So you think you understand spoken English?

Blue PantsEven if English is your native language, there are many variations around the world, not to mention slang and localised sayings. If an American told you he was wearing “blue pants”, that would conjure up a totally different image coming from a Brit! Never mind a Londoner bragging about his new “blue strides”.  

In today’s cosmopolitan society, we speak to people from all over the world on a daily basis, and multi-cultural conversation is common-place. Unfortunately, many of us (especially the British – myself included), would rather just nod our head or smile when we didn’t understand something, rather than embarrass ourselves by asking someone what they actually meant. Could be very awkward if you’ve just agreed to something that you didn’t realise!

Here are a few random questions taken from our database as an example. Some are everyday British English, others are from around the world. Test yourself and see how well you do…

1) ‘Shoulder to the wheel’ means?
a) Argument   b) Effort   c) Fight   d) Nasty Person

2) ‘Barking up the wrong tree’ means?
a) Confused   b) Okay   c) Kiss   d) Well behaved

3) ‘Threw a wobbly’ means?
a) Speed up   b) Angry   c) Obvious   d) Intrusive

4) ‘Carved in stone’ means?
a) Odd mentality   b) Definite   c) Congratulations   d) Aristocratic

5) ‘All smoke and mirrors’ means?
a) Deceit   b) Died   c) Easy victory   d) Lost

6) ‘Given the raw prawn’ to an Australian means?
a) Rejected   b) Nothing   c) Questionable   d) Talkative

7) ‘Naafi’ to a South African means?
a) Angry   b) Does not care   c) Unfair   d) Slow

8) ‘Hunker down’ to an American means?
a) No money   b) Repetitive   c) Finish   d) Waiting

9) ‘Gansey’ to an Irishman means?
a) Jumper   b) Mislead   c) Poor quality   d) Commence

10) ‘Skollie’ to a South African means?
a) Criminal   b) Happy   c) Selfish   d) Police

So how did you do? Check your anwers here:
1) b,   2) a,   3) b,   4) b,   5) a,   6) a,   7) b,   8) d,   9) a,   10) a

You can find many more examples, and test yourself as often as you like using our online Understanding English test page. Better still, join us today to improve your understanding of spoken english around the world!

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Understanding English Menus – Part 1

Understanding English MenusEven a simple task such as eating out can be very daunting if English is not your native language. Many of the restaurants and bistro’s in England have not adopted the ‘pictorial menu‘ approach that you will find in most other European tourist destinations.

Picture the scene:
You are sitting in a lovely little seaside restaurant, the views are fantastic, and even the sun is shining (yes, I know we’re in England, but just pretend). Then you take a look at the menu! You know that you want to try some of the local seafood, because that’s why you came here, but what are all these strange things on here? Devilled Shrimp? Dublin Bay Prawns? Tiger Prawns? Langoustines? Cray Fish? Surf and Turf?

Even if English is your native language things can be confusing. A ‘Shrimp’ to an English person is very different to what an Australian or New Zealander would expect. If you were to “throw a shrimp on the barbie” over here, it would be very disappointing indeed! 

Without actually seeing these dishes, many people would not have a clue what they were. So what do you do?

Waitressa) Ask the waiter what each item is, and hope he doesn’t make you look stupid for not knowing.
b) Look around at the other tables to see what they are eating, and take a guess.
c) Order something safe that you know on the menu, and miss out on the local specialities that you came here for in the first place.

With the help of a ‘pictorial menu‘, you can increase your confidence and order exactly what you want. If we use the seafood examples from above, you would see something like this:

Dublin Bay Prawns
Dublin Bay Prawns
Tiger Prawns
Tiger Prawns
Cray Fish
Surf and Turf
Surf and Turf

For hundreds more English Menu examples, see the Menu Reader on

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The Phonetic Alphabet

The phonetic alphabet is used the world over to communicate vital information over the radio or telephone. Although originally developed for aviation purposes, it is now commonly used by businesses and organisations in everyday conversations.

Having a grasp of the phonetic alphabet will help you understand and convey the spelling of important words, such as names and post codes. For example, to spell the common English surname ‘Reid’, you would say “Romeo Echo India Delta”, so it wasn’t confused with ‘Read’ or ‘Reed’ (which all sound the same in spoken English).

Below is a table showing part of the ICAO phonetic alphabet (also known as the NATO or ITU phonetic or spelling alphabet). Note: these are not to be confused with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which is concerned with the sounds of words, rather than the spellings.

A Alfa   N November
B Bravo   O Oscar
C Charlie   P Papa
D Delta   Q Quebec
E Echo   R Romeo
F Foxtrot   S Sierra

For the full table, including audio files so you can also hear how they sound, see our Phonetic Alphabet page.

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