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English as a Foreign Language

As a British English speaker in an American English environment, I arrive at new interactions knowing I will, first and foremost, be perceived as foreign. Some people will be curious as to my origins and ask me about it. Others won’t ask, but I can see they have made a mental note somewhere that I am not of this nation.  When I was new to the USA, I enjoyed the attention, being special. Five years later as a card carrying, permanent resident, my accent is not always a benefit.

When I need to speak to a stranger to accomplish a task, perhaps getting the car repaired, or talking to a  customer service representative on the phone, often the first sentence or two that I utter will remain unheard. The receiver will (sometimes visibly) be processing that I am not an American. I assume after the identification of “Not American” they move on to “Other English Speaker, which one?” and run through a quick list of “New Zealand? Australia? England?” There will then be a long pause where the other person realizes it’s their turn to speak, but they didn’t actually register what I said. After the pause I usually reiterate, with slightly different wording and more slowly, the same request.

I have strategies for avoiding this. I might include something throwaway or unimportant in the first few sentences, such as, “Hi, my name is Lucy. I’m calling from Albuquerque, New Mexico.” This gives them time to adjust. I have also resorted to assuming a bad American accent. I only risk this on more anonymous, administrative phone calls, when no-one else is physically present to overhear. It works, and I feel sad because surely a bad American accent shouldn’t be easier to comprehend than the Queen’s English, but sometimes you just want to get a bill paid.

Conversely I’m not always in control of how I sound to myself. Asking for “water” in a restaurant always results in confusion, so I have adjusted to saying “wah-der”. I have altered my vocabulary, not jumper, “sweater”, not loo, “restroom”. Some of these shortcuts used for comprehension have stuck. I’ll call a friend in the UK and use an American word. I feel embarrassed, as if I’m presenting them with the wrong person, an imposter. I’d prefer that I was always British English when speaking unselfconsciously but now even that requires effort. My language lives between two worlds, not entirely convincing to either party.

I am however, resolute in retaining as much of my accent as my expatriated life allows. I listen to the BBC radio to remember the idioms, the exclamations, the shapes and sounds of home. I wouldn’t want to lose my British English because the benefits have far outweighed the obstacles.  A favorite response to my accent was made by a stranger at a work luncheon. Grouped at tables of two or three, all chatting animatedly, an older gentleman ambled over to me. Leaning in conspiratorially he said, “I can’t stop listening to you. With your accent, everything you say sounds important.”

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