“Nationality is a construct!” I exclaim in my native language of English as I sip milky breakfast tea from a bone china cup. I am reading Harry Potter and by my elbow is a replica of the Elgin Marbles and a diamond the size of my head that I ripped from the sub-continent of India without asking nicely. I gesture wildly as I describe my take on Marmite and my Union Jack purse slips from the table. Thousands of pound coins spill out and my continental cafe mates seem appalled by the Queen’s face, replicated so many times on sterling. I try to explain to them how a monarchy is different from religious autocracy as I scoop our divine head of state back into my pockets.
There’s no hiding it. I’m British. Worse than that, I’m English. Even worse than that– I’m a middle-class English expat who has the temerity to pretend my nationality doesn’t imply a lot of different flavours of privilege.
One of the greatest gifts my British passport implies is that English is my native language. Lads, I speak English really well. I’m not going to claim I’ve mastered the language – preferring others to make that claim for me – but I do have a certain grip on it. Living in the Czech Republic has made me realise what an advantage this is – if I weren’t raised speaking English, I’d have to learn it, and that seems like a real ballache. English is dumb and none of the words sound the way they look. I’m so glad I don’t have to engage with the lengthy and disgusting process of reaching B2 level.
My Czech and Slovak friends are angels who mostly speak to me in Czech and Slovak, knowing that I moved to Prague to improve my knowledge of Czech and Slovak. This is especially angelic of them since the vast, vast, vast majority of them (read: literally all of them) speak English better than I speak Czech. Sometimes, though, moments occur when their carefully crafted Czech and Slovak sentences won’t permeate my thick English skull, and the long-suffering dears have to resort to telling me something in English.
Some of my friends have really weird English, absorbed from strange, irregular sources. Occasionally they’ll come out with a phrase or a piece of vocab that hits my ear like train hitting a bag of feathers. “My angel,” I will exclaim, reeling from the shock of it, “where did you get that from?” Humans are sponges, and the more weird sources of language you expose yourself to, the weirder your language will be.
Here’s my list of the worst places to suck up English from.
It’s one of the most deeply unfair and upsetting facts of life that the most interesting ways of learning languages give you the most awkward and clunky idiosyncrasies. Just imagine, for one second, how much you would instinctively hate someone who spoke like Tyrion from Game of Thrones.
Sure, you might try to tell yourself that it’s not because they’re pretentious – it’s because they’ve studies GRRM more than their New English File – but you wouldn’t be able to stop loathing taking root in your heart.
immersing yourself in a foreign culture
“Ro,” I hear you cry, “what are you saying? Surely immersing yourself in English culture is the best way to attain a high level of naturalistic English.” Well, hold your goddamn horses, reader. I mean immersing yourself in non-native English culture. As anyone who’s ever been on Erasmus knows, there’s a huge difference between native English and international English.
When groups of people from different nations across the world come together, the results can be beautiful: sharing perspectives, breaching cultural barriers, collaboration and confidence. However, the downside is that groups develop their own mini dialects where everyone speaks English slightly wrong. I’m no prescriptivist – language is a changing and fluid thing – but some of the weirdest English I’ve heard was born in the melting pot of EFL speakers coming together.
Sometimes my Czech and Slovak friends say to me, “Ro, I read your blog.”
And I say to them, “What did you think?”
And they say, “I had no idea what the fuck you were going on about.”
Honestly, though, I take that as praise.