By Jamie Hepburn
As non-native speakers, it’s common to become so focussed on learning the technical elements of English – the grammar, the seemingly hundreds of different tenses, the structures and forms of all the various verbs & adjectives – that when it comes to applying English in a practical, real-world conversation, you feel totally out of our comfort zone! So what can be done to prepare for this?
The reality is that when you speak with a native English speaker in a daily, run of the mill situation, they are most likely not going to stick to all those grammar rules that you’ve so diligently learned.
Speaking as a UK native, Britons as a whole simply adore using slang, colloquial phrases and downright nonsensical expressions in their everyday dialogue. This can be a real minefield for someone who has only learned the fundamental principles of English and not the casual, everyday slang used by natives. So, to help you feel more comfortable with the idea of communicating with a native speaker, this article will guide you through some of the most commonly used sayings and expressions that you would likely hear on a trip to the UK.
Let’s start with a greeting that you will 100% encounter if you travel to the UK. The ambiguous question of, “You alright?”. Now, even as a native speaker this greeting can still fill me with dread when uttered by a stranger. Is this person asking if I’m well? Are they perhaps worried for my safety? Or is the stranger simply acknowledging my presence? There’s a few ways we can navigate this informal greeting.
The first is to opt for politeness and treat this as a genuine question. Imagine it as another way of asking “How are you?”. Our reply could go something like, “I’m good cheers mate, how are you?”.
The second would be to simply acknowledge and repeat.
The stranger says :“You alright?”
Perfect if you hear this phrase whilst walking past a neighbor on the street or when quickly greeting an acquaintance on the commute to work. Basically, if you don’t feel like conversing, this is the best way to respond.
Finally, we could take this as a queue for conversation. In Britain people absolutely love to talk about the weather – whether it’s hot, cold, rainy or cloudy. It’s a guaranteed conversation starter! Imagine we hear our now familiar phrases of, “You alright?”. We respond with some detail and introduce a new topic of conversation, saying something like, “Not bad thanks. The weather is awful today though. Absolutely freezing out there!”. This allows our partner to respond as they like and we can manage the conversation from there.
Now, whilst we’re on the topic of the weather, let’s run through a few common expressions that are used to talk about different weather types. We all know the basics of hot, cold, sunny, snowy etc – but what does it mean if someone describes the weather as baltic? And what in God’s name does sweltering mean? Here’s a short list below to help you out;
It’s baltic out there! – It’s very cold, possibly even freezing outside.
It’s boiling! – It’s very hot
It’s blowing a gail out there – It’s extremely windy
I am absolutely sweltering today – I’m very hot and sweaty due to the sunny weather
There’s a real nip in the air – There’s a cold, icy feeling in the atmosphere
It’s pissing out there – It’s raining very heavy
Now, hopefully, you should feel more equipped to manage the initial part of a conversation with any UK native. However, I’m sorry to say that the expressions and slang does not stop here. As I’m sure is the same in your own country, different parts of the United Kingdom have their own colloquial phrases specific to that town or city. Since I am a proud Scotsman, and since we have a whole range of confusing expressions and phrases, I’ll spend the rest of this article preparing you for a trip to bonny Scotland! (bonny meaning pretty or beautiful).
Without any prior knowledge of Scottish slang you may mistakenly think that everyone in Scotland has a friend by the name of “Ken”. Often, you will hear phrases such as, “I ken what you mean” “I ken him” or “I ken what you’re saying”.
So who is this famous Ken person everyone seems to know? Well, the word “ken” here in Scotland is just another word for “Know”, as in the verb “to know”. So when you hear someone express, “I ken what you’re saying” or in a Scottish accent it might sound like – “I ken wit yer sayin” – you can be confident that this person simply knows and understands what you are talking about! The only “ken” statement that should ring alarm bells in a conversation is if you hear, “I dinny ken wit you mean”, meaning, “I don’t understand what you are talking about”. At this point, we may have an issue…
Another extremely common word used in Scotland, as well as other parts of the UK, is the word, “Aye”. Aye is very simple to get your head around as it is just another way of saying “Yes”. So for example, maybe you introduce yourself to a Scottish stranger and tell them that you are from Rome, in Italy. The Scotsman may reply by saying, “Aye, I ken Rome. I went there when I was a wee lad. It’s a bonny place!”. Hopefully this made sense to you, but just to clarify, the Scotsman is saying that, yes, he knows Rome and he went there when he was a young boy or teenager. He thinks that it is a beautiful city.
Another few common words and Scottish expressions that may make you chuckle are as follows;
Let’s head back to your gaff – let’s go back to your home
I’m absolutely skint – I have no money
Will we go for a dunk in the Loch? – Shall we go for a swim in the lake?
I’m choking on a pint – I would really like a pint of beer
That lassie is fair braw – That woman is very attractive
And one final weather one to close us out,
It’s awful dreich oot there – It’s very wet and foggy outside
Now you should be (almost) fully equipped for your next trip to the UK and for a fun filled conversation with some Scottish strangers! Good luck, or as we might say in the UK, “Break a leg!”.