An Accent and a Language Barrier

Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and even Winston Churchill are all supposed to have said that the US and the UK were two nations separated by a common language. This could also apply to Ireland. Many people that I meet here are unsure of the relationship between Ireland and the UK. The vast majority of people seem to assume that we are all British. “Oh! You are Irish. I just love London”, “Wales is wonderful” and “I enjoy a nice scotch” are just some of the comments, to me, of people who thought they were complimenting my country. I am a proud Irishman, but in many ways, we do indeed have much more in common with our ancient enemy than we do with the other nationalities. Certainly when it comes to speaking the English language. Despite speaking English, the wrong choice of word can lead to puzzled looks and much head-scratching when I’m talking to Americans.

I had opened a bank account, and I needed to put some money into that account. A very friendly and pretty young woman called me over to her desk. “How may I help you?” she inquired. “I want to lodge a cheque” I stated. “Excuse me, Sir-What do you want to do with the cheque?”, she quizzed. When I again said that I wished to lodge the cheque, I could see her looking for the security guard! She was clearly uncomfortable with this strange man and his peculiar request. I tried to restate what I was looking to do. “I want to put this cheque into my account” I explained. The tension eased on her face, and her smile reappeared “Ah you want to deposit the cheque” she nodded. The difference between saying making a lodgement and make a deposit caused a complete breakdown in communication.
There have been many other examples of miscommunication. Asking for a burger and chips instead of fries is a mistake you quickly learn not to make. Chips here are what we call crisps. Crisps don’t go so well with burgers. Ordering a take out pizza also proved to be problematic. I arrived at the pizza joint and said “Hi, I’m Derek. I’m here for collection”. The server looked very confused. “Sorry, Sir, we don’t have any pizzas called collection”. Now it was my turn to be confused. I racked my brain, trying to think what was the right thing to say. What am I here to do? Eventually, I said, “I’m here for pick up”. He replied, “ah Derek-here is your pizza”. It was right under the counter the whole time.

However, being Irish, or at least talking with an Irish Accent gets noticed immediately in California. This was surprising to me as Northern California is such a diverse place that one would have assumed that a different accent would be par for the course. Yet, it seemed to be the thing that marked us out when he first arrived. We were different. People noticed. However, the reactions and interactions were friendly and positive. It felt welcoming and almost like positive discrimination adding another layer to our privilege. People are so happy to share their stories about their Irish heritage, and so many people here have Irish ancestors.

Once we landed in California, it became clear that we didn’t speak normally. We were different. This realisation happened when we hired our rental car from Hertz. Not being too familiar with hiring cars, I found the Hertz system strange. First, we had to queue (wait in line) for our turn at what looked like an old fashioned telephone station. When it was our turn, we proceeded to call what was either a call centre or a virtual reality assistant. It took an age. I incorrectly assumed that we were finished. However, we then had to go and stand in line (queue) again and wait to speak to a real person. Eventually, our turn arrived, and we made our way over to a heavy set, black lady. She had an officious but friendly demeanour. She had spent the previous ten minutes, dealing with an incredibly awkward customer. We had travelled a long way and had been queuing for ages. I was grumpy. I’m sure she had had a long shift. As soon as we started to speak, her ears picked up “I have a whole bunch of questions that I’m going to ask you. I don’t need to know these I just want to hear you speak”. She dealt with us very effectively and wished us well on our new adventure in the States.
Something similar occurred as I was waiting in line (people don’t know what queuing is here) to get a coffee at Starbucks. The manager had just got her coffee to go on her break, but she waited and told the barista to ask me questions so she could hear me speak. She spent the rest of her break asking me questions and then she declared “I could listen to you speak all day”.
I have had to slow down the speed at which I speak so that people can understand what I am saying. Sometimes I feel as if I’m talking in slow motion and people are still saying “I say wha’?. It can be frustrating having to repeat yourself time and time again. Of course, I still have my accent. However, on my last trip home to Ireland, my family were amused at me using words like “the restroom” or saying “it is four thirty” instead of half four. I am sure I will have picked up a few more Americanisms before my next trip home.


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