Speaking English

The greatest upside to being English is that no matter where you go in the world, everybody knows the word “toilet”. Whether you find yourself in a large, sprawling city in the heat of Dubai or a remote, deserted village in the cold of Siberia. All you must do to seek relief is utter that magic word and find yourself whisked away to the nearest hole in the ground, porcelain potty or – if you’re lucky – heated Japanese seat.

At its peak the British Empire spread almost entirely over the four corners of the Earth, its language traveling to far away islands via its fearless Navy and to tribes deep in the jungle with its even more fearless explorers. While the British Empire later receded, its words and culture stayed behind and today, all around the world people speak, read and write English. That’s the upside.

The greatest downside to being English is that no matter where you go in the world, nobody knows the word “spelk”. Whether you find yourself in the middle of a large, sprawling bookstore in London or a remote, deserted pub in New York, the people look at you with a strange look and ask “what’s a spelk?”

A “spelk” for those not in the know, is the Geordie word for a splinter. A Geordie – for those who find themselves increasingly not being in the know – is a person born and bred in Newcastle Upon Tyne, a large city in North East England.

Whenever I meet a fellow Englishman abroad a question usually arrives quickly and predictably enough “Where abouts in England are you from?” Once answered the next comment is even more predictable. “You don’t sound like you’re from Newcastle.” England is a melting pot of accents and dialects. By simply traveling 20 miles you can find yourself in a place with a completely new set of words and speech. Some cities are well known around the country for their accents. Birmingham has the brummy accent, east London the cockney and one of the most famous of all is the Geordie.

Other Englishmen gasp in disbelief when they learn I’m a Geordie. My accent doesn’t meet their expectations of what a Geordie should sound like. Imagine you’re talking to a French person. Ow do zay zound? Do zay zound like zis? Probably. Our expectations of people from other places are based on stereotypes and when expectations aren’t met people often won’t reappraise their thoughts and disbelieve those stereotypes, but instead look for loopholes. In my case the loophole being “You’re not a proper Geordie…”

Sadly I’ve even heard this from other Geordies who seem to believe in their own stereotype. These are the people that if they were French would walk around wearing a beret and a string of garlic around their neck, pointing at those that don’t follow suit while snarling “Zoo iz not French.”

Upon arriving in Canada and meeting foreign English speakers people would hear my accent and quickly guess where I was from. Scotland, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, Germany (?!). Rarely do people guess England. In England, people base their expectations on regional stereotypes. Abroad, people base their expectations on national stereotypes. I’m of the opinion that every foreigner expects an Englishman to sound like Hugh Grant or Keira Knightley. Upon learning I’m English, foreigners are usually shocked and there’s no way for them to argue with it, they can hardly say “You’re not a proper Englishman”. The truth of the matter is that we Englishmen come in so many varieties that there is no proper version of us, just the one version we have chosen to export to the world, the version that is the easiest to understand and makes the most sense. Because most English accents make little sense, even to other people in England!

In Canada even the most well traveled of people would find my accent hard to handle due to their being unaccustomed to the variety of British accents. After moving into a new house, my housemate had a few torturous weeks of asking me to repeat everything two or three times until suddenly it clicked and he could understand me. I was speaking English, just not an English he was used to.

When we listen, we don’t listen at all, we just sit back with our brain asleep and we lazily read between the lines based on the context of the conversation. “Would you like a cup of tea?” is simply shortened down by the brain into “Tea?”(Fuck, maybe I am a stereotypical Englishman after all…) “Would you like milk with that?” turns to “Milk?” The brain knows the context so only needs to listen for the important content. The main issue comes when either the context changes quickly or the content needs more focus to understand.

Have you ever been having a conversation with somebody and they’ve said something and you instantly say “Sorry?” But by the time they’ve started to repeat themselves you’ve already figured out what they’ve said? Your brain wasn’t focusing the first time it heard the words and since you weren’t really focusing on the conversation (not really thinking deeply about the topic) you’ve automatically continued the dialogue with a “what?” By the time that word has left your lips a red flag has gone up in your brain saying “ERROR – Didn’t hear” and your brain repeats the words in your head, listening to them carefully the second time and figuring out what has actually been said. A type of instant replay in the brain.

When we speak we build rapport with others, we talk at their volume, at their speed, we almost share the same emotions. Rapport is a key way for the brain to know how to listen (or not listen), it knows how the sound will come so it doesn’t need to focus on those things. This isn’t only shared between two people, but also in groups. We subconsciously build rapport to make communication easier. Ever been in a loud room where everybody is talking loudly having a variety of conversations, then all of a sudden every conversation has gone silent at the exact same moment. That’s a room full of rapport.

But when meeting a person with a strange new accent it can be nigh on impossible to build rapport. The brain wants to be lazy, trying again to work out what is said through context, but without focus the words aren’t words but simply sounds, and those sounds go in one ear and out of the other. It’s a problem I’ve encountered constantly while traveling in Canada and America. Often when a person doesn’t understand what I’m saying they will just smile and nod, we’ve all done it, after all its impolite to ask somebody to constantly repeat themselves.

