Academia is not an easy place for non-native English speakers – even if you are fortunate enough to work in the country where you developed your language skills. (Well, it really depends on you what you consider fortunate. I like how cosmopolitan UK cities are, but the summer temperature? Yikes.) I would like to spare a few words for those of us who move away to English-speaking countries for the greater good of our research. Generally, the experience goes something like this:
(1. Initial rant about the local accent – press skip )
2. I finally understand them, and I am introduced to a world of new conversation topics – what on Midgard, Asgard and all the other seven worlds are they talking about?
3. After three months of extensive research, I get most references, but nobody gets mine – except the three people who listened to my detailed anthropological explanations of my background culture.
4. After twelve months, I have settled on one topic that I am interested in and I have become the master of it. Now, most of my break-time conversations at work are with the three people who also share the same interest (the rest are with the other non-native speakers who are equally lost).
5. After four years… I wouldn’t know – I am an ECR in Europe and I have never stayed that long in the same place. Let me know.
This experience can be unsettling. There is a universe of books and films that you love but cannot refer to. There are so many jokes that remain untranslatable. And, especially, there is a different weighing of values and customs that you must choose between abandoning or constantly explaining. If you are a native English speaker out there, working in academia in a country that is culturally close to your background, this is a plea: ask your non-native English speaker friend and colleague to recommend one of their favourite books, films or music artists from their background – you will have something new and interesting to talk about. If they try to make a reference that you do not know, follow up and pay attention to the meaning – if you like it, you can translate it and adapt it to fit into your conversations as a shared joke. If they behave in a manner or make a comment that is slightly off what you would expect in that context, ask them (politely) for explanations – a different perspective on social conventions may throw you off guard and make you think.
For all of those ECRs who are on their way to the UK to start a Master’s or a PhD, here is a list of pop culture topics you may want to study in advance for the best chance at socialisation:
- Tolkien, Pratchett and other English fantasy and sci-fi authors
- Superhero films, especially Marvel Studio products
- Monty Python, Blackadder and other works by comedians from the Oxbridge school of thought