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Student Blogs: An international student's experiences of navigating the English language

My English is good, they say. I have even got several pieces of paper to prove it. My IELTS result says that I am good enough to study at a British (or American, Australian as well as Canadian) university at a postgraduate level. I practice every day, I read every day, yet, almost on daily basis I learn that I have only begun to scratch the surface of this amazing language.

Take Lesson One of any English textbook. In Lesson One Mr Jones is asked how he is. He answers: “Fine.” Lesson One for an already fluent foreigner in Britain: this is, in fact, all you will ever need to know to answer that particular question. If, like me, you come from a culture where you are expected to actually give a proper reply to this query, you can find yourself, like me many years ago, in a peculiar situation when you are describing this wonderful movie you watched yesterday, while your counterpart is nervously glancing at his or her watch with a puzzled look on their faces. You think they are rude; they think you are weird!

After thirteen years of living in Britain, I can speak of this with a certain degree of authority. I am not embarrassed to admit to an incident during one of my early trips to the supermarket when I stood for thirty minutes in front of the rows of cheddar. I burst into tears because I had no idea there were more types than one, and could not decide which one to buy.

Or the number of times over the years when I would sit through conversations where I would understand every single word, yet the content would escape me. Everybody laughed because whatever they were saying was hilarious. I felt deeply uncomfortable. Of course, that must be because if you are not British, you can’t understand jokes, right? Well, before I am forced to provide irrefutable evidence that humour is a human, not a national condition, by publicly sticking my head into a huge cream cake, let me remind you of the unfortunate idiosyncratic feature of humour: it does not travel well. It is the highest poetry of any tongue; it requires abstract thinking, knowing and understanding double, triple and quadruple meanings of any word. Moreover, a deep and extensive knowledge of culture, history and social context are assumed before the joke is even created. That is why it can be such a struggle for a newcomer to this, or indeed any, country.

Besides, I would not have survived this long in Britain without the ability to laugh at my own failings, as I make a fool of myself on a regular basis. In your mother tongue, you are an adult but in your acquired language, you can feel like a child. You have to learn so much more than words and grammar. Moreover, British English is an intricate communication code that confuses even native speakers from other parts of the world (and I hope this is a consolation). It took me about three years to understand that when someone describes my writing as “different”, they don’t mean different; because different is good, different is original and surprising. What they intend to say is that in their view it is horrible but they are being polite. The time that passed between being told this “compliment” to actually grasping the full meaning of it, was so long that I forgot to feel offended...

There is so much more I could write about my daily wrestles on this entirely different planet called Britain with a landscape called “English.” Pass your first ten lessons, and it becomes a maze of poetry, hidden meanings, secrets and codes that only those born on this island get. I observe people with their smallest gestures, changes of tone in their speech, trying to detect the significance of their message. I have been accused of being blunt, abrupt and humourless. Do I mind?

Of course not. If you take a path of the great adventure of learning another tongue, you have to be ready to look like an idiot and be viewed by others as an idiot! Anyway, the biggest mistake I have made was not in English but in German. As a student during an exchange in the Black Forest, Germany, I told my stunned family that Czech University students lived in brothels. It led the German mum into a forty minute monologue on untold crimes of communist dictatorships. Trust me, students have always lived in students’ halls even during the hard, oppressive times. I just made a mistake, one tiny syllable.

Natalie is originally from Prague, Czech Republic. However, she has lived in the UK for a while with her British husband and two young sons. In her native country, she is a published author under the pen-name Natalie Nera. She starts a part-time Master's degree in Creative Writing this autumn at the University of Newcastle. You can find more information on Natalie, here.

Note: 'Student Blog' pieces highlight the student perspective on issues relating to ProtectED. Consequently, this article reflects the views of the author and not ProtectED.

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