English as she is spoke

by Kathrin Verhoefe

When I was a young girl, growing up in Germany, my mother told me “if you want people to like you, first they must understand you”. So she appealed to my rampant narcissism to get me through all my language homework. And there was a lot of it, because I studied English, Spanish, French and Dutch. I smiled smugly imagining all the people that would like me.

And when I was eighteen I went on holiday to France with some friends, et voila! The French boys understood me, and they – or at least Phillipe, the tall, shy boy with eyelashes longer than mine – liked me. My mother was proven correct. As we said our tearful goodbyes and exchanged contact details, I knew that I would continue with my language studies. There was a whole world out there to – I was going to say conquer, but being German people misconstrue that. Let’s stick with explore.

And so at University I added Mandarin to my studies, along with Fine Art. This was my dream, to be an international art consult, to flit from gallery to gallery telling rich people what to buy. Given the vast numbers of people who spoke Mandarin, it seemed an obvious choice. But I kept up my other languages. Oh yes, I was young, and convinced that the entire world was destined to love me.

Don’t worry. I got taught a few lessons outside of University.

I travelled to Amsterdam and discovered that while people understood me well enough, they weren’t really interested in me, or what I had to offer. I travelled to Barcelona and I ate and drank the art, but I didn’t feel at home.

And so I found myself, aged twenty-three, arriving in England. This should be easy, I thought. I caught the train to a rainy Manchester, and walked the few blocks to my “B’n’B”.

“Love a duck!” my landlady exclaimed.

“They’re alright,” I faltered back, unsure of the correct response.

“It’s bucketing down out there,” she continued, gesturing out the window.

I followed her gesture. I looked at the rain. There were definitely no ducks in it. I said nothing though. In the days that followed I learned a whole new language. I learned that one could be in a tight spot, or at a loose end, but usually not at the same time. I learned that things could be “a fine state of affairs” and that was a bad thing. And, as I started to learn this new English, I began to unlearn a lot of things. I stopped talking in proper sentences. I abbreviated my had nots to hadn’ts. My vocabulary increased exponentially, with “lairy”, “bairns” and “malarkey” being a few of the new entries I cherished.

keep-calm-and-love-a-duck-5

I learned a few other words I daren’t mention here, suffice to say Urban Dictionary became a useful tool, and I learned to pick up on social cues of smiling and nodding, when to laugh, and when to look disapproving – all while surreptitiously googling a new phrase never before heard of.

But the good news is, after two years in England, I very seldom have to pull out the phone. I’m starting to feel confident that I finally do know English – not the “English” of books, but the English of the people.

Which is a relief, because I’m off to the US in a few months. George Bernard Shaw was supposed to have said that “The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language”. But I think I’ve now got the tools to bridge the gap. I can walk up to a Texan, look him in the eye, and say “wotcher mate, fancy coming up mine for a cuppa and a bit of larks?” That’ll work, right?

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3 Responses to “English as she is spoke”

  1. Oh I am so following this blog as you take on Texas. Cor blimey, yer a bit of all right (see, I’m a polyglot too). Just wish you’d come via Scotland first because English, well, a bit of a thin language, them down south try to make it interesting but Scottish adds *real* flavour.

  2. I have spent a little time in Scotland, and yes, your English there is truly spicy! Thank you, I’ll try to report back from Texas, once I’ve wowed them with my grasp of their language 😀

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