Unlocking English as a Second Language?

I’m writing about a character who doesn’t have English as her native language, although she’s lived in London long enough for English  not to be accurately described, perhaps, as her second language — more her first through usage and acclimatisation.

I’m therefore always interested in the idiosyncrasies of how non-native speakers construct their English speech. Germans, like Kim, are generally very precise — although they often literally translate German grammatical construction (quite often possessives — like ‘the department of Mr Schulze’) and occasionally get tripped up on word genders (talking about inanimate objects as he or she).

But most young people who have constant exposure through living in this country will tend to speak very fluently — picking up English figures of speech and phrasing. They might sometimes want to draw attention to their ‘otherness’, though, as Kim does — which sometimes comes across on the page as inconsistency — although it’s deliberate on my behalf.

So I think Kim would have been more than bemused by this shop window in High Wycombe — on the main shopping street too. I’m sure she’d be horrified —  she’s a cultural snob and very proud of her own language abilities.

It’s hard to know where to start in terms of listing the errors in the huge poster — but, despite its mistakes, it makes itself understood — in a similar way to how very limited English speakers often get their message across — perhaps one of the reasons why English is such a ubiquitous language?

We Can Unlocking
Phone Shop Window in High Wycombe

3 Replies to “Unlocking English as a Second Language?”

  1. Hi Mike…I’m off to Berlin next week and also will be living in Hamburg for a while in the Autumn , so I should get a feel for what it’s like ‘being Kim’…I do have basic german but thats all, so beyond the daily plesantries it should be interesting!
    Bren Gosling

  2. Bren,

    Berlin is an interesting city — perhaps the only place in Western Europe where you have a sense of history having only recently been played out. Kim went to university there and, if I can squeeze references into my word count, she’ll refer to her time there. In fact I wrote something about the Holocaust memorial and Brandenburg gate that I may or may not use. It was based on when I went there with my German colleagues and my manager at the time burst into tears with the feeling of collective national guilt when we reached the line where the wall once stood.

    As far as language goes, I visited German on average every 2-3 weeks for about 7 years. I had a bit of German language teaching — but not much. I found that I came to understand an awful lot of what was being said and also work documents, newspapers, billboards and so on. What I couldn’t do very well was speak German back very well as all the Germans were so keen to use their English. When necessary, though, I could have a conversation in basic German — for instance with taxi drivers about football.

    So it should be a very interesting experience for you, though I guess you’ve done similar in Buenos Aires.

    I guess you have similar issues with writing Almir’s dialogue. My feeling with Kim is that, if her dialogue is written on the page, it should be barely distinguishable from a native English speakers. What I’ve done, and I think readers will only pick this up from reading the novel as a whole, is to create a greater intimacy between Kim and James because, as he knows a bit of German, they exchange the odd word here and there in her native language.

    How is your editing going?

  3. Hi Mike…well erhm…yes, it’s going but it’s almost as hard work as the original writing. I am on track to complete by September. I agree about the dialogue and keeping it simple with just a few hints and nuances here and there.
    Bren Gosling

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