Backpacking Series How to Speak American

How to Speak American?

Looking for travel advice to the US? Chances are you will hear everything else but this intangible and one of the most useful tip. Sometimes, learning languages means going beyond dictionaries and accents. Abhijeet Deshpande shares a perspective on American number system.

USA

As an Indian expatriate, I loved my time in The USA and everything about it. Well, almost everything. Everything, but for their numbers. After living on west coast (CA), north east (MI) and traveling to places in between, American numbers continue to confound me. If you are on your way to The USA, remember this: learning to speak American is incomplete without getting a grip on it’s counting system, measurement units or even reading cell phone digits out in a particular fashion.

Counting System

Millions, Billions, Trillions

This is applicable only if you have been using a different system, and is the least troublesome. Simply because everyday transactions rarely run into millions, billions or trillions. Unless of course, like mine once upon a time, your job involves number crunching.

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I grew up in India at a time when multiplexes, cable television, and shows like ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ weren’t popular. My preferred method to count was hundreds (100s), thousands (1000s), lacs (10,0000s), tens of lacs (10,00,000), crores (1,00,00,000s), etc. So, when America happened before the birth of smart phones, I was so ill prepared with the denominations that I had to rely on an iconic American software product (Microsoft Excel) to help convert and insert punctuations automatically. Since then, I have become slightly comfortable with mental conversions between hundred thousands and lacs, or between millions and tens of lacs.

Units or Measurements

Fahrenheit, Gallons, Ounces, Pounds

For some reason, I did not feel the chill of Michigan winters in degrees Fahrenheit, the way I would when I read a sub-zero data with a ‘–‘ (minus) sign preceding the temperature on television. Sample this: In the extreme snow conditions, it was easier to convey to folks back home that it was freezing under at “-18” degree Celsius against a mere “0” degrees Fahrenheit. But if your body is warm with fever, Americans use a Celsius thermometer. So, 36.8 degree Celsius is the new normal and not 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature conversion is way too complicated for my abilities to mentally compute. It made me look up an unwieldy formula from school physics to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius.

Measurements and more measurements. Expressing my weight in pounds (over kilograms) was awkward. For instance, “160” pounds felt heavier than “72” Kilograms. Americans dubbed a few their auto-mobiles as ‘guzzlers’. Perhaps because it swallowed gallons (almost four times a litre) but ran miles (only 1.6 times its metric equivalent of a kilometre). But nothing takes the cake as the baffling experience of shopping at K-marts, Sams, Costcos, or Walmarts, and figuring out how ounces and pounds translate into grams.

Measurements was one of the worst things to cross over. If you are like me, you may call upon the services of two other iconic Americans named SiRi, (iPhone’s intelligent assistant), or Android (by Google) – to help with conversions.

Cellphone Digits

Chunking

Technology is useless with the way your mind chunks digits and that’s why this one is my favorite.

If you are from India or any other country that chunks digits in sets of five or any other locus, beware of memorizing ten-digit cellphone numbers. Most people in The USA read, write and memorize cellphone numbers in a different format. This by itself, is not a problem. But it gets interesting when you read out a number to someone, or when someone reads back the numbers you just gave out.

I was predisposed to memorize a ten-digit cellphone number in two sets (or chunks) of five digits each. For instance, I would memorize 0123456789 as 01234 56789. Please note the single breather separating the two chunks. Hence, while giving away a phone number I naturally put a pause in between.

I did this while speaking with someone at the car rentals (Hertz, Enterprise), truck rentals (U-Haul), AAA or the utilities (SBC Pacific, Comcast, etc.). The operators would pause for a moment, re-hash the chunks in their minds and write them down in whatever forms they were required to fill. When reading the numbers back to me for verification, they did so in chunks of three, three and four digits. For instance my 01234 56789 would be read out as 012 345 6789. As much as it might have confused the locals, the rehashed chunks confused me too. The way they read, it did not seem familiar until I re-rehashed 012 (first breather) 345 (second breather) 6789 back to 01234 (only breather) 56789 before confirming.

Learning to Speak American?

If you, like me, grew up using a different numeric language, and are at odds to mentally compute conversions or re-re-chunk digits, please rewire yourself to speak American digits. I have lived in a few countries and, without doubt, America offers one of the best quality of living. Just get the numbers right.

