Speaking English: do English people allow themselves to speak?

I love to discuss stereotypes and observe people. Two years ago, when I moved to London, I had my own little baggage of stereotypes. English people are stuck up; the French are flirtatious and the German square. Here I am in London, very square and flirtatious indeed, because I am German and French. I started doing my share of participant observation on this strange island. One of my main research topics? How people are speaking English, and what it reveals about them. Although stereotypes are partly accurate, they also massively oversimplify. Do the English allow themselves to speak? Are they just stuck up, or is there more to it than that?

Speak your mind

I my humble opinion, English people rarely say what they think. They talk around the pot (a German idiom). They mask their genuine thoughts behind well-formed sentences shrouded in clouds of polite twists, euphemisms and irony. If you talk to a ‘stereotypical’ English person, you’ll need a decoder. Bear in mind: I allow myself to say this because I developed a deep fondness for this country, its people, and made many great friends. All of it despite communication obstacles!

Speaking English: a universal language

As a trilingual person, people often ask me if I think different situations in different languages. And I do! I count in German; swear and complain in French; preferably talk about the weather in English (oh sweet clichés). English is grammatically relatively simple and practical. Historically, English-speakers were merchants, therefore the goal of English language is to communicate efficiently.

Thanks to colonialism? Capitalism? Globalisation? It has imposed itself as a universal language, in business as well as in academics. Funnily enough, the French still think their language has the same status, which is not the case since the early 19th century. The English vocabulary is very rich. Often there are two words with different connotations which describe the same thing. The reason for this is the variety of roots of the English language, which include Latin and Germanic.

The stiff upper lip

So how is it that the English language, practical, diverse and on point as it is, is not enough for English people to express themselves? This is where I come back to my main stereotype: being stuck up. But you cannot dismiss English peculiarities with just that. Again, with lots of love and fondness, I don’t think it is just about being stuck up. It is also about inherent social awkwardness and constraints.

Here is why. As a continental European, I give a hug or kisses on the cheek to greet someone. Sometimes both if I’m confused about what to go for because of the constant gallo-germanic struggle inside me. This video exemplifies my dilemma quite well. To me, such a gesture acknowledges another person’s presence and engages contact. To an Englishman, it is an invasion of personal space. Even a simple “I like you!” triggers a chain of thoughts and emotions that are impossible to process. The result: plain awkwardness.

Awkwardness à l’Anglaise

I was prepared for people who struggle to express emotions or reaching a conversational level that goes beyond the weather (although a very controversial topic, I have to admit). But I was also told, and eventually experienced, that once English people put that behind them, they are genuinely loving and amazing friends. So why is awkwardness such a persistent pattern?

I explain it to myself through the fear of getting judged, which is even bigger than the historical fear of invasion by continental neighbours. I am not saying that the continental neighbours are never awkward or embarrassed. Some Germans give you a handshake to say hello and immediately create a distance through that gesture; the French rarely come to the point, maybe because deep inside they have nothing to say? But it seems that an English person is at greatest risk vis-à-vis another English person. Am I embarrassing myself? Am I socially conforming?

How speaking English reveals the class system and social conformity

Before I moved to England, the idea of social classes was quite foreign to me. I never felt that they were as present as they are here. Private schools are normal, and sentences like “I am working class” or “He is quite posh” (‘he’ because saying you yourself are posh is, of course, utterly non-posh…) are common. What seems almost irrelevant to me, is crucial in England, and it explains why people are as polite and conform. English people say “Pardon me” instead of “Bugger off”, “I rather not” instead of “No”.

Binge drinking therapy

But what to do with people who mask their genuine thoughts with cottony formulations of politeness? Live on in silent despair? No: binge drink. Drinking reveals your true self. The social barriers drop. People shout and cry, and replace the weather-talk with heated political discussions. Sometimes I wonder if these people are profoundly wasted or just jump at the occasion to let off some steam.

The need for binge drinking as pressure relief explains the ubiquity of pubs. To be fair, it is more convenient than therapy. And once the night (which began at 5 p.m.) finishes, everybody returns to the usual awkward politeness. In the morning, everybody conveniently forgets what happened. It is a way of cohabiting! Daytime politeness and night time drinking regulate English nature.

“Cheers mate”

All of this said, the English people and their language are very enjoyable. Living in England is like an everyday riddle which becomes less and less mysterious as your experience as a non-English person in England grows. You might even (very probably) adhere to pub culture. You will become very skilled in talking about the weather. And one day, an English person will tell you that “You are quite alright”, and you will know that it is a great compliment. Cheers!

