Sunday, January 16, 2005

Separated by a Common Language

When I meet people here for the first time, they usually ask if I'm on holiday. My response is that I've lived here for about twenty years. The next predictable comment is something about how I haven't lost my American accent. I think I lost the Upstate New York nasal twang before I even left the 'States. Teaching English as a second language made me extremely conscious of my grammar, how fast I spoke and my regional accent. I spoke more clearly, slowed down, carefully chose or paraphrased and made an effort to speak through my mouth, not my nose. I was already ready for change.

If you want to fit into a culture, you consciously or unconsciously mimic the natives. (Guess I was successful when I lived in Germany; people used to stop and ask me for directions all the time!) Over the years, I've become bi-dialectal. That is, I understand both American and British. Unfortunately, many of our ex-pats have so little contact with real British people that they never learn the subtle differences. As someone said, we are divided by a common language.

Visiting tourists and unassimilated ex-pats stand out for many reasons, but in particular due to their lack of familiarity with British English. Busses are the ones used for local journeys only, including the double-deckers. Coaches are for long journeys. They’re usually bigger and have a toilet on board. That’s another difference. Americans seem somehow embarrassed to use the word toilet, the proper term for its use. Instead, we resort to euphemisms such as bathroom or rest room. (WC (water closet) is rarely used here any more.) If you go into a department store and ask for pants, you will be directed to the underwear department. Trousers are a kind of dress slacks worn by men. The British go on holiday, not vacation. At fast-food restaurants, you might order a side of chips, not fries. Crisps are thin, crispy fried potatoes in a bag which come in all kinds of flavours, including bacon, Worcester sauce, curry, cheese and onion, or beef. If you are travelling around greater London, you might take the underground or the tube. A subway is a tunnel for pedestrians to use instead of waiting for a light to change to cross the road. Calling someone implies shouting. Here, you say, "I’ll ring you tomorrow.” A substitute teacher is called a supply teacher. Q-tips are ear buds. To get your car inspected, you have to pass an MOT. You write with a Biro instead of a ball-point pen. A multilane, divided highway is known as the motorway, not a thruway. All numbered motorways have an M in front of the name: the M40, the M25, etc. Lesser roads are known as A-roads or B-roads. The word cottage implies something out of “Hansel and Gretel” to an American, but a cottage in the UK could be anything from a four-room terraced house (attached to the neighbouring building) to a four-bedroom country home. British homes may have a front garden and/or a back garden, not a yard. The sidewalk is referred to as the pavement. The black material in the road is called tarmac. I could go on and on...

Part of the delight of living here is that every day brings surprises. The language is USED so differently. It's like a razor-sharp sword. British humour can be very crude (Remember Benny Hill, Monty Python, Mr. Bean?) or incredibly intelligent and witty (I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, Not the 9 O'Clock News). Travelling around the country you can hear many regional accents and differences among social classes (unfortunately, still very evident). I am amazed by the practice of “Question Time” in Parliament where the Prime Minister has to respond to challenges each week from the opposition. They have to address each other as “The Honourable Gentleman”, but they hurl insults and cheer and boo across the house. At least there is healthy, open protesting by political opponents.

Perhaps it was the Liverpudlian accents of the Beatles whom I adored throughout my youth or my maternal grandmother’s Americanised Sheffield (South Yorkshire) accent, but I immediately felt at home when I first came to this country. No wonder it’s my adopted home. Change is good.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Celebrating Diversity

I teach in an international school in the London area. We have about forty nationalities among our students and faculty. The language of instruction is English, but we bring a broad range of perspectives and experiences to the work that we do here. The halls and cafeteria ring with the sounds of Japanese, Norwegian, Swedish, German, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, Danish, Chinese, Portuguese, Thai, Urdu, American, Canadian, British and many other languages.

In a previous unit in history class, the 8th graders had looked at factors which contribute to the identity of an individual or a country. They began to appreciate that they have been shaped by the customs, historical events, geography, economy, religions, language, traditions, foods, arts and goals of their countries.

In the last week they have begun a unit on Latin America with Mexico as a case study. This time, the uniting theme is diversity. The students decided that diversity means "difference". Instead of looking at all of Latin America as a single stereotype, they're looking for differences - in geographical features, resources, opportunities, histories, cultures, governments, economies, etc. Learning about Latin America is really a secondary goal.

It is this diversity which divides us as individuals and nations. But learning to accept, even celebrate these differences could go a long way towards solving our international problems. Unless we are able to accept that someone can be different from us, we will remain isolated by suspicion, judgement, misunderstanding and fear.

Students were asked to discuss what differences are easy to accept and which ones are not. Who cares if someone likes fish and another prefers chicken? Does it matter if one student likes hip-hop and another heavy metal? No, those differences were easy to ignore, but they acknowledged that it was more difficult to accept prosperity if you were poor, more difficult to accept another religion, and more difficult to accept clothing and behaviors which jarr against one's own culture.

We asked them to identify ways we currently honor our diversity - on a small scale - within our school. We host international foods day where everyone dresses in national costumes, mothers provide traditional foods and music from around the world plays in the background. It's a wonderful day where our differences take on real faces and we learn to appreciate, if not like, our differences. We acknowledge festivals and important holidays within our community. Some of our students fast for Ramadan. Classes came to a halt as we watched a procession of Scandinavian students singing songs and wearing white robes and a crown of candles for the Lucia festival.

There is a feeling of acceptance here, personal experience with real people from other cultures that drives away the judgement. When asked to identify how we can celebrate our diversity, they suggested visiting other countries and educational exchanges, passing laws to outlaw discrimination because of culture, encouraging education about other cultures. (Most Americans don't even own a passport. My students were stunned!)

These are our future leaders. It seems that our present ones could learn a lot from them.