TCK Identity and Spelling Confusion

spelling differences

It’s that Third Culture Kid identity thing again. If our souls don’t show the confusion we feel, our spelling certainly does.

Is it color or colour? Honor or honour? Favor or Favour? Neighbor or neighbour?

Is it caliber or calibre? Center or centre? Fiber or fibre? Theater or theatre? Tire or Tyre?

The red F on the spelling quiz tells us we are wrong, but how can we be wrong when just a year before we were right?

And the spelling moves on to words and phrases and grammar:

One year it’s “Put your jumper on!” and the next it’s “Put your sweater on!”. In one country we’re going to the football game, across the ocean in the U.S we’re going to the soccer game.

We take the subway on Saturday and, after a transatlantic flight and jet lag, we take the Tube on Monday. We eat chips with a sandwich one day, and crisps the next. We buy our medicine and our shampoo at a pharmacy or drugstore in one country and at a Chemist shop in another.

And that doesn’t even include the boot and the trunk, the barrister and the attorney, the flat and the apartment, the nappy and the diaper.

(Let’s not even go into the words that would offend like rubbers and erasers.)

All of this can range from funny to embarrassing to irritating. But the stories created from these differences are priceless. So as you think about queues and lines, prams and strollers, lifts and elevators, I ask you to embrace your dual identity and tell us your biggest language gaffe, whether it be in English or another language, through the comments.  


broccoli & cheese muffinsToday’s muffins from Stacy are savory and look like they would be delicious with a winter soup. Take a look at Broccoli & Cheese muffins by clicking here or directly on the picture. Stacy is also going to have some amazing holiday recipes this week so you may want to bookmark her blog.

29 thoughts on “TCK Identity and Spelling Confusion

  1. This makes me smile. I’m a writer in the US, but having been raised in an MK school with teachers from the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Ethiopia, my spelling is all over the place. I think the hardest thing for me was sorting (in the States we might say figuring out) whether a word was actually English or Ethiopian. We used words interchangeably. Like zaf (tree), wusha (dog), bate (house), Ow or oui (yes), inja (I don’t know) and min de new (what is it?). Adding French and Spanish to the mix doesn’t help. I once asked someone in an airport where I found the “baggages” and it took them a while to understand I wanted the luggage carousels. Then there is the food we eat so enthusiastically. Ethiopian Injera ba wat, Somali zambusas, Filippino lumpia, Indian masala. I often feel I’m speaking a language no one else even begins to understand.

    I think as MK/TCKs we have a frame of reference of the world, as well as language and spelling others don’t. It’s exhausting to try to get it all correct. When I’m writing, I’m grateful for spell check (which hates all the foreign words above) which keeps me aware of American spelling, but when I’m speaking, sometimes I let it go and use my frame of reference and my own mixed up language.

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  2. What a great post! I can’t believe I missed this one!
    Once on a school trip from Pakistan to India, I saw signs posted all over Delhi saying, “To Let”, followed by a phone number. I assumed it was a mistake. I thought they meant to write, “Toilet”. All I could think was if you had to go pee really badly how on earth would you have time to phone the number to track down the toilet! Years later I realized my mistake! To Let! Of course! Silly me.
    Just the other night I waited with a friend at the hospital. We thought her ankle was broken. By the time the Emergency Room released us it was late. My husband came to pick us up in the car. As we were scrambling to get in to the car, I shouted, “Quick we don’t have much time! We still have to get to the chemist!” My friend and the nurse looked at each other. They both burst out laughing…my friend was completely baffled! My husband calmly explained I meant the pharmacy. He blamed it on India and the British and Canada. It’s good to have your own translator along!


