Thursday, 18 September 2014

Ten things English learners find annoying, infuriating, or just plain weird about the English

Having to live abroad, for whatever reason, is a major challenge for anyone. It's all very well to talk about assimilating into the local community, but in practice it's often easier just to find people from one's own culture and skulk indoors, pining for familiar foods and TV programmes. Well, that's an ex-pat TEFLer's lot a lot of the time, anyway.
You may be familiar with the notion of Culture Shock: It's the series of emotions one goes through over a period of time as you become accustomed to living in a different culture, from surprise and charm ('Look at all these live animals in this open air market! I must Instagram this!'), to shock ('They're going to do WHAT to this dog?'), to disgust ('I am NOT eating THAT. But I'll Instagram it'), to ennui ('Oh for God's sake. Dog Stew AGAIN') and finally to acceptance ('Hmm. This dog stew could do with a little more pepper and chili. I'll Instagram it anyway.')
Wherever you go in the world, things are done differently - and it's often the seemingly innocuous things that are more likely to grate upon the soul.
What about students coming to the UK? What do they find most difficult to get their heads around? This isn't a definitive list by any means, but it's the things that pop up from my students all the time. In no particular order:

1) Saying 'Alright?' as a way of greeting, or saying 'How are you?' and not waiting for the answer

    Students are either bemused or infuriated by this, or both (befuriated, anyone?), and it simply comes down the fact that both seem to the language learner to be expressions of concern, rather than another way of saying hello. The stock responses, 'oh, not bad, not bad', and 'mustn't grumble' are also a good way of confusing students.

2) Saying 'Please' and 'Sorry' ALL THE TIME

    While most languages have cognates for both words, very few cultures use them with the same enthusiastic frequency that British people do. What is possibly the oddest UK trait is the tendency to say sorry for something that is very clearly someone else's fault, as in 'Sorry, you appear to have knocked one of my teeth out whilst you were enthusiastically waving your hand around', or 'Your pointy stiletto heel appears to have pierced my foot as you stepped back in this overheated, crowded lift. Sorry.'

3) Avoiding looking at someone you know until you're really close to them

    Students are perplexed at the habit of people who, when they sight someone they know at a distance, will then engage in a strange gavotte of movements that mean they never lock eyes on their acquaintance until the very last second, at which point they let out a slightly too eager greeting, such as 'Gosh! Hello! Fancy seeing you here!'

4) The intonation sounds false and actorly

     Ask students their opinions about the English and one thing that tends to come up sooner or later is that we are two faced. Partly this is to do with the way the average Brit hedges their bets when giving an opinion, e.g. 'it's quite good', i.e. it's bloody fantastic, or 'it was interesting', i.e. it was bloody awful. There's an awful lot of linguistic decoding necessary to work your way through this semantic minefield, and it's not helped by the fact that the range of intonation in English is remarkably wide. Our high notes, when expressing surprise, shock or just asking questions are very high, and our low notes, when bringing a sentence to an end or when Jeremy Clarkson wants to add an ironic coda to his sentences, are very low. To many non-native speakers, this can sound incredibly artificial.

5) The number of accents

I say! 
 This really is a problem for almost everybody who comes to the UK. Most language learners who began their English lessons ar school would generally only experience the kind of accent that you'd associate with a Chap from the 1950s in possession of a Brylcreemed head and a strangulated testicular hernia. Imagine the horror when they arrive here, ask a question such as, 'Excuse me, Can you tell me where is the station, please?' and are faced with the linguistic car crash of 'Aye hen, yasee ower thier, ye tek the lef, then hang a right asfaa as the busstop, do a rightdoon thastepsan go aboot tooorthree hundred yards thenyullseeyit'.
The UK is a truly extraordinary place in terms of the range of accents you encounter - just going along the M4 from London to Cardiff shows you how different the way we speak is.

6) Carpets in the bathroom

mmm, hygienic..
  The look of disgust and horror my learners' faces show at this strange quirk of ours says it all really. Seriously though, who ever thought that it was a good idea to have carpets next to a toilet?

7) Wearing shoes indoors

    Many of my learners are surprised by the tendency we Brits have to wear shoes indoors, until they try taking their own shoes off. They quickly realise that unless you have feet containing lava, you quickly freeze from the bottom up. Having said that....

8) Babies wearing virtually no clothes, even in winter

    Every single one of my students has commented on this at one stage or another. They look aghast at the fact that every baby they see on the streets seems to have as few layers on as possible. That and the fact that their mothers all seem to be 16 years old and overweight.

9) Needing a licence for a TV

Students are, at first, genuinely puzzled by this weird bit of legislation. I occasionally, for want of some amusement, tell them that they need to sit a test before they're allowed to watch TV. Some learners get genuinely annoyed, too, especially when I tell them that they still need a licence even if they're watching via their PCs or tablets.

10) GPs and Paracetamol

"Your leg's fallen off and you have TB-have some Paracetamol"
Almost every one of my students has complained about this at one time or another - 'I went to the GP, I had a cold, he said to me "take Paracetamol"!' A lot of students don't bother with registering at a surgery because of this - I have one learner who makes regular trips back to Paris to consult her own doctor. However, those who have had serious health issues have never had anything bad to say about the care they've received. I think it's just the frontline care they find a little difficult.

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