Relearning my Native Tongue: English in Edinburgh by Rebecca Iacobone

Rebecca is a Senior Environmental Geography major studying in Edinburgh this summer.  As her first trip abroad, she is looking to make the most of her time in the UK.

When I first signed up for my program in Scotland, I wondered if I might be ripping myself off a little – my first time leaving the U.S., and my destination was predominantly white and English-speaking. Would this be an authentic “foreign” experience? Would there be any real communication challenges from which I could learn?

On the latter, I did not need to worry.

While Scotland has not given me any kind of culture shock, communication has been far more difficult than I anticipated. Come to think of it, my troubles began even before I arrived in Scotland. On my plane from London to Edinburgh [pronounced ED-in-burr-uh], a flight attendant passed through with a snack cart and asked me, “Would you like crisps or a biscuit?” What kind of airline serves biscuits? I wondered. Will there be gravy, too? And what on earth is a crisp? Isn’t that an adjective? A few seconds of thought led me to determine that “biscuits” were likely not the breakfast dish I had in mind, though in the pressure of the moment I couldn’t put together what “crisps” could mean [I figured out soon after that they are what I would call potato chips]. I told the attendant that either one would be fine, and he handed me a packaged chocolate & currant cookie. Soon after I finished the cookie-biscuit [which was delicious, though I am still not sure what currant is], the attendant asked for my “rubbish,” and I looked up at him like an idiot for a full three seconds before placing my cookie-biscuit packaging into the garbage bin he was holding in front of me.

Even grocery shopping has been a challenge, as I never would have thought to look for a box of “cheesey pasta.”

Within Edinburgh, my problems have been less about words [though “tatties” and “takeaway,” or potatoes and takeout/carryout, are worth mention], and more about accents. I understand some folks with no issue, but many sound to me at first as though they are not speaking English. It turns out that using “British English” can mean a great deal more than spelling “gray” with an “e” and “color” with a “u.” In speech, the pronunciation of letters and blends can be much different than in American English, as can inflection in the course of a phrase or sentence. I heard on a bus a young person exclaim “Ayu moyh Ghohd!” in disbelief at another person’s story, and later passed someone in the street on a cellphone wanting to know of their conversation partner, “Yew b’leive I’m uh mah-ron?” I’ve also noticed a great deal more fluctuation in pitch from word to word here than I generally hear in the States. Admittedly, most of the Scottish folks I’ve interacted with as of yet have been service people – shopkeepers, reception clerks and the like. As enthusiasm is expected in such positions, I can’t know for sure yet whether this fluctuation comes naturally, or if it’s just contextual. But in any case it is pleasant and exciting! Minus, of course, my occasional trouble translating this range of unfamiliar sounds into coherent messages.

A separate issue I hadn’t anticipated – though I probably should have foreseen it – is communicating with people who are NOT British. As Edinburgh is an important urban center, it attracts people from around the world, both to visit and to migrate. Pakistani shopkeepers, Turkish café servers, and Italian tourists unsure how to catch a taxi have all sent me over communication hurdles [though in the last instance, when I finally understood what was being asked of me, the bigger problem was that I know nothing about summoning a taxi].

A few of my classmates – all students from OU – have talked about perfecting their Scottish accents by the time they leave Scotland. But truth be told, if I can order lunch and drinks, ask for directions, and make it through a grocery queue without asking anyone to repeat themselves for the duration of my final week, I’ll consider this trip a success.

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