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Wanted: English to English translator

I’ve heard that if you want to pronounce the actor Michael Caine’s name the way he does, you simply say “My Cocaine.” Try it: “I’m going to see that new movie starring My Cocaine.”

The film “Trainspotting” was one of many British films that had to be overdubbed to make it more understandable to Americans. Even then, words like bevvy, dosh, gaff, coffin-dodger, draftpak and square-go were a puzzlement to many of us.

Sometimes when I’m watching those British shows on PBS, I wish there were subtitles. My friends who speak British fluently say it’s not that hard to learn, and that many of the words are almost the same as ours, just pronounced differently. They say that with a few years of hard study, even someone as stupid as I am might learn to speak it fluently.

But they were all pretty sure that even then, I would still have an atrocious American accent.

Tragically, Rosetta Stone does not have a course for American English speakers to learn British English. It would be such a big help to people like me, and it could be a golden opportunity for them. There could be big money in such courses as “Learn British English,” “Learn Irish English,” “Learn Scottish English” and “Learn Indian English.”

Of course, knowing how to understand British English would just be your first step into learning other foreign languages. You could then learn how to speak Public School English or RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) English. Then it’s on to Welsh, Cockney, Scouse, Canadian and Australian English.

Once fluent in those, you could move on to BBC English: the most difficult of all to master. Though it is a dead language like Latin that few will ever actually speak, they say that knowing it makes it easier to learn other languages.

Face it: Accents can be a problem. And as more and more of us use voice-dictation technology on our smartphones and other devices, speaking some kind of standard English will become more and more important. I have a neighbor who grew up in France and speaks excellent English. She recently bought an Amazon Echo, the voice-activated speaker/personal assistant. While it works properly most of the time, it can’t always understand her. She’ll say something like, “Alexa, play some music by Johnny Cash.” Alexa will answer, “I’m sorry, but I can’t find any music by Zhon E. Kahsh.”

As Tony Schwartz, the recording pioneer said, “A message is not what has been sent, but what has been received.” Boy, was he ever right. Who hasn’t heard the story of the mom who was new to texting, who received a message from her son that his dog had died? She texted back, “Sorry to hear that, lol.” She thought “lol” meant “lots of love” whereas her son read it, properly, as “laughing out loud.” I’m not sure if they’re speaking to each other yet.

But what’s really strange about my inability to understand the British is that they seem to have no problem understanding me. And I’ve never heard of a Hollywood movie being overdubbed into British English. This seems to be a one-way street: They can understand us, but we can’t understand them. Maybe they all have a gift for languages, but that sounds a little far-fetched.

It’s much more likely that I’m just tone-deaf when it comes to understanding other people’s accents. Years ago, I was in a taxi on a rainy Christmas Eve, in a rush to get home to be with my family. Everyone else had the same idea, and the traffic was miserable. The name on the cabbie’s license was all vowels — a Scrabble tray of U’s and O’s. I asked the driver where he was from. He said something that sounded like “Bed E Bum.”

I said, “Bed E Bum? I never heard of it.”

He turned around and stared at me in astonishment. He said, in perfect American English, “You never heard of Bethlehem?!”

Contact Jim Mullen at

Jim Mullen

Jim Mullen

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