Saturday, May 19, 2007

From Special English to the Queen's English

I don’t think myself to be a stylized writer in any way, so I was amused to be questioned on my use of a certain idiom in my last post – “not a bit of.” Was I, my bemused reader asked, using this phrase in the American way, meaning “not much,” or in the British sense of “quite a bit?”

I’ll confess I haven’t been paying much attention to form or style in any of my writing lately (it’s enough just to get the words typed out most days), so I accept this observation as yet another mark of the slow evolution that seems to be happening in my personal phraseology and language.

I first noticed the beginning of change in my way of expressing myself on my trip back home last summer. I was engaged in an extended conversation with a friend in my hometown when I suddenly became conscious of a shift in the tone and tempo of my own speech to match my friend’s. I speak English with people of a variety of accents in my work, and I rarely feel any urge to match, say, a British pronunciation when speaking with a Brit, so I was surmised that the direction I was slipping was actually back towards what had once been a more “normal” place for me. I found it rather amusing that I could actually speak with a “northern Wisconsin” accent – and the fact that my current normal speech isn’t in that accent.

Then, during the training in these last few weeks, I was surprised to be assumed to be, again and again, not an American, but an Australian, by non-native English speakers attending our training course. At first I assumed this was by association as the vast majority of native English speakers there were, in fact, Australian. But then I began to notice that the other Americans that were there were, in fact, immediately recognized as American and at one point in particular, the Australians began remarking on the pronunciation and phraseology of one of the other Americans – one I would have labeled decidedly “Midwest” (i.e., generic) accent. I asked why they had never commented equally on my pronunciation. Several of them considered it, and then said that it was because I don’t talk like that. Not that I spoke like an Australian, mind you, but my speech just wasn’t remarkable.

So, maybe the way I talk, write, even think in English is changing. The most obvious influence on this would have to be the weeks, even months, at a time I go without speaking to true native speakers of English. And when I do speak to another native speaker, it’s rarely in Midwest American English. On a day-to-day basis, I speak Special English with my staff and translators. This was also marked by non-native speakers at the training who said they preferred to listen to my English as it was so clear to them – even at normal speeds I tend to pronounce my words more clearly and speak with a steadier pace and with a more even inflection. On a monthly basis or so, I speak good English with the ADRA Vietnamese staff and Argentinean country director in Hanoi, each with their own distinct idioms and phraseologies. I also have occasional (hopefully more frequent as time goes on) contact with expatriates in Hanoi – for now mainly British. And during these last few weeks, my English influences were almost all Australian and New Zealand.

The funny thing for me is how difficult it can be to actually SPEAK English with another native speaker. I often find the conversation goes too quickly – my accessible vocabulary is whittled down to essentials, so while I can understand everything going on, I have a lot of difficulty expressing myself clearly in return. I even find myself intimidated when going into a conversation that I won’t be able to keep up or represent myself in a clear and natural way.

There is another influence on my language – perhaps a little less obvious, but it’s definitely a strong one – radio and audiobooks. I am very happy with my satellite radio, which is most often tuned to NPR from the US and BBC from the UK. I suppose NPR does the most for keeping me on an American keel (otherwise I might have gone all Brit by now!), but my choice in audiobooks isn’t helping!

I am taking advantage of our online library source for downloading books for catching up on my classical literature. There’s a wide selection of classics, and I’m working my way through a slew of Charles Dickens and other mainline classics. I’ll save the literary commentary (other than the Count of Monte Cristo is FANTASTIC), but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that after hearing 18th and 19th century English day in and day out, I’m beginning to imitate it. It seems that I am slowly making a transition from Special English to the Queen's (or King's, depending on the period, I guess) English.

Which brings me back to the original idiom “not a bit.” After looking back at the post, I did use it in the British way, meaning “not a little bit” or “much.” So, everybody I met has a lot of pride in that little big island off the coast of Madagascar, and in any language or dialect – I completely agree!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just wait until you come back to the U.S.! I was only gone for two years but still have a hard time pulling vocabulary words out of my brain when I'm speaking. My normal speed of speaking has returned though - I think. - Ali