Avoid making these mistakes when learning a language

There are many ways to learn a language. That’s the beauty of it! You can tailor it to your lifestyle and learning preferences. Whether you’re someone who likes to spend hours reading or someone who prefers a more on-the-go learning method, languages can suit anyone! However, there are some common mistakes that many people make when trying to learn a new languagel  mistakes that might actually be preventing you from progressing and reaching your goals. I am going to show you 5 mistakes you might be making while learning a language, and ways to prevent these from happening!

1. Inconsistency

No matter if you have a jam-packed work schedule or all the time in the world, consistency is so important when it comes to learning a new language. More often than not people starting up a new language forget this, and their learning becomes sporadic and inconsistent. If you aren’t designating sessions regularly throughout your weekly routine, nothing will stick! It doesn’t mean you have to spend hours every day practicing grammar and memorising vocabulary, nobody really has time for that! Instead, consider spending two hours a week dedicated to improving your language skills.

2. One-sided approach

If you are learning a new language, and expecting to become fluent just by reading in that language, think again! Learning a new language means attacking it from all angles. You need to be reading, writing, listening AND speaking. Pick up a good book, practice writing out some simple phrases. Listen to some foreign radio and sign up for a language session with JabbaJabba! The combination of all of these is a sure-fire way to achieving your linguistic goals.

3. Languages = work?

A common misconception people have about languages is that the process of learning is endless and tedious. But it doesn’t have to be! If you aren’t enjoying the method(s) you are using to learn a language, you are more likely to give up than continue! Find new and fun ways to incorporate language learning into your schedule, be that through hosting foreign movie nights with your friends, or even listening to foreign music on the way to work!

4. Going solo

One mistake you may be making is trying to tackle a language on your own. It is very easy to do your own studying now with the copious amounts of language resources available online, but sometimes it is better to work with others. Sharing the language learning experience with others has been proven to be a very effective learning technique, as you can bounce ideas off each other and correct each other’s grammar etc. Grab a friend and get learning!

5. Stuck in a rut

Something that often happens when learning a new language is that you get stuck on a certain level and can’t seem to progress. This happens to all of us, and it just means that you need to set yourself challenges to ensure that you are progressing in the language. One thing I like to do is every month attempt to read a more challenging novel in a new language. Don’t set yourself goals which you will never be able to achieve, but instead set small, regular language challenges that will push you further in your learning!

Languague learning motivation: Rescue your languages from the school classroom

We often leave school after years of studying a language seemingly no closer to fluency. I studied A level French but can’t count the number of times I felt ashamed at the prospect of speaking it to a native. Is it a crippling sense of self-doubt that I am simply not good enough? Or do we need to ease ourselves away from the classroom to the real application of the language? It is easy to become despondent following school and give up on a language; it takes motivation and work but it is possible and we should encourage ourselves to reach our potential. Fluency in a language is not an enigma bestowed on a select few- it is available to us all we simply need to make a plan of how to get there. Here a few tips on finding language learning motivation.

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Loving the lingo: the best way to learn Spanish? The bedroom?

Among language learners, it is a well-known fact that getting yourself a boyfriend/girlfriend or a variation of, will speed up your language learning ten-fold. When I told my friends back home or (especially) on exchanges elsewhere, that I had a Mexican boyfriend, their response was tinged with both admiration and envy. It usually went along the lines of, ‘Your Spanish must be getting good then!’

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It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it: ways of speaking

How many times do we end up wondering what the foreigners sat next to us are talking about? And how many times do we pay attention to the way their body language speaks to us?

When we do not understand what people are saying, looking at their gestures and intonation can be really helpful. But, more often than not, this can be incredibly misleading! Mannerisms tend to vary a lot from one nationality and language to the next. For instance, if two people get physically very close and touch each other (e.g. hand on the shoulder), they’re not necessarily as close as we might think they are.

Latinos generally become very intimate quite early on, whereas in other cultures, it is a sign of education to respect someone’s personal space (Japan, for example). That is generally because in colder places people are colder, while in warmer places people are literally warmer! According to several studies this difference is inherited from the hard or mild conditions of the land where ancestors had to live, which changed their way of thinking, living and interacting. A good example to show how conversations can differ between languages is by comparing a typical British conversation with a Spanish one.

In the UK people usually follow a series of written and oral customary rules before saying what they really want to say. They follow an introduction, a main body and a conclusion. This way of talking reflects a way of thinking, and aims at communicating what they want to say as effectively and politely as possible in as short a time as possible. Succinct, effective and polite. Finally, you’ll notice that tone of voice remains uniform almost the whole time and hands gestures are usually quite limited.

Spanish people, on the other hand, have a way of telling stories that might even sound quite confusing to non-Spanish speakers. Typically, when a Spanish person tells a story there are several digressions, as they get lost in the detail and add emphasis, emotion and pathos. Some parts can be very quick, with others slow and elongated for effect (as in “Hooola” and “no me diiigas!”). Finally, the pitch of the voice is varied with high peaks moving to low from one word to the next. It can be a rollercoaster! Listening to some Spanish people talking you might mistakenly think they were having so much fun, or that something terrible had just happened. In fact, they might just have been talking about the groceries! Check out this video for a light hearted take.

As an Italian girl, living in Germany it took a while for me to appreciate that the question “How are you?” did not really mean that my interlocutor ACTUALLY wanted to know how I was doing; it was just a way of being nice. As a matter of fact, one of the first times I was asked how I was, I began recounting a funny story about what happened to me in the morning. The more I talked, the more the person I was talking to tried to find an excuse to cut the conversation and leave. In Italy we are expected to answer the “how are you” question with some real details about our lives. I really could not understand why the person I was talking to looked so uncomfortable!

Thereafter, I stuck to a simple “fine and you?” and, it worked much better! In Italy, chatting is part of our culture. Just think about the endless number of bars we have: perfect places to have a coffee and sit to talk for hours while looking at people walking by.

Finally, it is interesting to see that the way Italians speak can give a misleading impression to non-Italian listeners. I have always been quite surprised by the way foreigners interpret the way us Italians talk to each other. Many times I happened to have an Italian conversation in front of some English/French/German friends and they often believe to have witnessed a very bad argument rather than a normal conversation! That is probably because in Italy we speak very fast and loud and we use hand gestures to give a stronger sense of our true thinking. We are very emotional speakers and try to transmit everything we feel through words.

It is important to keep in mind that when we aim at learning a new language, grammar rules and pronunciation are not enough; it is necessary to take into account the cultural significance of what you’re saying as well.

That said, it is worth remembering that we should be very careful with stereotypes! It is easy to make the mistake of designating someone’s attitude based only on their nationality. Of course, a Latino can be just as distant as a Northern European and Northern European just as warm and friendly as a Latino!

Can you think of some examples that fit the Spanish/British comparison? Or occasions where you found the approach of a foreigner really unexpected? How do you usually deal with a social norm that does not follow “your rules”? Comment below – I’d love to know!

Spanish-speaking speculations: how to learn Spanish

Being trilingual in French, German and English, Spanish is the first language learned as a non-native speaker. I want to tell you a bit about my experience! I started learning Spanish in high school in Berlin. To do that, I had to drop Latin classes. No regrets there, even though I study archaeology now.  Speaking Spanish is more useful than knowing how to translate verses from the Iliad! I this post I want to give you some of my top tips on how to learn Spanish; things I wish somebody had told me before I started out!

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Chuechichästli: differences between speaking German vs Swiss German

I am a German native speaker who spends a lot of time in Switzerland. People often assume that I have no trouble understanding Swiss German. Well, guess what: they’re wrong. I’ve been going to Switzerland regularly for the past ten years and it is still just as hard. While the younger me had a more malleable brain and understood some Swiss German, for the current me it is as understandable as coding to a humanities student. So, German vs Swiss German: what are the differences?

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10 actionable steps that will motivate you to learn another language

Motivation is basically, in a nutshell, the desire you have to get things done! The lower the motivation, the less able you are to do things. Learning a language is in no way an easy task. It takes a huge amount of motivation and even the most motivated of people can feel unmotivated at times – me included! Sometimes we can get so low that even just thinking about getting started again can seem like too much effort. The good news is that research has shown that motivation levels can be consciously controlled. Here are some tried and tested techniques that can get help get you back on track…

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No love lost in learning French: 7 untranslatable French words

It has often been said that language is the best reflection of a nation’s culture; the most authentic insight into its people’s mindset and weird and wonderful ways of life. Not too surprising when you think about it, given that language has been the one constant over years and years’ worth of changing history, politics, art, geography – the list goes on.. Each individual language is full of clues and pointers as to how its native speakers really think…

So let’s start with our closest European neighbours, the French! We all know the clichés: romantics at heart, lovers of fine food and wine, effortlessly stylish, very proud of their nationality, and let’s face it, perhaps a tad cold and unfriendly??

We’ve picked out 7 unique and untranslatable French words, to see how they might give us a tip or two about our friends across the pond…

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A nation of crazy cat ladies. 7 untranslatable Italian words.

If we thought that Spain was all about sleeping, chilling out with friends and eating well, it’s actually Italy which pips the Spaniards to the post, and the language tells it all. From lazy walks to lounging on the sofa, from snoozing in the shade to snacking on free food, it’s no wonder the Italians are so happy!

Let’s take a look at seven truly Italian turns of phrase and what they tell us about the loud, fiery, pasta-loving romantics. Those of you who’ve visited or lived in Italy before will already be familiar with the first word on our list…

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