Oh, and don’t forget this piece was first written on 10/04/2016. That’s the American mm/dd/yyyy format for 04/10/2016 or 4th October 2016.

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As a visitor to the US, how was your experience with numbers? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).

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36 thoughts on “How to Speak American?

  1. Hi Julie,

    Thank you for stopping by! Yes, I can imagine. Numbers are peculiar, in that, not all of us think about them (and how prepared we might be) before moving to a new country. Luckily, technology comes to the rescue 🙂

  2. As an American, this was very amusing to read! But I have this problem when I go to other countries. The first time we drove in Greece, we thought it was so weird that everyone was always driving 80+ miles per hour! But then we realized it was all in Kilometers, not Miles, and then it made a lot more sense. I honestly wouldn’t complain if we switched to the metric system since that’s what everyone else uses, but I guess we just like doing things our own way haha.

    1. Thank you for stopping by. Loved reading about your experience with numbers in Greece! Its always fun to explore something so different from what we are used to. We have enjoyed our travels in America and have had some fascinating adventures. Read up if you like Into the Arctic, our exploration in Alaska 🙂

  3. There are a lot of similarities between English from the UK and American but still some differences. We do use a lot of these things though x

  4. Haha I love this post, it would definitely be a learning curve on working out the differences with the way things are said there. I have the same issue working out the recipes from the US to a metric measurement, with the weights and temps hehe

    Jackie – Organised Mum Life

  5. English is my first language, but I really wish I knew a second one. I am highly envious of anyone who can speak more than one!

    1. Knowing multiple languages can be fun. But it is amazing how same language could be spoken differently in different parts of the world!

  6. Language barrier is the worst barrier anyone can face. Trying to learn new languages. Good to learn
    few new things

    1. Glad you found the post on How to speak American helpful. Its good to prepare how certain things could be referred differently in another place.

  7. Funny. I love reading/hearing about how others perceive Americans and how we view or say things. Don’t hold it against us. LOL
    .

  8. Well, this is a nice guide. My daughters speak English fluently and know how to differentiate between English and American. TV is a good influence for them!

    1. Its amazing how kids grow up with so much exposure and how smart they get to adapt in different parts of the world through language. Wish all the success to your daughters!

  9. This post made me giggle. You always have to learn how to speak what the locals understand. When in Rome, behave like Romans and all that. Great read.

  10. Being from Europe and living in the US, I can relate to the measurements dillema you mentioned. I’m used to cm and kg and here it is all different. Fortunately I speak 5 languages so I’m good there, but there is absolutely a learning curve when coming to and living in the US.

  11. Wow! Interesting concept. Especially because there isn’t a one distinct American way to speak. With 50 different states there are hundreds of different dialects.

  12. Being Canadian I always have a difficult time with American numbers. Like when our temp is -26 I know it’s darn cold. Fahrenheit confuses me as does gallons and miles. I have to spend so much time computing stuff it gets tiring lol

    1. LOL. Now you know you are not alone! Its interesting and important to adapt at the same time right! Happy computing.. haha.

  13. haha, loved it. I too am an american who loves to travel and I often have the same issues travelling abroad with their numeric systems with various situations. For example, Many places put the Number of a House or Business after the Street Name whereas in America we put it in the front! So I occasionally have to double check where the heck I am going!
    Never would have thought our numeric system was complicated but if you are used to a certain way then it makes sense.

  14. As an American, I can see how all of these things would be confusing! When I was trying to use a GPS in Europe, I couldn’t tell how far to drive when it said to turn in one kilometer. I’m so used to miles!

    https://thishalcyonlife.com

  15. Haha, I can totally empathise! As someone brought up on the metric system, the Queen’s English, and now long time UK resident, I totally agree. However, I’ve become adept at American speak since being a food blogger years ago, as I try and cater to readers from everywhere,

  16. The cellphone numbers would have been very confusing for you! I live in a country that uses the metric system so I understand your confusion with volume, distance and temperature measurements too. Thanks for sharing this post. It was a great read and would be helpful for immigrants to know.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. While immigrants and expats get more time to adapt, travellers when visiting a new country for the first time are the ones who have to be more quick. These tips are intended to help both! You got us thinking about the cellphone numbers now..! Got used to saying hand phones in Malaysia.. Lol

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