It’s not unusual to speak to yourself in your head. It might be a bit stranger to do so in a foreign accent. Yet, I can remember choosing my words in my mind using the voice, expressiveness and intonation of an Englishman as a child.
My reasons were naïve and innocent. I desperately wanted to sound as smart as possible to my teachers, parents and classmates, and I believed – and was perhaps taught to believe – that all the smartest English speakers lived across the sea. So I started to ape their linguistic style and manner in the hope that I might stand out as the most eloquent among my fellow Americans.
I would estimate that I first got into this habit during middle school, and for the longest time, it seemed to be working beautifully. My teachers and friends were impressed with my unique writing style, and I was impressed with the charming and articulate Brit-speak the voice in my head was able to cook up.
However, my penchant for mimicking my favorite English authors and actors suddenly became a problem last year, when I left to spend a semester in London at a British university. One of the courses I signed up to take there was Writing for Journalism. I wondered how I would compete with the local students. Could I really out-English the English?
I immediately had such a fun time delving into all the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of British culture. Whether it was saying ‘cheers’ instead of ‘thanks,’ ‘crisps’ instead of ‘chips’ or ‘mobile’ instead of ‘cell phone,’ it was all new, fun and most importantly, different.
Yet the longer I stayed, the more I realized how silly all my preconceived ideas had been. It turned out England wasn’t a country of Shakespeares, it was an entire society much like our own. During my three months there, I met both high-minded, erudite intellectuals and ordinary, unsophisticated hoi polloi.
I also learned some funny things about the way people perceive different cultures. As charming as Americans seem to regard the British, many of the people I met there were just as interested in our country. Once while I was waiting near a bus stop, a young passerby stopped to say she loved my accent – the only time that’s ever happened to me. Another time, an American friend of mine was hit on by some guy in a bar who told her he really liked American girls.
For all the witticisms I expected to hear during my semester overseas, the wisest thing I heard came from our British orientation leader during the first week. When learning about a new culture, he said, it’s important to remember that “it’s not better, it’s not worse, it’s just different.”
It seems like an accepted belief in the United States that the British have a finer way with language than we do. It’s not surprising because, frankly, the English have been telling the rest of the world that they’re superior for the past 500 years. Yet from my experiences, I’ve come to see that their way of speaking isn’t necessarily any better. It’s just different.
Ashwin Verghese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.