English – There’s more than you’d expect

I have to admit that my choice for my host university was definitely influenced by what language they speak in that country.

Considering that the exchange period would be only one semester, I was more drawn to places where I have a fair knowledge of the language so I would be able to focus on other aspects instead of being busy with learning a language. Choosing a university in England seemed to be a good choice, since I felt quite confident in my knowledge of English but there was of course still potential for improvement.

Just as I expected, at the university itself language seems to be no hindrance. I’m used to the academic use of English, as we have to read and understand plenty of academic papers in my courses in Bern as well. However, it can get trickier when I have to write essays in English, since writing is still a bit more difficult than understanding. Furthermore, I’m also slightly nervous whenever I have to write e-mails to my lecturers. The difficulty there lies more within the cultural and social customs I’m not quite confident in yet. I’m always a bit worried of being too formal or too casual.

“I won’t be offended if you don’t use it”. This sentence confused me since I think a duvet is quite essential and I have no idea why I wouldn’t want to use it.

Luckily, I have lovely British flatmates who I can ask whenever I feel insecure about something concerning the language. I’m not ashamed to ask because most people here already appreciate that I speak a foreign language. I remember asking my flatmate one day about how they would address a lecturer in an e-mail and what valediction they would use. Surprisingly, they answer was quite different from what is used in German and even from what they teach in English classes. So, to avoid misunderstandings or other difficulties in communication I like to just ask questions. If it’s suitable in the situation I ask questions like “What do you mean by that?”, “So, does that mean…” (I then rephrase what they said) or “Sorry, I don’t know that expression/I don’t understand that word”. In other situations, for example when the part I missed wasn’t that relevant for the conversation or if I wasn’t comfortable with asking the other person, I ask my flatmates later on. For example, when I moved into my room, I had no duvet. Fortunately, my flatmate’s mother could offer me a spare one. When she handed me the duvet, she said something like “I won’t be offended if you don’t use it”. This sentence confused me since I think a duvet is quite essential and I have no idea why I wouldn’t want to use it. So later on, I asked my friend what that sentence meant. She told me that it was just a phrase they say for being polite when handing over gifts.

Generally, I think the spoken everyday language is the most challenging. Firstly, everyone speaks with a slightly different accent and some of them are harder to understand. Secondly, the phrases that the people use differ somehow from how you would express yourself in German. Oftentimes, if you translate directly from German, it doesn’t sound authentically English even if it’s grammatically correct. Furthermore, what I find most difficult is to engage in a conversation between a large number of native speakers because you have to be very quick. In each of these three situations I guess there isn’t much else to do than to practice. You mustn’t be afraid, you have to put yourself out there and engage in the conversation, that is the only way you can improve.

Altogether, I feel quite comfortable in communicating in English. I still find it interesting how much the use of English differs from what one can hear and read in Switzerland respectively in a non-native speaking environment. I guess the most differences and therefore difficulties I face currently lie in the cultural aspects of the language. I think a lot of people are not aware of the fact that cultural habits and values make up a large part of languages. Not only does culture influence how we phrase and interpret things, it also influences deeper structures of the language such as vocabulary and grammar. Being aware of this fact is definitely helpful while communicating in any foreign language. I believe that it can help you to be more patient and understanding but also to be more adaptable. That is something that I will bear in mind in the future.

Janka Szücs

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