Hi there, nice to meet you, I’m Livia, I live in the UK and English is not my first language. Actually, it’s Hungarian. I lived in Hungary for the first thirty-one years of my life and was also taught German, Italian and some French at school. I first started learning English at the age of 5 when I spent 10 months in the US with my family and continued learning it through the years. Of all the languages I speak and understand, English is my second best, and I regularly think and dream in English. But it’s still not my mother tongue. Here are 5 things that I’ll do that might surprise you if we meet.
I’ll pick up your accent.
Yup. And it’s not even conscious. I honestly have no idea what my actual accent is because it always morphs to that of the person I’m speaking to. I’m not doing it to be rude or to mock them, it just sort of happens. But since I moved to the UK, I found I am picking up more UK pronunciations and leaving the US behind. It’s hard because those ten months in Ohio were in my formative language learning years and some of the accent and even some of the vocab is imprinted heavily on my brain. But now it’s evolving into a Sussex-Ohio mash-up. Hey, the main thing is that we can understand each other, right? :)
I’ll mix in some Hungarian words if I’m tired.
If you don’t understand what I’m saying, it’s definitely not you, it’s me. Speaking English tires me, though less and less with more practice. After moving to the UK, speaking constantly to someone in English even for a couple of hours felt like I had cotton balls in my mouth. I couldn’t properly enunciate and words slipped my mind. I still do that, and it makes me anxious to speak in an official setting (giving talks or interviews), but I am soldiering on because it’s the only way to progress.
Not remembering English words is a thing, relapsing into Hungarian is another. I do that as well if my brain is absolutely fried. Especially filler words, the equivalent of “so”, “or”, “I mean” and the like. Oh, and for the life of me, I can’t properly count in English. If I have to figure out what I have to pay, I always count in Hungarian in my head and, with a delay, translate that into English. Saying what I think comes almost instantly without translation, but numbers are my weak spot.
I’ll know some pretty niche things.
I was an English major at uni, so I know my Tudors and Darcys and Pre-Raphaelites (if someone wants to fangirl with me about William Morris’ designs, drop me a line!), but I have blind spots in some areas of pop culture. Depending on what got through from the West (I was born in the mid-eighties before the Iron Curtain came down) and what I managed to absorb on my own or through the influence of my parents, I obviously had some knowledge of things.
I loved Fawlty Towers, and for some reason, You rang, M’lord was really big in Hungary. Of course, I knew about the “big ones” The Beatles, Python, Poirot. And some of the smaller ones, too — we had Jamie and the Magic Torch on TV (along with Supergran, which was super weird). Blackadder was on a lot, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I watched Thin Blue Line instead. As a kid, I was a big fan of the Swallows and Amazons book series, I loved the film version of The Secret Garden (still one of my favourite Maggie Smith roles!) and Maid Marian and her Merry Men made me laugh. Most of the dubbed stuff, however, came from the US, and we also had plenty of French and Italian series & films, Mexican telenovelas, Soviet animations and of course, Hungarian productions.
Already as an adult, I consumed Doctor Who, almost everything Mitchell and Webb ever did, got addicted to BBC Radio 6 Music and expanded my musical knowledge, started listening to radio sitcoms online (I can never get enough of John Finnemore), fell in love with Catherine Tate, binge-watched all seasons of Miranda and I recognise the theme from The Archers — all this before moving to the UK. So you couldn’t say I was totally in the dark about the Wonderful World of Brit Culture.
But I do still have blind spots.
The author as a young girl. (Hungary, 1986)
At the same time, I’m clueless about other pop culture stuff.
After I moved to the UK at the ripe old age of 31, I realised that some of the people and cultural icons (institutions, even) that are really important here to many never got over to Hungary, or at least they didn’t reach me. I’m talking about TV series, TV presenters, non-mainstream bands, athletes. I will not name names in case it makes you really upset — I’ve had a few shocked responses when I innocently asked ‘who is that?’ about some person or a film. ‘You haven’t seen [insert cult thing here]?!‘ No, I haven’t but don’t be mad, it’s not about not appreciating their cultural status or being ignorant– I just never had a chance to get to know them. I’ve been busy growing up and absorbing a different set of icons for over three decades and I have a lot to catch up on. I’m happy to expand my horizon, just be patient with me. (I watch Dave and Yesterday as research. And for fun, too. And hooray for Netflix.)
I have to make an effort to sound casual, so if I sound formal, it’s not unfriendliness
It’s my academic training’s doing, no doubt about it. I envy the effortless and casual tone of native English blogger’s writing. I really have to work on undressing my academic tone, and writing posts can take hours or even days until I think they’re fit for publishing. Sometimes I get tangled up in my own expressions and it all comes out very formal and overwritten, which is the exact opposite of what I want. I’m still working on this, but done is better than perfect, so there comes a point when I say ‘that’ll do’ and press PUBLISH anyway. You’ll be happy to know that there was no need to delete any therefores and on the other hands from the first draft of this post. See? Progress.
To be honest, I feel like I am someone different when I speak or write in English. Still me, but different. And I have to learn who that person is. I’m liking her, though.
Do you have stories like this? Can you count in your non-native language?
Multi-lingual people fascinate me, so tell me your experiences in the comments below, I’d love to read them!