Speaking English: do English people allow themselves to speak?

Cecilia Conte
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Cecilia Conte

French and German Language Guru at Jabba Jabba
Hi there! My name is Cecilia, but you can also call me Cece. I’m of French, German and American nationality. Being trilingual in French, German and English has helped me a lot, with employment, my studies and my everyday life. I also speak decent Spanish and I am determined to learn many more languages in the future (such as Italian but also Arabic)! I think that meeting people and talking to them, be it during travels or at a café, is the best way to learn a language!
Cecilia Conte
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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!

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Languague learning motivation: Rescue your languages from the school classroom

Georgina Cowan-Turner

Georgina Cowan-Turner

Georgie is a second year English Literature student at University College London. She loves travel, languages, wrtiting and music.
Georgina Cowan-Turner

Latest posts by Georgina Cowan-Turner (see all)

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?

Ruby Zajac

Ruby Zajac

Ruby studied Spanish and French and is now researching social movements in Mexico. She grew up in Edinburgh, where she has worked with children's theatre specialists Licketyspit and the Acoustic Music Centre, as part of the Edinburgh Festival. She has also lived in Honduras, Cambridge, Lyon and Mexico City. In her spare time she writes songs and translates for the UK Zapatista Translation Service.
Ruby Zajac

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!

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Chuechichästli: differences between speaking German vs Swiss German

Cecilia Conte
Follow me :)

Cecilia Conte

French and German Language Guru at Jabba Jabba
Hi there! My name is Cecilia, but you can also call me Cece. I’m of French, German and American nationality. Being trilingual in French, German and English has helped me a lot, with employment, my studies and my everyday life. I also speak decent Spanish and I am determined to learn many more languages in the future (such as Italian but also Arabic)! I think that meeting people and talking to them, be it during travels or at a café, is the best way to learn a language!
Cecilia Conte
Follow me :)

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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Can you be yourself in another language?

Ruby Zajac

Ruby Zajac

Ruby studied Spanish and French and is now researching social movements in Mexico. She grew up in Edinburgh, where she has worked with children's theatre specialists Licketyspit and the Acoustic Music Centre, as part of the Edinburgh Festival. She has also lived in Honduras, Cambridge, Lyon and Mexico City. In her spare time she writes songs and translates for the UK Zapatista Translation Service.
Ruby Zajac

Looking out the plane window as it descended towards the city that would be my home for the next four months, my heart raced. I was nervous. Would I make some French friends and finally get fluent with that all-important immersion? Or would Erasmus be but a multicultural romp, spent drinking watered down cocktails and shouting over bad music in the language that (nearly) everybody already speaks – English?

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Five things they don’t tell you about your year abroad

Erin O'Connor

Erin O'Connor

Hi! My name is Erin, and I'm both Irish and English. I'm currently studying French literature at King's College London, soon to graduate! Being able to speak two languages has opened so many doors for me, be that through socialising, travel, and work. I'm currently taking on the challenge of learning a third language, Spanish!
Erin O'Connor

A year abroad is exciting, daunting, challenging and, quite frankly life-changing. Whether you are spending a year abroad as part of your university degree, or you have just decided to step outside your comfort zone and try something completely new, a year abroad comes with the same ups and downs as it does for everyone. I have been lucky enough to spend the past year in Paris as part of my degree. Although I have had one of the best years of my life, there are several things that I learnt about living abroad which people don’t really tell you before. I am now going to share with you five things that are useful to know, which may help you along the way!

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Top 10 Unusual Ways to Practice a Foreign Language

Anna Gevorgan

Anna Gevorgan

Hi. I am Anna. I am a currently a postgraduate student at University College London Institute of Education. I am studying lifelong learning and I am a lifelong learner myself. My native tongue is Armenian, I am fluent in Russian and I have a good command of Spanish. Professionally, I am a qualified teacher and have been teaching English in universities and language schools for more than 12 years.
Anna Gevorgan

Top Ten Ways to Practice a Foreign Language.

Looking back at my study time in Spain, I miss the quality of life, great food and warmth of the local people. Unfortunately, not very many people in Spain spoke foreign languages where I was (in fact, some 65 percent of the Spanish population speaks no English at all).  Lucky for me, I knew some basics before moving there, but I still needed to brush up on it to get the most out of being there and start communicating with people in full. Life in the city where I lived offered a variety of affordable opportunities and here is what I did to advance my knowledge of Castellano. Wherever you may be, hopefully you’ll find this list of ways to practice a foreign language helpful!

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