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The International Writers Magazine
: Speak and the world will judge you...

The Language Barrier
Richard Cooper
'They say first impressions are everything...'

Until I travelled I did not fully appreciate how your accent could effect so many things. George Bernard Shaw famously stated in 'Pygmalion' in 1912 that "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making someone hate or despise him". Take for example the American accent. It has been demonstrated many times on my travels that Canadians wear a maple leaf on their backpacks to demonstrate their origins. Quite simply I and many others cannot distinguish between the two accents. As a result the Canadians feel that they get better service and treatment just by wearing the flag of Canada. This remarkably has carried over to Americans that I have encountered. They admit that they too have sewed on the badge in an attempt to receive better treatment much to the bemusement of the Canadians. This is not just about international prejudice. It is when you are away from home and meet hoards of fellow English people that you realise the problem is even worse in your home country. It is simply amplified abroad.

They say first impressions are everything. Well it is certainly demonstrated by the first words we speak. Like it or not we have been brought up with misconceptions of people just by the way we talk. There are the obvious and well known examples. All people with a scouse accent must have a good sense of humour and be up to no good. All people with a geordie accent know how to have a good time but are from the lower class society. All southerners are cocky and think they are the best. All cockneys are involved in black market activity and are wide boys. The list goes on. It is something so inherent within our culture that it is difficult to avoid. Quite simply there is more than a north-south divide.

A friend from Liverpool once went to live in Oxford. He had never lived in the South before. He went for numerous interviews but despite his good qualifications failed to convince the employers that he was right for the job. The next week he disguised his voice in the poshest tone he could. Two interviews later he had a job. To say his new employers were shocked when they heard his natural Liverpudlian tone the next day would be an understatement. Although this is a problem in Britain it happens all over the world. Different regional accents mean different things to different people.

Is it right to have prejudiced views just from the way people speak? Using previous examples of what people have said I could define the following based on common misconceptions. All Japanese people stand in big groups and take photos. All Swedish people are very sexually active. All Germans have no sense of humour and are arrogant. All Americans are loud and dominating. All English people are uptight and reserved. The list goes on. My travels in the main have proved this to be incorrect. The funniest people I have met have been the Germans. Some of the most articulate and down to earth people have been American. Although it is difficult to judge a nation on a minority of travellers, it is a start in taking away the barriers that exist. A Dutch girl once said to me "What is wrong with generalising people, if most people you meet are like that then what's wrong with stereotyping them?'. I have to admit I had this attitude at the start and I am not proud of it.

Now I actively detach my pre-determined misconceptions and meet everyone with an open mind. I have realised that one of my weaknesses was that I proving that people were different from their stereotype. It is easy to play to these stereotypes simply by the way people speak. I have been guilty before but now I am wising up to the fact that everyone is unique in their own way. Where you come from does shape you but that what makes travelling and meeting people from different countries so interesting.

© Rich Cooper may 10th 2004

From Sydney to Byron
Rich Cooper takes the bus

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