Learning English

A few months ago, while drinking too much wine in a pub with friends, I offered to buy a round. Someone said something I didn’t hear very well, so I repeated it back to them.

‘Any beer?’

‘Bear?!!’, they asked half joking, half mocking.

‘Yeah, you know beer, shutup haha’, I replied, nodding my head in agreement that I’m a ridiculous person and we should all laugh.

My ‘beer’ sounds like ‘bear’, I know. I can’t pronounce it correctly and there are times that I have to stop talking so I can clarify it in my head before speaking out loud.

Fast forward to a week ago, someone on my Twitter feed was having a conversation about how important it is to learn English ‘correctly’. I watched the conversation unfold, and noticed a common denominator was that rules in the English language shouldn’t be broken.

I’m a British Indian, born in London and brought up by Punjabi parents. They came to London in their twenties, with little to no money and had jobs lined up for them in strange places by relatives who already lived here. They knew some English, they studied at a very good army school in India but obviously there’s a difference between living it and studying it.

My mother’s first job (that I know of) was at a clothes factory, sewing dresses sold in high street retail shops, in a small run-down factory in Southall. She didn’t have any friends in London, no direct relatives (a few people so distantly related, she didn’t even know their names), but was given a job in a predominantly South Asian community, with an Indian boss and colleagues. After marrying my dad (in an arranged marriage) and having her life turned around by relocating to a different continent, she found comfort in this job with these people. They spoke her language, they also came from areas of India she knew of and they were in the same terrifying situation.

Things in her life changed and she found herself moving into different jobs, trying to make more money and become more successful. She got a job at a large airline, packing the awful food you ate in planes. Again, it was factory work, but she was a determined woman and didn’t want to be held down by stereotypes.

She spoke to as many people as she could in order to improve her English, including her children. This means we grew up in a house that spoke both English and Punjabi. It got to a point that when Punjabi was spoken, it was only because someone was in trouble. My mum was great at it, but because of her native tongue, her pronunciations were off and there were parts of the language she just didn’t understand.

We both learnt English at the same time, communicated together and then with people outside the walls of our house. Within this movement, the translation sometimes faltered. I would find myself pronouncing something ‘incorrectly’ and having to listen to someone laughing about how ‘Indian I sounded just then’. I wondered how mum would feel: she always sounded Indian. Was she laughed at about sounding like something that she was?

My mum; sounding Indian, with her grammatical errors, ‘bad’ pronunciations and occasional word misplacements, moved from packing airplane food for British Airways, to becoming a Systems Operating Manager, leading a team of over 20 people and becoming the highest earner our family has ever seen.

She still sometimes stops talking and stares at me to finish her sentence for her because she’s forgotten a word and sometimes says some things that sounds ‘wrong’. We still speak in a mixture of Punjabi and English, sometimes fluently carrying words into different accents, creating our own beautiful language.

Moving here and learning English was important for my mother because to survive here, with the prejudice and racism she faced, there was no other way to survive. Being grammatically correct was irrelevant: while you’re sitting there laughing at how ‘beer’ sounds coming out of her mouth, she was busy taking your job.

My mother is quite something, but this story isn’t often told. I have many aunties and uncles who came to England, so terrified of the culture change, the abuse, the abnormality of it all, that they lived within their communities, only learning a few sentences of English in order to survive. You can’t blame them for this, no one’s made it easy to live here. ‘Why did they come here?’ some awful people might spew at me, which is such an outdated argument. We know why people move to different countries: their career, love, escaping something (my dad would have been drafted if he didn’t marry and move), a search for something new/different. Your dreams don’t start and end within your own country.

With this in mind, I volunteered at Timebank’s ‘Talking Together’ program last year, which is used to help non-English speakers learn basic phrases and terminology so they can feel comfortable within the UK. A lot of people would want to do this course before ESOL, to build confidence.

These ladies worked in hotels, offices and some were housewives. They wanted to further their careers, be able to speak to their children in English, help with their homework, talk to doctors, emergency services, really basic things. Some of them didn’t leave the house because they were too intimidated or embarrassed. It was a horrendous circle of not being able to speak English to no one teaching them English.

This program by Talking Together holds classes with community groups, for example, I worked with The Turkish Cypriot Community Association, where women felt safe to attend classes without feeling discriminated. By the end of the course, the overwhelming pride in these women felt, shone through their huge beautiful smiles. One was going to an ESOL course and finally felt she had enough courage. One lady was applying to jobs and now knew how to create a CV.

They all reminded me of my family, but because they didn’t have a course like this available/didn’t acknowledge it, they never broke out of their comfort zones. Some have lived and died in England with knowing as little as only ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. They spent all day at the gurdwara or entertaining guests with gulab jamuns and stories about what ‘lucky’s daughter is doing’.

Maybe if they aren’t mocked about being Indian and having accents, maybe...JUST MAYBE, they’d embrace British culture and language with more ease.