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Polish immigrants in Glasgow, 1955 (Picture Post/Hulton/Getty)

Where’s your accent from? Britain’s White Others

By and
Essay | 20 minute read
Silence and Sound series: A.M. Bakalar and Agnieszka Dale were born in Poland. They decided, like Joseph Conrad, to make their home 'the hospitable shores of Great Britain,' as he once wrote to a Polish friend. This is both exhilarating and challenging. It is also, post-Brexit, inescapably political

– Mum, I don’t want to leave Europe.

– You won’t leave Europe. You are half Polish so you’ll stay in Europe, even if Britain leaves.

– But my friend Archie is full English. So he’ll have to move out. I don’t want Archie to move out of Europe.

BBC Four recently broadcast a film, Accents Speak Louder Than Words, featuring a Polish woman, Kasia, who has lived in Britain for twenty-seven years. She used to proudly admit she was from Poland, after people commented on her unique accent, but now she lies and tells them she is from South Africa in order to avoid a growing hostility. Kasia’s desire to change her heavily accented English and sound less like a foreigner is a recent development and highlights the growing resentment towards immigrants in this country. In Brexit Britain, the polarisation between the British and the ‘others’ is audible.

Last weekend, for example, Asia took her one-year-old daughter to a playground. There were three free swings. A British woman came to stand beside Asia. Soon, a second mother – a Lithuanian – arrived with her son.

‘Could you understand her?’ asks Agnieszka, because she is sure Asia could not have understood Lithuanian. ‘This always happens to me when I go to my local Polish shop run by Lithuanians. When they speak, I can tell it sounds like Lithuanian, but I can’t understand a word of it.’

‘Honestly, I had no idea the woman was speaking Lithuanian. I asked her what language it was because I was so curious about it,’ Asia says. ‘I suspected it was an Eastern European language but I was not sure. It was so beautiful, like spoken music. It was such a pleasure to listen to the woman speak to her child.’

The British mother fell silent as soon as she heard the two foreign tongues. She stopped talking to her child. A little while later, after the three children had moved to a nearby park with toys, the British boy began bashing the Lithuanian boy’s head on a wooden bench. At first, Asia and the Lithuanian mother did not notice as they were talking, though they kept their children within sight. Only after the Lithuanian boy was screaming did they see what was going on. The Lithuanian boy’s head started bleeding. His mother looked angrily in the direction of the British mother, who just sat under a tree observing them, at a safe distance from everybody. Perhaps she was waiting for them to leave the playground, which they did, eventually.

Awkward alliances: Poland’s Lech Walesa with Glenys Kinnock, 1989 (Georges De Keerle/Getty)

This scene makes Agnieszka furious but she wants to find an excuse for the British woman. There had to be an explanation; a back story to her indifference, her cruel lack of reaction. Was she always an irresponsible mother? Did she have mental health issues? But what if there was no back story? What if her indifference just was? And what would have been the right thing to do? Would calling the police be appropriate?

An engineer, fixing a broken telephone line: ‘So, how long have you been living in this country?’
Seven-year-old: ‘Thousands and thousands of years.’

Agnieszka began to feel things change, indirectly – creeping and crawling – after the referendum. She was approached twice by BBC Radio 4 and asked to write ‘something Polish’, and lately just something from the depths of her heart. This was strange, she felt, because in the past, publishers and broadcasters always rejected her work, saying ‘foreign stuff’ would be of interest to them but only if it is ‘somehow related to the Middle East’. And then the referendum happened, and Asia introduced Agnieszka to her publisher, who not only didn’t reject her but actually took her on. In fact, she felt Asia’s voice, and hers, were now being heard more and more.

At the same time, Agnieszka feels sorry for the disruption, for Brexit. She really had no idea she and Asia were so powerful, and neither did her community, which currently makes up less than 2 per cent of the British population. They feel small. They really do. But they must be bigger, bolder, than they really are. How can that be? Agnieszka and Asia really don’t know.

‘Maybe it’s because we came from the East,’ says Asia. The East is scary, unknown maybe? They wonder.

‘We have wolves in Poland,’ says Agnieszka.

‘And bison,’ adds Asia. ‘We have bison, too.’

And yet, on the continent, it’s all so different. Agnieszka’s Polish friends in Germany have been telling her about a very popular German TV series which features a woman called Magda, who is a Polish caretaker to a German family, although she could also be Lithuanian, Czech, Slovakian, or Bulgarian. She wears a miniskirt and a golden cross on her chest. (‘Both the skirt and the cross generally help in life,’ Magda says.) Magda pretty much runs the entire family, solving all their problems. If for example, there is nothing to eat, Magda manages to produce a roast dinner, with a steaming goose, from leftovers. She also looks after the difficult German granny. The message of the TV series is: ‘we Germans rely on you “Poles”, and we are lost without you.’

