SPEAKING IN TONGUES.
I was incredibly fortunate to have worked my very first stint as a translator at the age of 16. People from 104 countries were in attendance; I got a unique opportunity to listen to all kinds of English inside one week, daily. True, I previously had a vague idea about the various versions of the language I studied picked up from my school lessons. They spoke as I believed Queen’s English in the UK, a totally different one with lots of “r” sound in the USA, and every Canadian spoke English and French fluently. I was a bit hazy about Australia and New Zealand though I knew the expression “No sweat” from a Dick Francis novel. My knowledge of India came from the only Bollywood film I had seen. Madagascar came as a complete surprise. And all in all it was the very first time I could observe people from so many countries converse freely using English as their main tool of communication. It was a great learning experience which still serves me well.
At a recent large conference with over a thousand participants, I watched scientists from all over the globe speak English with each other regardless of the country they came from. Any large group which formed in the hallways and outside the main venue after the sessions, around the dinner tables might consist of a dozen nationalities, yet there was never any difficulty in understanding and discussion. I would note that very rarely another little obstacle appeared. Though everybody spoke the same scientific lingo, MRI is the area which includes physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, genetics, mathematics… The list is ever-growing. Once in a while someone would ask a short question to clarify the meaning or inquire about the details of an experiment conducted in a different branch of science.
Any conference, any talk with my own former students brings up the same topic which is not directly connected to science and research. All of us non-native speakers studied English as a subject. We learned a generic version which is understood by most native speakers, and by anybody who also studied it, so there are no problems when you come to a lab in any country and encounter people of different nationalities who work together. But quite often difficulties arise when you first arrive and begin actually using the language you “have already learned” on a daily basis. What are the most common observation and complaint? My former student, a very talented young man, said that when he started his work at a lab in the USA, he could not understand American English at all. It differed greatly from anything he listened to while at school; what is more, it also differed from the speech he diligently listened to when watching various movies and TV shows while still at home in his native country. Why? Because, I explained to him, there are as many variants, dialects et cetera in the UK and the USA as there exist in any other country. The Southern twang, the new unfamiliar intonations, the specific expressions common for the region all combined to cause the feeling of despair. As a school student, I remember reading an Agatha Christie novel. I marveled at one phrase: “Yes”, she said in pure transatlantic nasal”. I wondered how one could pronounce the word “yes” so that it sounded nasal, and then I heard it during my very first job.
Yes, there are lots of ways Americans speak English. The British pronounce it differently too, depending on where they come from. The famous “burr” which I heard from Sir Arthur Charles Clark stemmed from his Somerset origins; the total absence of the sound “r” even in words like “iron” usually shows that the person speaks RP, received pronunciation common for very educated people. Australian sounds a bit like stylized London cockney speech from “My Fair Lady”. In New Zealand, it seemed to me that they had diphthongs even where there were none, so that even the country’s name sounded like “Zayland”, not “Zeeland”. With the ever-growing mobility, chances are that the English we hear today is even more varied than it was a few years ago. I notice that when British young people speak for instance, their intonations are totally different from the ones I learned as a student; they seem to be more abrupt and energetic. The sounds are still the same. This is a natural process. Any language is a living breathing organism, it is constantly developing.
So you come to a new country, to a new lab – and find out that you have trouble understanding your colleagues. No need to despair. If unsure, ask. There is no charge for asking a question. “Can you please repeat it?” Check the spelling. Find the time to train yourself. Listen to any modern songs and sing with the recording, it’s a good tongue and ear training exercise. Go to YouTube, enter, say, Texas speech into Search and listen carefully to any audio you find. Do people understand you? Sure they do. It means that your own English is fine, you just need a little time to adjust to the new version of the spoken language. Never apologize for your “mistakes”. Remember that the people you work with do not speak your language; they are glad that you speak theirs well enough to explain what you are doing. The difficulty in understanding usually goes away after the first couple weeks provided you spend some time on your own language skills.
If you have a good relationship with your teacher of English, contact them, explain your current difficulties. Surprisingly, many teachers are good methodologists; they may come up with solutions which would not occur to you. The most useful and the most difficult lesson I have to teach my students is this: if you need something done for your work, do it yourself. NOBODY will conduct your experiments; this is your post-doctorate research or Master’s course. Nobody will pass your exams, take your tests for you. In the same way, NOBODY can learn the variant of English you currently need but you. It does not mean that you have to forget what you learned at school and university and try to speak like the Texans or the Australians do. All you need is to get attuned to their cadences, and learn to really hear what they are saying.
I took several photos of Aarhus through the Rainbow Gallery windows. Since the gallery is created in all the colors of the spectrum, some views look totally weird and even extra-terrestrial. But they are views of the same city, just seen in an unaccustomed light. The English you hear is still the same language you learned.