The languages we speak

August 07, 2012

The languages we speak

One of the requirements of volunteering here is that you must be able to speak conversational English. So there are volunteers here from Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Finland, Czech Republic, Sweden, England, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland and the U.S.

As you might expect you must speak a bit more deliberately and clearly with those with whom English is not a first language. Although most that come literally come to have a place to practice their English, they are pleased to have others to speak in their first language. Often we get into discussions of how words are used, and as what part of speech a word may be used. Literally one day we were diagramming sentences on a white board, a skill that I thought would be as useful as algebra. My favourite is the simple, descriptive phrases they use, for example one of my colleagues had witnessed a bit of a confrontation between two people, and said “there was a bit of hot air between them." Not how I may have said it, but spot on accurate. Yesterday I took a bit of a spill in the kitchen, and ungraciously landed on my butt. My friend asked "Are you alright or do I need to hold you?" Not actually the correct phrase, but the sentiment was appreciated.

Interestingly enough there seems to be as much difficulty in understanding the various forms of accents among those whose first language is English. The Scots words and accents from Glasgow and Aberdeen are particularly difficult for those unaccustomed to them in conversation. One morning a friend said he was going to pop out for a quick fag, and the third person in the room was aghast. "What did he say?" she asked. While initially I was going to answer flippantly, I suddenly realized she had understood what he said; she did not understand what he meant. "He's going to have a cigarette,” I responded. So I have become a translator from English to English. My skills are not always needed, so I have to wait for sudden awkward pauses in conversations, and that is my cue that the hearer did not comprehend what the other English speaker has said.

It has become a funny thin place.