English as a Second Language*

A Tuesday afternoon, in the university gym women’s locker room windows heavy with condensation. Damp is perpetual here, the outside damp of cold humidity with its incessant dripping and the inside damp borne of radiator heat, human sweat, and inadequate venting. I’m keying in my locker code when a clot of athletes burst in, their loud chatter surrounding me, ducking and weaving for their lockers in the ceiling-high stacks. I had a jarring realisation** a moment later – my first thought hadn’t been to notice their accents but to notice nothing.

It sounds dramatic, but that is jarring to a person who has spent her career teaching English and always, always notices accents. Especially as a person who has lived abroad in diverse places, your accent is your badge, you identity and marker. Lately, here in Bristol, I’ve noticed them less. I’ve watched films and television and the Britishness of an accent is fainter, more normal, less of something to mentally note.  I remember a student telling me of the moment that they started dreaming in English and not their native language and she described it as disorienting – I understand some part of that now. I’ve never lived for an extended period in a place where the language became commonplace and unnoticeable – I was never fluent enough in Italian or Polish or Kinyarwanda for language to go faint and disappear from my perception. And now, it’s happened – I hear British English the way I hear American English – only as language, not an accent.


I’ve been in the UK for just over five months, the right amount of time to settle into some sense of normalcy. It’s enough time to shake stereotypes and interrogate the preconceived notions about what England is and who the English (the British, the Welsh, the Bristolians, the Westerners) are. It’s enough time to remember that most British people are somewhere in between the disparate poles of 1) Mr Darcy and 2) vomiting football hooligans and that life here isn’t all Cotswold stone and afternoon cream tea. It’s pretty normal, just smattered with more consistent rain.

And, it’s enough time to remember that the U.S. and the U.K. are two nations divided by a common language (Shaw, or Wilde, depending on who you ask). And I speak English – British – as a second language.

Before arriving, I swore I wouldn’t actively change my accent (and that’s still true, with the exception of one word – Bath, as in the city of, just because it sounds wholly inappropriate and far too crass in a nasal American accent to refer to that neoclassical tiny town as something that rhymes with “math”). Because, really, what is worse than an American feigning Anglo “sophistication” in bad Received Pronunciation? The answer? NOTHING. Nothing is worse. Evidence? Here. And here. And here. And Lloyd Grossman, explain yourself.


Oh look, the Mayflower! Bristol harbour**

And I haven’t changed my accent, but my vocabulary and syntax have capitulated to the redcoats. I try my best the avoid the words that seemed cliched, and even more cliched when I use them (bloke, cuppa, uni, cheerio). But, it’s inevitable after 150 days that one’s language isn’t forcibly evolved by the surroundings, so I tell myself that these changes are okay, because it’s easier to be understood – less by British people and more by my very international course cohort that all speak British as a Second Language. Plus, I used to tell my students that one’s English need not be native-like, but effective enough to be understood. Understandability is key. So, I’ve made some changes.

I use “going to” less, shortening instead with just “to” – I’m to bed; I’m to Tesco. Do you want to come along? And there’s less “haven’t” and more “not” – I’ve not done the reading. Sometimes it’s 10:30, other times it’s half ten. I have no shame in checking my diary rather than my calendar, as my diary here is a timetable and not page after page of why Ethan from fourth period will never notice me or ill-conceived plots for selling my younger brother to a traveling circus. And the mass nouns: the data are plural, the team are playing tonight.  There’s a distinct academic vocabulary as well. “Tension” is a favourite**, a way to show some sort of struggle between two concepts. There are “pots” of funding for attending conferences – pots are so much more fun than sources. And then there’s the food vocabulary – the words are almost edible at times. British food vocabulary is its most glorious and Bill Bryson agrees: “England was full of words I’d never heard before – streaky bacon, short back and sides, Belisha beacon, serviettes, high tea, ice-cream cornet.”

I have limits, however. I don’t say cheers, which often seems interchangeable with “thanks” here – used in a very polite, very British closing sequence at the grocery store from yesterday. (Cashier) “Your receipt.” (Leanne) “Thanks.” “Cheers.” “Thanks, see you.” “Have a nice evening, thanks so much.”

Be proud, Patrick Henry.

Peace from the other West coast,



*this is funny, because I’ve spent my career as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher [laugh, please]

**British spelling. I’m assimilating and #idowhatiwant


One thought on “English as a Second Language*

  1. This IS funny! I think the first transition I made from American to British was saying “uni” – people get confused if you don’t, at least in my experience. I still can’t get myself to say “half ten” though.


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