Why speaking the language doesn’t mean speaking the language

On the social interplay of the different dialects of a language.

It is no secret that Australian universities have a high number of international students. Education is, after all, Australia’s third largest export. From the sheer number of USYD rants about us to the righteous Honi articles defending us, within your first few weeks of uni you can glean that our place in the USyd community is a hotly debated topic. I realise that this article is just adding one more to the mix, but I will still take this opportunity to discuss an issue that I haven’t seen being talked about openly yet. But first, let’s analyse the premise.

You can probably blame this high rate of emigration on global colonial history. Had the British not colonised most of the world, their language wouldn’t have become lingua franca and most countries wouldn’t have exclusively taught  English in school as a second language. Had that not happened, students would probably have the freedom to study the language that caught their fancy, and when moving to study abroad would have distributed themselves among a wider array, rather than exclusively preferring English speaking countries. 

I flew from my English-medium school to this country, with a blind hope that I would fit in with domestic students. This assumption, that emigrating to a country with a common language would be simple is misplaced. The first few weeks at uni taught me that speaking the language doesn’t really mean speaking the language

I learnt this the day when I made a joke that I would have in a similar situation back home, but no one laughed. I learnt this when I asked a question that would have made immediate sense back home, but my tutor stumbled for a few seconds until I rephrased it. I learnt this the day I emphasised the wrong part of the sentence when telling a story and encountered expectant faces instead of comprehending ones.

Another effect of colonialism is that my English speaking skills gave me clout back home. Being fluent in the white man’s tongue was considered a serious skill and indicated my place near the top of the social chain. 

English skills are intrinsically tied to class and status. Private schools tend to push English skills and the undertaking of an English board of education more than public schools do, and so, English proficiency is usually a sound indicator of affluence. The idea of being a ‘global citizen’ is intrinsically linked with how well one fits in countries which are populated by white people.

This positive association with English proficiency means that the move to an English speaking country was a potent culture shock for me, as I was no longer treated as a smart and capable person who could articulate herself well, but as someone who needed to be accommodated. Beyond just meeting people who avoided directing questions towards me in conversations, I encountered well-meaning white people who rephrased my words so that others could understand them. I was no longer seen as self-sufficient, I was seen as someone who needed help. When I talked, instead of encountering actively engaged faces, I encountered those dreadful encouraging smiles, telling me “Yes, go on, we are making the effort to understand you because we are good, welcoming people.”

Suddenly finding myself at the bottom of the social chain because of the same language skills which had previously put me on top was the biggest shock. It was a betrayal. I was left feeling defenceless, because the one reliable weapon I had always had to express myself and my capabilities was the very thing that brought negative attention to me now. I used to freely participate in conversations to share my ideas, but now opening my mouth only advertised to everyone how different I was from them. I couldn’t just slide into conversations anymore; my inputs were received as clunky and awkward and my presence changed the whole vibe.

I was thrown into a trench, so I tried to rationalise my way out of it. And I realised certain things. 

The culture shock I was warned about was exactly what I was experiencing right now. And I was experiencing it through the one thing I thought would mitigate that shock. Language isn’t separate from culture. Language is, in fact, a medium for culture.

How you speak is a direct reflection of who you grew up with. The cultural references you use aren’t even the least of it. You may learn grammar and structure at school but the words you really use are something you learn from the people around you. You pick up the sentences they choose. You pick up the framing, modulation, emphasis, and intonation they use. You use the same accent. So even when it is the same language, it evolves in different ways from region to region and into remarkably different dialects. If you use the dialect as someone else, you both immediately understand each other. Anything different from what you’re used to, and it takes you time and effort to parse it, even if that time is just a few seconds.

This creates a subconscious exclusion, that is (mostly) not done on purpose. It is a simple matter of a person having an affinity for someone who is similar to them. People didn’t choose to not get on with me. They just got on much faster with others who were like them.

This is not to say it’s impossible to make friends. It’s not. I eventually found people who naturally looked through all this. People with whom I connected on a different level, and became close with, where language was not a barrier.

But I should also keep in mind that it wasn’t just them who improved my sense of belonging here. It was also me, and the months I spent getting comfortable with myself. It was all the conversations I had with myself to reaffirm my identity and better understand my position, not just in a new country, but also in life. It was me who learnt to parse my multiple identities in multiple languages and learnt to love and be proud of all of them.

It isn’t easy, it takes multiple attempts, and is still sometimes overwhelming. But that was a risk I took when I uprooted myself for a new experience. And maybe there is something to be gained from that in itself.

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