Last summer I was a few beers into a street party when one of my friends introduced me to a girl she knew. She’d done this in English so naturally I didn’t think twice about continuing the conversation in the same language. However as I started talking over the music I noticed she was shaking her head quite sympathetically at me. “I’m sorry” she interrupted, “You are British? I studied American English so maybe this is why I’m not good at understanding your English”.
I gave her a reassuring smile and was about to repeat myself, only this time a little slower. But she interrupted me again with a smirk suddenly dominating her face; “I think I don’t understand you because you sound like you have a hot potato stuck in your mouth”.
I looked at this girl for a good few seconds in disbelief as I tried to process what she’d just said.
“A what?” I eventually asked faintly, now with the polite smile fading from my face. I was unsure if I’d just been insulted or I’d simply misunderstood what she’d just said.
Turns out, I hadn’t misunderstood at all.
“I said you sound like you have a hot potato stuck in your mouth. You need to open it a little more when you talk because I can’t understand you!”
‘Surely she isn’t talking about my delightful accent?’ I remember thinking to myself at the time. But she really was. I’m not often lost for words, but I mean, what is the polite way to respond to someone saying this? And I remember wondering just how it is even possible for someone to talk with a hot potato STUCK in their mouth?
Well as if she could read my mind, this girl fed my curiosity by simulating what someone in this rather unfortunate predicament would look and sound like. As she mimicked my British accent with this imaginary hot potato playing heavily around her mouth, he cheeks began to inflate grotesquely. As far as first impressions go this girl had exceeded in making a truly awful one on me. With it being clear that we were never destined to be great friends, I made my excuses and rejoined my American friend. A friend who has no problem understanding me….most of the time!
I should point out that although this was definitely the most extreme experience I’ve had of someone reacting negatively to my accent, I do occasionally meet Brazilian English speakers who are so accustomed to American English that my accent proves to be very challenging for them.
I should stress that British English is certainly not always frowned upon over in Sao Paulo. One of the most popular chains of English schools here, Cultura Inglesa, is a school that focuses on the teaching of British English. From my own personal experience too I’ve had a lot of students specifically ask for classes with me because of their desire to be exposed to my accent.
And get this… a number of people have even said that they find my accent beautiful to listen to. I genuinely thought I was being mocked the first time I heard a student say this. You see, my northern-English farmer’s drawl isn’t met with nearly the same level of enthusiasm outside the area of the UK I’m from.
Back there, because the Yorkshire accent is quite slow in comparison to other accents in the UK, I’ve been told that it makes us sound slightly uneducated (well actually I might have made up that part about people using the word ‘slightly’). However over in the parallel world that is also known as Brazil, I’ve has people describe my accent as charming, slow enough for them to understand and even (my favourite) sophisticated.
Yet within the UK we have a wide range of accents that can prove quite a challenge for some of my Brazilian students to understand. It would be all too easy to categorise how us Brits speak as simply being a homogeneous ‘British English’, but the reality is very different. This is something one of my students recently reminded me of in his first lesson back after studying at a US university. He told me that he was confused by a Brit he’d met on his course, one he’d assumed he would have had no problems understanding.
“I imagined after having classes with you I’d be able to understand British English. But I couldn’t understand most of what the guy was saying. He was British but he didn’t talk much like you at all”.
I gave my student a knowing look, and told him that there are some accents from the UK that prove challenging for me too. My mother for example is from a small village just outside Glasgow, and when I go up to Scotland I often have to have her help me out with translating what some of our relatives are saying for the first hour or so. We’re all speaking the same language, but it takes me a little time to tune in to their very heavy Glaswegian accent.
So I could feel my student’s pain, I really could….spoken English isn’t always easy to understand when you take into account it has so many variations, even in a country as small as the UK.
However I’ve noticed three Brits over here with southern English accents who’ve managed to forge a pretty popular following over in Brazil. Randomly one of these includes Jo Frost (aka Supernanny, remember her?) who was a dominant fixture of TV schedules a year or two ago. Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson are also pretty popular here too. Oliver’s books are a continued presence in book shops over here, and after Nigella’s recent visit to Sao Paulo, she definitely cemented her popularity with the female housewives I teach by praising the nation’s beloved coxinha.
Interestingly whilst the chef Gordon Ramsay might be a big deal over in the states and in his native UK, he has yet to leave nearly as big a mark on the Brazilian consciousness as his British rivals have.
And on the subject of popular Brits in Brazil, it would be strange of me not to mention the country’s music scene. Our music is one aspect of British culture that is frequently met with a great deal of enthusiasm over here. From The Beatles to Amy Winehouse, Elton John to the Stones, Led Zeppelin to Bowie, Queen to The Sex Pistols, George Michael to Adele, Black Sabbath to erm…One Direction. British music seems to have really resonated with a lot of the Brazilians I’ve come into contact with…which may or may not be down to these artists being able to really open their mouths when they sing!
Have you ever encountered any interesting reactions to your accent when going abroad?