English was the first foreign language Asia ever heard. She loved the sound of it. It was because her father was involved in amateur radio. Back then, his first transceiver, put together by two other Polish amateur radio operators in 1968, was wedged between a kitchen worktop and a collection of cacti and violets on the windowsill. Asia grew up with her father calling far-flung radio stations in English with his call sign: SP6NIN. The first English words Asia learned – Alpha Sierra India Alpha. Later, the letters would arrive containing QSL cards, a written confirmation of the radio connection. Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station, Djibouti, North Dakota. These were magical evenings, staying up late due to the different time zones. Listening to all these people from around the world calling out to each other was a small piece of freedom in communist Poland.

Agnieszka began studying English when she was seven years old. It was her fourth or fifth foreign language. She had a private tutorial, every Saturday morning. She also had a tutor for Spanish and French. She remembers feeling it was unfair. Schoolwork, and then all these bloody foreign languages on top! Plus, Russian at school; then part of the school curriculum, twice a week. But her parents insisted. They let her quit Spanish and French but they told her: ‘If you don’t speak English, you will never be heard.’ She felt oppressed by English, but she knew it was important. Her parents never forced her to do anything, so if they insisted, that one time, she felt she couldn’t quit. Also, the idea of not being heard was terrifying. To this day, her relationship with English is complicated. Agnieszka sees it as a language of propaganda – quiet propaganda that was once pitted against communism, and everything that was going on behind the Iron Curtain.

Asia’s father had a friend called Bill who invited them both for a visit to Britain. Asia arrived first to Whitley Bay, in the North East, her father following a week later. It was 1992. Bill and his wife Margaret installed Asia in a spare room and instructed her not to talk to strangers. ‘Quick, go back to your room,’ Margaret said to Asia when the window cleaner came to the house. The window cleaner was another foreigner.

Asia worked hard at her English and desperately wanted to fit in, but it was heavily accented and peppered with grammatical mistakes. Margaret pointed them out every time Asia tried to say something. She already knew then that language was key to fitting in. Franz Fanon, in his first book, Black Skin, White Masks (1952) said, ‘To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture’. Language is one of the most important tools in creating a person’s identity, in translating one’s culture, in defining who we are.

Asia and her father never visited Bill and Margaret again. It was Margaret who said over the phone: ‘Do not ever call us again,’ and slammed the receiver down with full force. Asia’s father and Bill never spoke on the radio again either; Bill’s wife forbade it. ‘Maybe it was something we said,’ wondered Marek, Asia’s father, convinced it was his fault. After all, his English was halting at times, and he also struggled to understand the shopkeeper and the newspaper seller. He was convinced they could still work out the cultural differences or linguistic misunderstandings. But it never crossed his mind that Bill and Margaret’s unexpected indifference could have been something to do with the fact he and Asia were Eastern Europeans: the poorer, less privileged children of the continent, imprisoned in the Soviet bloc; their Western brothers cocooned in their economic prosperity had probably wondered if Asia and her father should be part of Europe at all.

What is it about Polish history, and Polishness in general, which makes it unbearable to Westerners? Agnieszka was born in Poland but then moved to Colombia for three years, where her father led an FAO project for the UN. She remembers coming back to Poland, aged three. Her father took her to the forest. An old Polish forest, with no wolves, or tourists, but with beautiful pine trees. She still remembers the smell. She fell in love with it, like a foreigner visiting another country. She also fell in love with her grandmother. ‘Please, give me leche, Babciu,’ said Agnieszka to her grandmother when she first met her. She could not remember the Polish word for it; she just forgot for a split-second. ‘Leche? Oh, you must mean milk, lovie?’ Grandmother laughed, and Agnieszka soon understood that nobody other than her sister or parents spoke Spanish, or the mixture of Spanish and Polish she spoke to her sister. Spanish was funny. Uncool. She had to forget it quickly before starting school, and before she met lots of Polish children, who she was in fact a little scared of. Her older sister suffered a tiny bit more than Agnieszka. In Colombia, she went to a French school and told French children she came from Poland, a land where ‘mermaids swim in the rivers’. She even showed them an emblem of Warsaw, with a mermaid, as proof. She got a lot of respect for that. But back in Poland, it was harder; children called her ‘an American girl from Paris’. An alien with no distinct nationality. Not Polish. A foreigner. An oddball.

Agnieszka thinks there are more similarities between the British and the Polish than both sides dare to admit. For a start, both the Brits and the Poles are romantics. Poland’s dream of Poland is that of an Eastern European empire, even though the Czechs are so much better organised, and they have The Good Soldier Švejk.