  3. Love this blog post! :) In the Indian English, there is no differentiation between the v and w (as it is in British/American English). Imagine my horror when I went to the UK for my Masters to find out the differentiation the tough way. Then, when I returned to my home in the UAE (Abu Dhabi), I worked for a German boss for 10 years. The Germans pronounce v as F, and w as v….That really confused me totally. Till today, I find myself saying vine, vomen …instead of Wine, Women…. (and I don’t even have German blood in me!)…


  4. I am adding this comment late, but you’ll likely find it amusing anyway. At boarding school we never asked for the toilet, or the loo, or bathroom. Were were taught to go to ‘the Ablution Blocks” (also known as the Abs.). That got a few blank-eyed stares the semester I was in high school in the states.


  5. This post and all the comments brought back so many memories! Thanks so much.

    As a military kid, we moved every two years all over the world. We were in the US for my second grade year in school and I vividly remember being crushed when I missed getting 100% on my spelling test because I spelled color with a “u”.

    I was that kid, thinking “how can we be wrong when just a year before we were right?” Later I grew up and became an expat on my own grappling with British English and American overseas.

    Now that I write, often I find myself choosing “spot on” for right when responding to Euro commenters and “true enough” for Americans. I’m ok with it all and have come to value being “multi-dialectical”. It’s harder switching between Russian and English though! ;)


    1. Multidialectical– yes! I love that! I use the word flat all the time for apartment and get a quizzical stare in response. I love these stories shared through the comments. They deserve a post of their own! Thanks for engaging in this post.


  6. I’ve always been an impeccable speller in both Spanish and English. My problems have come from using Colombian slang that turned out to be obscene in other countries. I learned early on not to say “No jodás,” but I once told a Cuban coworker that he talked a lot of “paja,” and I said that an opportunity “me cayó de papayita.” I once referred to my girlfriend as “una pelada” in front of my Mexican-American boss. I’ve probably committed a lot of other gaffes without realizing it.


  7. Haha so true! I’m a TCK– and an American by passport living in Canada and I always get called out for Z versus Zed. And spelling a lot words wrong. Not to mention when I moved back from Malaysia to the U.S. after highschool I kept calling my cellphone my mobile. Good thing these days I just have an iPhone and thats a pretty universal term.


    1. Love this– the Z and Zed were a warring point in high school with American students and Brits. It’s one of those TCK things that’s difficult to communicate with others. Our parents don’t face it because the aren’t in school. Just one more thing to make our stories richer.


  8. I remember a girl in Arkansas thinking I had a British accent 2 days after arriving to the US from Pakistan. I graduated from an American/International school in Karachi, Pakistan. We used American English in school but I conversed with people from all over.


    1. Haha! I remember people trying to figure out my accent. Finally one person said to me: “I can’t quite figure out your accent but you talk like one of my friends who was raised in India….”they had no idea I’d been raised in Pakistan!


  9. Since the electricity going out was a common occurrence, “Bidgely” was a word that made its way into my English… except that we usually shortened it to “the bidg.” I used it a couple of times here in America before it was pointed out to me that it sounds to an American like the term for a female dog. :)

    Also, “thank you very much” in Afrikaans is “Baie Danke” which it turns out makes an American think you are recommending the purchase of a four-hoofed critter.

    So it’s not so much that I make huge gaffes as that I like to absorb one language into another… :) with unexpectedly hilarious results when the listeners don’t realise what’s going on. (Oh, and on spelling, the ones that still trip me up are the double-l’s like travelling vs traveling!)


    1. “Also, “thank you very much” in Afrikaans is “Baie Danke” which it turns out makes an American think you are recommending the purchase of a four-hoofed critter.”

      Yes!! I was 7 when we moved to South Africa for a year and heard that phrase from an Afrikaans women we bought some eggs from on the side of the road. We puzzled over laughed about it for years before finally learning what it was she actually said! *blush*


    2. Also, “thank you very much” in Afrikaans is “Baie Danke” which it turns out makes an American think you are recommending the purchase of a four-hoofed critter.

