneducated idiot. While changing to a Melbourne accent took a short time, adapting to an American one has not happened to me—even though it would make communication barriers disappear!

Australians Have an Easier Time Understanding Americans

Mark Gottlieb in Neighbours
Image Credit: Fremantle Australia.

Let's face it: American TV and movies have a widespread appeal in international homes, and many of us digital nomads grew up with US TV shows, so we know many idioms and slang terms. It's rare for me to find the opposite to be true. I was shocked when a waiter in New Orleans, on finding out where I was from, told me about his love for Australian TV. He actually listed a bunch of TV shows that I'd never seen, such as Wolf Creek.

When I first started traveling, I didn't think being understood in places where English was spoken would be a big deal, but now I understand that each country — no matter whether they're native speakers or not — has its own set of issues when it comes to language barriers. The good thing is that this always helps me learn a little more about various cultures. Instead of being a hindrance, it's been one of the fun things of being a digital nomad.