Along with millions of others who never pick up a racket from one year to the next I watch Wimbledon. Last night it was young Andrew Murray who finally won though to the next round after a rather patchy match. What was a bit odd was the fact that Murray is quite definitely Scottish, but I only saw one person in tartan and only one Saltaire (the name given to the blue on white cross of St Andrew on the Scottish flag). There were lots of British flags (Union Jacks), but only one Scottish one. .
Is it the fact that you can’t buy Scottish flags in London, or is it that when someone from Scotland, Wales or Ulster is doing well he suddenly becomes British and by implication almost English, rather than Irish, Scots or Welsh? Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, was born and educated in Scotland, but you would never be able to tell that from his accent. Gordon Brown on the other hand was born on the other side of the Firth of Forth, just a few miles further north, and has retained the accent of his youth.
Are accents important in your country? Does it matter where you were born, if you want to succeed?
I was born almost exactly in the centre of England and that is where I spent the next 20 years, but my ancestry includes Celtic, Spanish and Scandinavian strains. What does that make me? I’ve moved around a lot since then, and not always within the British Isles. My mother used to say she had a separate address book just for me.
There are those who say you can tell where someone’s true loyalties lie by which football teams they support, modern soccer being a substitute for warfare. In that case I used to support England, but the team has had so many difficulties it is hard to keep on doing that. On a more local basis I say support Aston Villa, because, even though I’ve never been to a game, I could hear the yells of the crowds when I visited my Gran on a Saturday.
Moving around so much has affected my accent too. I didn’t change it in order to succeed, though I don’t use much dialect any more. It has been rather a subtle change, brought about by contact with many different voices. We live in the east of England now, not too far from the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire coasts. Tomorrow we are crossing the Pennines into Cheshire for a visit. Accents to me at least will sound very different from those in my village.
In a few weeks time we are having a family wedding. There will be relatives and friends from far and wide – from as far south west as Swansea, from London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Nottinghamshire and other places in between. Accent and football teams won’t matter, it is the relationships that count.
Why am I telling you all this. For two reasons:- Firstly so that you don’t worry too much if you think you don’t have a perfect British accent, there’s no such thing. Secondly to point out that we tend to adopt the accents of those we mix with or hear. So if you want an accent that is understandable you need to listen to real English speakers and not just other language learners. For a year I had a French teacher who had never been to France and who tended to be just a page ahead of us in the text book. This was before the days of language laboratories and lots of tapes or DVDS. He was a very nice man, but what he taught us wasn’t French. It took other teachers, who came along later, ages to correct our errors. So put on that CD, listen to that radio programme, or just find someone who is a native speaker. That is the way to go.