Talking like a local

This article found its way into my Facebook feed and brought a smile to my face, and memories of the sounds and phrases I no longer hear living where I do now – though there is undoubtedly a very distinctive accent round these parts too. And just a couple of weeks ago I found myself reading the discussion about English accents that got going among several bloggers.

imageLanguage fascinates me and it always has – I think I gave that much away about myself with Friday’s post on finding the Lingo, Lingo, Lingo book just written for me!

I can still picture five-year-old me trying to puzzle out the Russian my dad was learning at evening classes. The alphabet wasn’t the one I’d been learning at school but it intrigued me. Intrigued me so much that I went on to take Russian as part of my BA studies. I’ve also had a go at other languages with different scripts: Mandarin, Japanese and Hebrew to date.  And, right now, I’d love to be able to read Urdu, Arabic and Farsi.

But although my first fascination was with a strange-looking alphabet, I was soon mesmerised by the reality of crossing European borders and trying to work out how people living barely a mile apart could live and speak completely different languages. Six-year-old me stood on the border between Germany and France trying to get my little head around this great big fascinating mystery.

The opportunity to study linguistics as well as modern languages helped me to understand language in greater depth. And as an adult, I’ve continued to grab any and every opportunity to learn (bits of) other languages. Language still fascinates me – it always will. Yet I sometimes wonder if I’ve missed out because I’m a native speaker of English. So often we hear how Brits are hopeless at languages, and yet my own experience of using the other languages I know has at times been very frustrating.

I’m not perfectly fluent in any other language but I can get by in a few of the ones I’ve learned. I can understand enough and make myself understood with a lot of effort and a good deal of patience on both sides of the conversation. But I’ve also had so many experiences of starting out in the local lingo and hearing the response come back in English far more faltering than my own very imperfect attempt in the other language.

Over the years I’ve thought about these experiences, and I find myself wondering if it might be because native speakers of English get quite used to hearing their own language spoken with heavy accents and grammar mistakes but have come to realise that communication is still possible. This is much less likely to be true of speakers of those languages rarely learned by foreigners. And it must be even more the case if the person being spoken to has rarely encountered a foreigner trying to speak their language before.

I wonder what experience other people have had of this? Whatever your native language, has your accent ever led you into any interesting, or even frustrating, conversational situations?

What are your thoughts?

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