>London and English as a Foreign LanguagePosted: September 24, 2010
London lived up to every expectation. But was I expecting to find ladies in high-collared dresses with hand muffs hopping into horse-drawn carriages? No, of course not. While London is not yet filled with the zombies from Shaun of the Dead, it has progressed past the era of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Nor was I expecting to find tall, Oxford-esque stone buildings topped with spires on every street. No, I had seen too many friends’ pictures, and watched Love Actually enough to know that this was not the case. Did I expect to go dancing on rooftops with chimney sweeps, my face decorated in soot? Not really. I figured that sort of thing did not happen too often, and if it did, I was sure the tour would have charged a fortune. Was I expecting to take a stroll hand in hand with Hugh Grant through Notting Hill? . . . Okay so it didn’t live up to every expectation.
The expectations I did have, though, were met and exceeded. The streets were busy with red double-decker buses, fast-paced pedestrians, the occasional cyclist, and taxi-cabs that for some reason look cute with their smallish, rounded bodies. The sights were phenomenal, from Ben Ben, the Tower of London, the Tower Bridge over the Thames at dusk to the London Eye, Greenwich Park and the Prime Meridian line. On the advice of a friend, a local Londoner, I went and had curry in Brick Lane, which is a very hip sort of bohemian area of town with a slew of Indian and Pakistani restaurants, sometimes called “the curry mile”. Also on my friend’s recommendation, I saw Buckingham Palace and then walked through St. James Park and past the famous Downing Street on my way to Trafalgar Square. On a different walk, I strolled through Hyde Park seeing the Princess Diana memorial fountain and Royal Albert Hall and on up to the Marble Arch. I even got to see the Rosetta Stone in the British museum. I also saw Camden Town, the markets, the nightlife, a comedy show, the Tate-Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe . . . phew! The list of things to do in London is virtually never ending.
The best thing about Britain though, is the Brits! The people entertained me to no end, with that infamously quick wit and their impressive ability to keep a straight face while I dissolve into fits of laughter. That wonderful accent never gets old either. There are loads of different British accents too. Brits can even pick out where another Brit is from sometimes, based solely on listening to the accent. Having recently read Eliza Doolittle’s story in Pygmalion, this phenomenon completely intrigued me.
|Phone Booth in St. James Park|
It is also really fun to get British people talking about all the little differences from American English. The trunk of a car is the ‘boot.’ The trash can is the ‘rubbish bin.’ You don’t go for a beer at your regular bar. Instead you go for ‘a pint at your local (pub).’ Instead of saying you would like to have a cup of coffee, you say that you would “fancy a cup of tea.” Cookies are ‘biscuits.’ Personally, I take issue with this last one, calling cookies “biscuits,” but pronouncing the “H” in ‘herbs’ does kind of makes sense. Inevitably though, if you argue with a British person about any of these differences, they will fall back on one argument, “We created the language!” While this is true, it is at this point that I like to remind them that American English has perfected it by teaching them proper use of words such as, “awesome,” “cool,” and “like.” This comment usually incites an uproar, either of laughter or outrage. Another fun game is to mimic each other’s accents. When I’m not too shy, I do a pretty good Londoner accent which they find hilarious and I can not help but to giggle when they try on an American accent.
|The market at Brick Lane|
The English language is really something, isn’t it? After having traveled through countries that spoke Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, Italian, Dutch, German, and French, I found it amazing to be in a foreign country, where I could speak my own language. While it is true, you can usually get by anywhere if you speak English (especially in the Netherlands!) there is something important about communicating with other native speakers. You can share humor, understand complex explanations, and get sarcasm. Sure — fluent, non-native speakers can do this too, but for entire groups of people, and countries that speak the same language, I think it provides for a much deeper understanding of a different culture. Perhaps this is also true in some capacity for France and Francophone Africa, Spain and Latin America, or Portugal and Brazil.
|That’s the Prime Meridian! Set your clocks!|
But on the other hand, understanding the local language sometimes made me too comfortable while in London. Occasionally I had to remind myself that this was still a foreign country and pretend for a bit that I was not a native speaker. Doing this gave me an interesting perspective on the place and my travels, although it is difficult to explain.
Imagine ordering a Cornish pasty (a food akin to a Hot Pocket, except that it’s delicious) from a vendor in the tube station but doing it in a foreign language, the trepidation you would feel as though you were trying to order dumplings speaking elementary Chinese. Imagine getting ripped-off for an entire day’s worth of travel on your Oyster card (metro card) and having to explain the situation in a second language. Imagine seeing tons of young British people out and about on a Friday night in Oxford Circus and being able to recognize that they are having fun, but not being able to understand what they are laughing about, or only catching a random word here and there. Imagine taking a tour of Parliament (a really phenomenal tour actually) and looking at it with the same foreign incredulousness that you might have when touring the Taj Mahal. I don’t have any earth-shattering conclusions here, it was really just an exercise in perspective. It astounds me how important language is, the dimension it brings to any interaction, the divide it can create, as well as the bridge.
|Tower Bridge over the Thames|
We native English speakers are certainly privileged to live in a world where English is quickly becoming the default language for many aspects of business, academics and international affairs. I am of the opinion that we should not take this for granted, and instead of accepting our language as the only one necessary, make the effort to learn other languages, as many as possible. Of course, we cannot conceivably learn ALL the languages, as much as I would like to. But no matter where you go, you should always, always learn how to say “thank you.” On this trip, I have gotten to use all of these:
Shokran. Toda. Tesekkurler. Epharisto. Gratzie. Dank je wel. Danke schon. Merci beaucoup. Thank you.
Speaking of ‘thank you’s at the conclusion of this incredible adventure, traveling through the Middle East and Europe, I wanted to end with a few big ones. First I want to thank the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh for taking me on as their intern abroad and giving me this venue to share my thoughts and adventures. Obviously, I also want to thanks my parents and family for all their love, support and cash. (Traveling in Europe is expensive!) And a huge thanks to all of my old friends I got to visit along the way, who put me up and/or showed me around their city as well as all of the strangers turned friends, who welcomed me into their lives. It was a truly unforgettable summer, and was only possible because of all of you.
|Me and my friends David and Sarah in Trafalgar Square|
~Marie DeAeth, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, Intern Abroad