Meet Fiora, SLE Director of Expansion.
Once upon a time, I had an accent. As a Scottish kid growing up in England, I struggled daily to be understood. Despite being stuck on an island together, the Scottish and English may as well be speaking different languages. ‘Yes, put it in the bin,’ in a Scottish accent translates as ‘I pit in the bean’ in Standard English.
I spent the majority of my childhood labeled as ‘haggis-lady,’ an unimaginative play on our traditional dish. I learnt a list of Scottish inventors at one point, to refute the taunts of my English peers. (We invented the television, the telephone, tires, raincoats, road surfacing, and Penicillin, just in case you were curious.) This tactic didn’t work either. Now I wasn’t only Scottish, I was also a Scottish nerd.
(As a side note, I found out this past week that the European parliament actually officially recognizes modern Scots as a separate and underrepresented language, not merely as a subset of English, since the two originate from different languages– Scots and old English… Wish I’d known that age 7.)
Scotland and England have a complex and occasionally tense relationship, in which two cultures coming from separate and opposing origins were merged under ‘British.’ Not many people understand this, which leads anyone who is not Scottish to consider us all English, and anyone who is Scottish to refuse to consider themselves British.
Within this conglomeration of identities, Scotland usually comes out as the underdog. For the most part, this results in the odd joke about Londoners being pansies, or Scots being uncivilized. However, this coming year things are getting a little more serious as the country takes a vote on whether to split from England for good. No more UK. No more Rule Britannia. The Queen will be reduced to a lady with a silly hat and some cute dogs.
I often found that the dynamics of this relationship were played in language, in the subtle differences between how we speak and which voices are heard the most. Scottish people are intensely proud of holding onto their dialectical tongue, while the English consider it to be uncouth, simply a form of ungrammatical English.
I spent my last two years of high school in Swaziland, a small country next to South Africa, where SiSwati is spoken by only a million people. Here, I had the sharp realization that the power dynamic I saw in my own country was at play on a much larger global scale. The European narrative and European languages dominate and subjugate those who do not actively engage with European cultures, particularly those who could not afford to have formal education and be taught ‘proper’ English.
Our world is a place of inequality. This inequality is reflected in the languages we speak. Let’s talk about it.
Pretend you not only speak English, but you also happen to speak French, Spanish and German. You will still only be able to communicate with 10% of the world. Only 10%. And that 10% is, for the most part, comparatively very wealthy. What are you missing out on?
Why does this matter? If you’re a well-educated English-speaker, why should you bother to learn Bengali, or Cantonese, or Thai, Tamil, SiSwati, Kiswahili, Wolof, Malay or even just how to understand someone with a Scottish accent?
It would have meant the world to me if someone had told me at age 7 that my accent was not something to be ashamed of. Instead, it was something that I should have actively endorsed, that other people might even want to learn how to speak that way.
That’s what SLE does. It tells students from overlooked cultures that their culture and communities are worthwhile.
And in doing so, it shifts global paradigms. It creates lines of communication and it introduces American students to cultures they have never had the chance to engage with. It shows us that Western cultures and languages are not the ‘right,’ the normal, or even the majority way. They are only the most heard.
People often say, “Oh, you have an accent!” I used to smile, and recite a list of Scottish inventors in the hope that it would prove to them that my culture was worth paying attention to.
Now, I have generated a stock response: “No, you have an accent.”
Fiora is a sophomore at Brown University studying English. Her work at SLE is based on the sincere belief that “geography is fate”. Also, that any and all cultural boundaries can be crossed by the omnipotence of chocolate.