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One Language, Many Shapes and Sizes

 article about One Language, Many Shapes and Sizes

This article belongs to Life in Britain column.


One thing will become obvious very quickly even to a very careless observer: There is only one language in Britain - English, and only English, reigns everywhere. All signs are written in this language, all announcements are written in it, and all those who do not speak it will end up rather lost.


 


Well, what else would you expect, those native English speakers among you might ask now. So, let me explain. Coming from the European continent, I was used to everyone speaking at least one or two foreign languages. All school students in Germany are taught English as a compulsory subject for at least five years. Many learn French, Spanish or another foreign language as well.  One of my earliest memories is announcements on train windows, telling passengers in four languages (German, Italian, French and English) not to lean out. Tourists in most European countries, certainly in Germany, will have no trouble getting by in English, even though this is not the mother tongue of inhabitants.


 


Being able to communicate in a foreign language, however, is something most Britons find hard to imagine. During my stay in the country, I came across many people who told me about learning German or French at school for one year, and expressing their admiration for me as I was able to speak English fluently. My colleagues at work got some German lessons from me, which they really enjoyed.


 


In Britain, there are so many signs telling you that the existence of different languages is a completely alien concept in large parts of this country. Every song played on the radio is in English. No matter how much I have always loved the English language and still do, I did miss the international flair of German radio stations, with songs being played in multiple languages every hour. A Scottish guest who once came to Germany with me was amazed that English songs were being played on the German radio but over here, this would be a rule rather than an exception.


 


Anyway, why should British people bother learning a foreign language? After all, English is still the most important language in the world and understood almost anywhere. People all over the world are eager to learn the language that emerged from Britain. This means that British (and other English-speaking) people are in the lucky position to be able to work as an English teacher in almost any country, and finance their travels around the world that way a fact that occasionally makes their non native (English) speaking friends green with envy.


 


This all-powerful status of the English language, coupled with its relatively isolated existence on the island of Britain, might be a reason for the British love of puns. Everywhere you look, language is being played with. A Nottingham bus company proudly advertises its "waitless buses." Humour is often based around word plays "What do Robert the Bruce and Kermit the Frog have in common? Their middle name!". Obvious, isn't it?


 


There is another important thing about the language used in Britain though. It comes in all shapes and varieties. A Scottish farmer sounds completely different from a BBC news presenter, and a housewife from Yorkshire will again be a different story altogether. While the BBC presenter might say to his wife, "I don't know, I can't find those clothes anywhere now," the Scottish farmer would express the same message rather differently ("I don't ken, I cannae find them claethes neawhere the noo"). Academics studying languages have written volumes about different dialects in the U.K. Normally, they not only tell where someone comes from geographically, they may also say a lot about their position in society.


 


One last important thing should not be forgotten. British people are internationally famous for swearing a lot. From my experience, I can only confirm that this is true. I actually found it weird to get back to Germany and never get to hear anything stronger than "shit." I might as well confess that in my head I sometimes still swear quite a lot it's such a good way to let off some steam.


 


 


 


 


 



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