As a foreign national studying and working in Britain, that’s probably the sentence I have used the most since I came here. And even as my English is improving, I must admit that I still have to make use of that particular question more often than I’d like to.
Then again, I haven’t really picked places to live where people speak the most easily understandable English either – if there is such a thing. Scotland, Birmingham, and now Manchester are all places I’ve lived in, and all are famous for their ‘unique’ pronunciation (the words of my colleagues, not mine), as I’ve learnt only too well.
One problem here is that we (and by ‘we’ I mean every non-English native, in the hope that I’m not the only one out here with this problem) are just not prepared for all the different kinds of British accents prior to coming to the UK.
The variations are just not the “English” we are used to, nor what we (were told to) expect. There is a common misconception among non-English speakers that everyone in the UK speaks Received Pronunciation (RP) or, as it is often referred to, the Queen’s English.
Wait a minute… If the Queen speaks like that, then surely everyone else in England would somehow feel obliged to speak the same way, right?! Of course not, but I had to find that out for myself. The hard way.
One of the major reasons for foreign nationals visiting the UK is that RP is the only accent that English language learners are usually taught, for what would seem like obvious reasons.
In reality, I’ve found only a very small minority actually speak this standard form of English. So, when a foreigner enters a region where the population speaks one of the hundreds of other accents or dialects that appear across the nation (one more or less comprehensible for the non-accustomed ear than the other), they may well start wondering what that language is that they’re hearing.
No wonder then, that as non-native you can easily find yourself in slightly embarrassing situations due to these problems. I remember creating a (huge) line in front of a bus, not being able to understand what the Scottish bus driver was telling me. I probably would still be standing there if someone hadn’t eventually ‘interpreted’ for me… the poor man really only had tried to tell me that the bus fare had been increased. And when more recently a very communicative person with a distinctive Oldham accent tried talking to me during a bus ride (with particular emphasis on the word ‘tried’ here), I had a slight déjà-vu feeling. Let’s just say that this conversation turned out to be very one-sided…
My point is, sometimes it’s not that easy to understand real English, even after you’ve learned the English language. But that’s the case for every foreigner in every country, so who am I to complain?
That said, even the British seem to have problems understanding some of their own dialects sometimes, and that kind of makes me feel a bit better!
I saw this funny video of what English is supposed to sound like to non-English speakers: