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Keeping it (un)real in English: A Guest Post by UncleVania

Keeping it (un)real in English: A Guest Post by UncleVania

UncleVania is one of my good friends from university and a fellow ethnomusicologist. I asked UncleVania to write a guest post on Eurolinguiste due to the fact that this dear friend is not only a brilliant writer and educator, but bilingual in Greek and English. Here is his post on his experience learning and living in another language. Unbelievably, UncleVania is not yet a blogger, hopefully that will change soon!

Without further adieu, I present UncleVania on Keeping it (un)real in English…

Keeping it (Un)Real in English

English is the only foreign language that I never studied systematically, and paradoxically the only one that I speak fluently. There is something unique about learning English as a foreign language; it is all around you, and yet so mythologised. For a kid growing up in Greece, English is simultaneously a dreary subject at school and the key to the meaning of your favourite songs, movies, and books. You know that everyone understands the basic, but no one can really pull off speaking it and keep their dignity intact. You really want to voice it properly, but you’re always a slip of the tongue away from sounding like a James Bond villain. Someone asks you for directions in English on the street and you start sweating profusely (even on the rare cold day) thinking ‘now, we did that last week in class, when a sentence starts with an “if”…’ After about half a minute, you realise that you haven’t said a word to the poor lost tourist who, frankly, couldn’t care less about your correct use of the subjunctive. I also studied French at secondary school and Italian for the first two years of university, but I knew from the start that English was the language that I was meant to master: I was eventually going to move to a place where they speak it properly.

Instead of that, however, I decided to move to Ireland. As you can imagine, I never learnt the correct use of the subjunctive, but I became accustomed to other useful linguistic advancements such as ‘what’s the craic’, ‘ah sure you’re grand’ and ‘feck that’. You can imagine how these sound in a mixed Greek/Irish twang (although, honestly, you don’t want to). On the bright side, I didn’t turn out like one of those obnoxious people who study in Oxford for a year and end up saying ‘I rather enjoyed that’ as if they are the heirs to the Tudor throne. In any case, there is one thing that I strongly remember from my first few days studying in Ireland: I felt like I was a character in a series. The fact that I was living my life in a foreign language with no subtitles was… well, unreal. Admittedly it wasn’t much like an HBO drama or an NBC comedy, but more like a low-budget reality show where nothing overly exciting ever happens, but the English language made it so cinematic! I was developing a new accent trait with every person I met, and at the same-time reinventing myself. Surely, none of my foreign friends knew I was kind of geeky in Greece, I could be really cool in Ireland (unfortunately, as I found out, being blasé is beyond verbal communication, so it’s simply a trait that I can’t acquire in any nation-state).

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My granddad, who spoke fluently five languages (OK, that’s a bit of a wild assumption, I don’t know if he spoke Hebrew and Arabic fluently, but he seemed to have full-blown conversations with native speakers in both languages, and no one ever complained that he was making words up) used to say that you know that you are fluent in a language when you start thinking in it. It was after about a year in Ireland that I first caught myself thinking about grocery shopping in English. Granted, that was partly because I didn’t know the Greek words for parsnip, coriander, or rhubarb (at this point, you might be thinking that I’m a healthy eater, but I assure you that I was very familiar with the taste and the words in both languages for all the unhealthy rubbish). But counting coppers in English? That was a whole new level of identity crisis! People often ask me if I dream in English, but I am pretty sure that none of those people have ever experienced any of my dreams, which are far too incomprehensible to be analysed linguistically.

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