“How would you describe the way you speak, Joseph?” Mingzhu asked me the other day over dinner. “Are you posh? You sound very posh.”
“I’m not so much posh as educated,” I said.
“When I first came to England,” said my wife, Lanying, “I was very surprised that not everyone spoke clearly like Joseph. I couldn’t understand most people at first.”
“But after a while don’t you find yourself talking like them?” Mingzhu asked.
“Yes. Yes. There was one office I was working where they all came from Essex and Joseph said I was picking up all this Essex slang. I didn’t know it was slang I just heard it and copied it.”
“Exactly,” agreed Mingzhu, “because as a foreigner speaking English you don’t have anything to fall back on. You just copy everything. You don’t have your own roots in the language.”
“That’s why the work environment is so important,” said Lanying. “You have to choose your colleagues carefully otherwise you can end up using totally unsuitable expressions.”
“I know,” said Mingzhu. “A lot of my colleagues are from Essex actually.”
“And do you find yourself talking like them?”
“Yes. Inevitably. One of them who sits opposite me is very funny. He uses lots of swear words. He can’t have a conversation on the phone without swearing. But in a funny way.”
“A lot of people in England talk like that,” said Lanying. “On the train you hear swearing all the time and in these impenetrable accents, like Cockney and Brummie and Geordie. But Scottish is the worst. I can never understand people from Scotland.”
“Well let me tell you something,” said Mingzhu. “The people in my office are all English and they complain all the time that they can’t understand people from Scotland, so you’re not alone there.”
“The other day on the train,” said Lanying, “I was with my Chinese friend, Yin. She was was visiting from Switzerland. There were some German tourists in the other seat and they wanted to know if the train went to London Bridge. They asked some Scottish people but they couldn’t understand what the Scottish people said. So my friend, Yin, told them in German.”
“They must have been very surprised to see a Chinese person in London suddenly switch to German.”
“But why? That’s what Chinese are good at.”
“Lanuguages. We are great at languages. We can learn anything.”
Mingzhu looked at her a moment.
“Yes!” persisted Lanying. “We are very good at languages. We are great actually.”
“There’s a word in English for that.”
“For what you just said.”
“Up your own arse.”