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Baffled in Bangalore

June 2005
Baffled in Bangalore

"Shifting" to a new kind of English


As a speaker of English, I was excited to come to a foreign country that spoke the language. However, after being in India only a short time, I began to wonder if we were speaking "English." I soon discovered a whole new set of nuances and meanings that Indian English brings to familiar words. It all began when I called from my hotel room for a taxi to get to the school to enroll my son. The following cross-cultural phone conversation ensued.


"Yes, tell me Madam."

"Is this the taxi service? I need a taxi now for an appointment."

"You want a vehicle even now?"

"I want a taxi now, please."

"I'll send him even now."

I began to wonder what the "tell me Madam" was about, and if a "vehicle" would be a car, truck or bus. We arrived at our appointment at the school in a white ambassador and went into the office. Upon asking about the school schedule, the "timings" were explained to us. I tried to fill out the paperwork for enrolling our son. This was our conversation.

"Where do you stay?"

"We are staying in a hotel right now, but we will be moving to a house when it is finished."

"You stay in a hotel?"

"Yes, it is a one-bedroom apartment."

"Oh, you mean a flat in a lodge. A hotel is a place to eat! When will you be shifting?"


"Yes, when will you shift from the lodge to your house?"

"The owner said that it would be November 4th."

"Oooh, the house isn't finished yet. Well, you can count on shifting much later than that. Do you have a landline?"


"Yes, a phone."

"We have a cell phone. I can give you that number."

"Please, tell me your ?mobile' number and where you will be staying after you shift and also how often you'll be going out of station."

"Out of station?"

"Yes, how often will your son miss school because you have business trips to other cities?"

"We are not going out-of-town on business trips and we will not be just ?staying'. We will be living here after we move?.um, shift!!"

The conversation then moved on to school supplies. The school official was now into a lengthy dialogue about school supplies and was telling me that she would just "tick-off" the necessary items. "Tick-off"? Why would she want to anger anyone about this? Or even more baffling, how exactly would she "tick off" the supplies? I held my thought and watched as she checked-off several items and then handed me the list explaining that he only needed the items that she had "ticked-off." I finally got it! "Tick-off" = "Check-off"; not "make angry."

I felt like we were now communicating until she began to name some of the items on the list and where I could purchase them. She said that she had the notebooks, covers and some of the textbooks. She began to tell me where to purchase these items. I was still stuck back on "covers" when she jolted me by saying that I could buy the "rubber" at the "fancy store"! I wasn't sure if I wanted to give into exasperation or break out in laughter. But I decided I wasn't about to get into the conversation that in America, "rubber" is the slang term for condoms!

Instead, I just asked politely what "covers" were. She explained that they are brown paper rolls that you "cover" all of your books with - both notebooks and textbooks. She also explained that there were "fancy stores" in all of the shopping areas.

In parting, when she said that I could give her a "tinkle" if I had any questions, I was glad to leave and go shopping for the items! ("Tinkle" is a "phone call" in Indian English ? unlike the American colloquial for a trip to the bathroom)

Valerie Victoria is a Professor of English as a Second Language (ESL) who currently lives in Bangalore.

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