      Yes!! I was 7 years old when my family moved to South Africa for a year and remember hearing that phrased from a woman we bought some eggs from off the side of the road. We puzzled and laughed over it for years as a family before finally learning what she actually meant! *blush*


      1. Hahaha! Love this! Met someone in Cairo once that kept on thinking Egyptians were saying ” have fun” to her every time she said the Arabic word for “thank you” in fact it is the word “afwan” which basically means “you’re welcome” …. !


  10. I was in a car with a group of colleagues visiting Houston, and we were picking up a female co-worker at her hotel to go out to dinner. A British friend was driving, and as we pulled up outside the hotel, he asked me “Why don’t you go in and knock her up?” Needless to say, that got some stares.


    1. This reminds me of the time I innocently asked an English someone how to “get a leg over” (we were on a sailing boat) and the whole crew erupted in hysterical laughter. Apparently it means what you do to “knock someone up” in America!


  11. My addition is slightly different…I consistently used a certain word for a personal bodily function and was very surprised to learn after many years in my passport country that it was an Urdu word and was not English-American or British or any other permutation. Hmmmm, I suppose those very strange looks were not related to the fact that I was speaking of a very personal bodily function, but that the word made no sense.


  12. I make spelling errors simply because I read so much British literature. I figured, if Jane Austen wrote it, it must be correct, right? Elizabeth Bennett was a bit of a rebel and may have fudged spelling, but certainly not Lady Catherine Debourgh! Blame my bad, American spelling on my love of good literature.


  13. I remember a well respected missionary lady who was coming up to retirement told me to ‘come in and sit down there on your fanny!’ Wow!!! My ears nearly fell off the side of my head and my jaw hit the floor. You DO NOT say that to a Brit!


  14. This is such a great post and so true… I’ve realized that this happens to me in any language, but I really felt it the most in French, when we moved to France. We had always spoken French at home (my family speaks it, because it was a long time unofficial language of Lebanon, where my parents grew up), but there were certain words that were not typically “France-French”. So when we moved there, we used certain words that the French didn’t know, or that meant something different to them. There were many moments of confusion, being laughed at or not understood. Little by little we learned the ‘correct’ terms, but I still remember many of those moments – when you’re a teenager trying to settle in yet another new place, that can be quite frustrating and upsetting! I know those moments will still happen, in any language, but I don’t mind so much now because I know that’s just part of who I am and I take it as a learning experience now :)


    1. And I definitely remember the interesting learning experience for English when we moved to Australia (also as a young teenager), after always being in American schools. At least that prepared me relatively well for England when I went to study there years later… :) What I’ve also noticed about language isn’t just the spelling, or different words – it’s the accents. I start to pick up the accents of the people around me, without even realizing that I’m doing that. According to my cousins, when I lived in Australia, I apparently started talking with an Australian accent… But once we returned to American schools, my American accent quickly returned. I noticed my dad does this too, without being aware of it and I’ve heard other TCKs mention this as well, and I always found that fascinating.

      Sorry for the lengthy and numerous comments, but I always find these topics very interesting! :)


  15. I don’t have a big gaffe to share but, then again, I like to say I was bilingual before I learned my second language. I started school in the West Indies, Trinidad to be specific, so three of my most formative years were spent studying in the British system. I devoured Enid Blyton books and actually know more about British culture and food than my third culture kid husband who was raised in South America and went to mostly American schools. My fourth year of school, we moved on to Caracas, where I learned my first recognized foreign language. As for our girls, they have grown up using both American and British English interchangeably and probably don’t even know where a lot of the words come from. They are simply part of the family lexicon.

    I would love to share with you another blog I enjoy reading. Maybe I’ve mentioned it before? It’s called Separated by a Common Language and it’s written by an American linguist who lives in the UK. She doesn’t post that often, but I always enjoy reading, learning, and often nodding along laughing when she does.

    P.S. As always, thanks for sharing the muffins!


    1. A lot of words are fairly similar in English and Spanish so if you don’t know the Spanish word, you can sort of make it up… especial, special for example. But not embarrassed, embarrazado….That means pregnant. I found that out when I was 15 years old, living in Caracas, Venezuela.


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