And so I can find myself in a country where everybody is fluent in English but I am unable to communicate in English. I do everything I can to combat confusion. Speak slowly, try not to use slang, keep it simple. Unfortunately this also takes focus and I can often find myself falling back into my quick, mumbled Geordie accent. Often this can lead to misunderstandings if somebody mishears me. The incorrect order at a cafe or a completely different answer to the question I asked. Sometimes these possible misunderstandings fill me with anxiety, making me fear somebody has heard me say one thing when I’ve said the opposite.

In Vancouver you get on the bus at the front, then get off at the back – this helps to keep the passengers flowing at every stop. Since Canadians are so polite (stereotype?) they will often call a thank you from the back of the bus when they exit. This presents a problem for me. For a start, I’ve never learnt how to pronounced words with a “th” instead opting for “fff”. As an example I say “happy birfday”. Now the problem occurs when calling “Thank you” it becomes “Fank you.” Shout it out loud.

To the untrained ear it could very easily sound like “Fuck you!” Bus drivers across Vancouver would no doubt start to talk about the strange passenger that swears whenever he leaves the bus. I was so mortified about this possible misunderstanding that I decided to not bother with thanks at all, until I came up with a solution. Instead of saying “fanks”, I would say “hanks”. It was genius. The word “hanks” could only ever be mistaken for “thanks” and little else. If anything bus drivers would simply take pity on the young man with the speech impediment. Bless him and his “hanks”.

Now I find myself in Thailand where English is barely understood, but understood enough to be bearable. Problems only arise when you’re met with a situation that is more complex than simply pointing at a food menu. I recently found myself ordering a meal from a street food vendor and as the cook was making it another tourist came along “That looks good.” He pointed at the food “Same same!” I took a seat and watched as moments later the tourist walked away with my meal.

In this situation there was no way for me to find out what was going on. Was my meal coming later? Did the cook think the tourist was me and that was the only meal that was going to get made? How would I communicate all of this? Well I tell you what I did, the next time the waiter passed I tapped him on the shoulder and simply shouted the name of the meal at him, pointed at the cook, pointed at my table. “Pad Thai! Pad Thai! Pad Thai!” I hoped he somehow understood and realised he didn’t when a few minutes later a completely different meal arrived. Only now in retrospect do I realise the absurdity of the situation. How would the waiter have felt in an English restaurant if I had tapped him on the shoulder and shouted randomly over and over. “Beef burger! Beef burger! Beef burger!”

So it seems that the only place in the world I can ever fully be understood is in Newcastle. Where people know what the word “spelk” means and where I can happily stop listening and barely focus on conversations. With this in mind then, it makes no sense why I’ve decided to travel to South Korea to teach English to children. Good luck to those children. Even when you’re raised in England nobody can understand you!

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5 thoughts on “Speaking English”

  1. I once spent ages in a restaurant in Dallas, Texas, trying to convey to the waiter that all I wanted to drink with my meal was a glass of water. The more slowly, carefully and distinctly I pronounced it, the more confused he got. I wanted to scream ‘out of a bloody tap!’ but then he probably wouldn’t have known what a ‘tap’ was either. I guess I should have said ‘Wah-durr’, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
    My then husband and I lived in Dallas for four years in the late 80s, and were usually taken for Australians because of our accents (bog-standard south-eastern English).

    1. Yeah, I’ve often had problems when asking for water because I pronounce it “wo-ah”, thinking about it..it’s kind of understandable why people are often confused with that one because the Geordie pronunciation of it is terrible. I also seem to constantly have problems with the word banana in the US because they pronounce it bah-nay-nah and I pronounce it bah-nar-nah. The list of problem words is endless, if there was something called “banana water” I’d probably never get a chance to try it!

  2. Great read. I totally understand where you’re coming from, being a Geordie myself. I’ve spent a lot of time in Peru over the last few years, and it’s true when speaking with other travellers, Europeans who speak English as a second language or Peruvians I have to dumb my English down, speak slowly and clearly and avoid Geordie, but yeah I too find I need to do that with posh kids from London and other parts of the UK. I also get that ‘ oh you don’t sound like a Geordie’. But I suppose if you speak in toned down English for long enough you will lose it a little. It’s funny how your accent comes back quite quick if you Skype home and talk to friends or family. I’m learning Spanish now, I just wish Peruvians had fhe same consideration for me when we talk Spanish! No dumbing down for them, if anything sometimes i think they speed up and use more slang on purpose to confuse me more!

    1. Strangely, I often find that people who speak English as a second language are better at understanding me. My guess is that this is because since English isn’t their first language they have to focus more on conversations, they don’t have the same problems mentioned in the blog post because they are actually listening to the conversation properly in an attempt to understand what is being said. It’s just a theory though. I definitely find my Geordie coming back quickly on Skype, or when I’m incredibly mad. Sometimes you just can’t help shouting “Haw man!”

  3. The whole message is illustrated by some of the Africans educated in orphanages run by Scottish missionaries up north, They learnt very good English, but with a broad Scots accent. Now, I can understand a Scotsman. My brain would go on strike, though, when having exactly the same sort of speech coming from a cheerful black face. I found a similar confusion once in what seemed like any typical Indian-run shop locally. Only this one was in Glasgow, and the owner had the local accent.

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