When English just isn’t English
I have never thought I’d learn so much about myself after being paired with an international exchange student. Pairing up for a class activity is hard enough with someone you’ve only just met but with someone from another country? Now that was interesting.
We were given five minutes to prepare a discussion in front of the class. Five minutes? That wasn’t even enough time to get past each others names (and I’m sorry I still don’t understand what you said it was). I would say something and she would just look confused, then she would say something and I would ask her to repeat it at least three times…I ended up just sitting there awkwardly smiling, it was going nowhere.
I thought, surely she’s learnt English in China, how can you do exchange in another country and not know how to speak the language? But before I asked her to repeat herself for the fourth time (I should have just stopped at two) I realised I couldn’t be more wrong; the question wasn’t whether or not she could understand English (because I’m sure she very well could), it was a question of whether or not I was even speaking it.
Kell and Vogl in their text, International students: Negotiating life and study in Australia through Australian Englishes (2007) say that Australian English is characterised by a distinctive accent that is “high-pitched, nasal, lazy or drawling” and depicted as “featuring informality, abbreviated expressions, rhyming slang as well as descriptive similes.” Fair dinkum, no wonder the Sheila looked like a stunned mullet (in other words, oh goodness, no wonder the girl looked dazed and confused).
Kell and Vogl suggest that even though there has been an increased focus on English proficiency across higher education world wide, international students have failed to recognise the hybridity of Englishes that exist in Australia. Their research shows that many international students have spent many years learning to speak English but they enter Australia unaware of the extent to which local accents, fast speech and colloquialisms will reduce their ability to speak and understand it. In other words, they’ve learnt to read and write in English but nothing has prepared them for the lingo (language) so unique to Aussies.
So it’s clear Australian English is not as universally recognised as say the English of American and England. In fact, knowing I spoke English, my cousin in the Philippines said he watched Harry Potter ten times just so he could get used to the English accent. Try explaining how you spoke English… just not ‘that’ English. I ended up speaking in an American accent just to make things easier.
Yikes! So where have I gone wrong?
Simon Marginson in his article Morphing a profit-making business into an intercultural experience: International education as self-formation (2012), argues that the international education is not the rich intercultural experience it could be and found that most international students want a closer interaction with local students. He says that we need to change way we have positioned international students. Rather than being perceived as having to adjust to the Australian lifestyle, see them as students on a process of ‘self-formation’, crossing borders to seek dynamic change, to stand on their own to feet in a strange country.
So while you say ‘Australia’ and I say ‘Ostraya’ (side note: someone once thought I said I was from Austria) I realised that my classmate was not here for a “journey of conversion” succeeding only by adapting to the Australian lifestyle but is apart of an ongoing cultural negotiation and I need to remember that .
‘No matter how far or how wide we roam’ we have to remember that they’ve had little exposure to the Australian experience, making it difficult to negotiate with limited Australian English and knowledge of social norms and we have to do all we can to guide them through it.
Or we could tell them to watch more videos like this…