‘He could be a Polish character,’ says Agnieszka. ‘But who says Czechs and Poles are not a little similar, or in fact very much the same? After all, we can almost understand one another. We speak similar languages.’

‘No,’ says Asia. ‘We are different. Very different. That’s why nationality and national identity is so challenging and it makes people uncomfortable.’

‘We should all try to laugh at nationality, just laugh in its scary face,’ says Agnieszka. ‘You know, sort of eradicating nationality while leaving all these great stereotypes intact.’ To her they are archetypal, even if they are wrong. Especially if they are wrong. Being Polish, as a device, is therefore so interesting. Such great material. So many misconceptions.

‘We Poles are often associated with either total lack of greatness, or great heroism, do you think?’ Agnieszka asks Asia. Asia is lighting up a cigarette.

‘Would you like one, too, today?’

Yes, an occasional cigarette is good for Agnieszka but not every day. She is Polish, after all. But this is not the only reason why Agnieszka writes. She doesn’t want to change national stereotypes overnight, and neither does Asia. This is not the main role of a writer. It would be an impossible task, with just one book, or two. But, admittedly, it’s still great material for writers. There is no better place, for a writer, a woman, in 2017, than to be a Polish immigrant in an English-speaking country. Agnieszka is loving it. She can be both an observer and a participant.

A message from an anonymous reader, on Twitter:

– Hiya Agnieszka, what do you go by for a nickname? The spelling of your name is killing my fingers. Aga? Agi? A?

She never heard back from him.

Back in the nineties, Asia continued to work on her accent, so next time she visited Britain, she did not experience the rejection that she did the first time round. QVC UK was the favourite channel for intonation practice. She sat in front of the telly and repeated the phrases she heard after the presenters. The content was not crucial; it was the way the women pronounced short and long vowels, which do not exist in Polish. Mastering the English and its correct pronunciation became the key to inhabiting the skin of an English person. Perhaps it was the feeling of rejection, when visiting Britain for the first time, and embarrassment that you were a ‘lesser’ person because you came from a communist country, that set the tone for years to come. ‘If I could talk like them, they would never know where I’m from,’ she thought.

Asia never felt oppressed by English. She did, though, by the Russian lessons which had been compulsory in Polish schools since 1949. Now, she wishes she had learned it properly so she could read Russian literature in the original, but the only things she remembers are Russian songs, like ‘Пустьвсегдабудетсолнце’ (English: ‘May There Always Be Sunshine’). Other languages followed: German, then later, after she began studying English Literature at the Wroclaw University, she learned Latin, French and Italian and a little bit of Spanish and Sanskrit. Mimi Ponsonby’s How Now Brown Cow? was a beloved textbook on English pronunciation. Armed with knowledge of diphthongs and triphthongs, phonology, fricatives and voiceless plosives, she was eager to test her abilities during her next visit to Britain. Yet again, she failed. ‘You talk like the Queen,’ she heard. ‘Nobody talks like that in south London.’

In Black Skins, White Masks, Fanon writes: ‘In the World through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself’. One of the key characteristics of identities constructed on foreign soil is their fluidity. The identity of one’s birth country, where one grows up and learns the mother tongue, then the identity of a host country, where one decides to live. Understandably, these hybrid identities are often created strategically, to ensure survival or success. One of the common questions we hear as immigrants is, ‘Where is home?’. It is easy to answer when you know who you are. But what if you don’t know? If we are not patriotic or grateful enough towards our host or country of origin does it mean we should be expelled? Language may not be such a great denominator of one’s affiliations either. Is a person who has lived in Britain for over twenty years a less desirable neighbour just because she speaks with an accent? And what accent exactly? Jan Krasnowolski, another Polish writer living in Britain, often says when he comes to London that he is ‘very sorry for his Dorset accent’. He has been living in Dorset for over a decade, and his accented English is accented both by Polish and the Dorset variety of English.

Mary B. Rodgers, an American-born author of sci-fi thrillers and contemporary romance, says to Asia: ‘I speak English perfectly, better than some Brits, but I have found this culture impenetrable. I know that even if I pick up a British accent, it will never be the “right” one. I’ll always get it wrong. So I cling with every fibre of my being to my American identity, with all the baggage, both good and bad, that action entails. There’s a saying: England and America are two peoples divided by a common language. That’s absolutely true. While you and Agnieszka are subject to a different and far more virulent hostility than I will ever be, I’m still an “other” as well. I will always be on the outside, looking in, as long as I live in England.’

Agnieszka and Asia occupy two, or more, cultural spaces and as many as three languages. Their hybrid identity can be as confusing for themselves as it is for the locals; it also enriches their creativity and understanding of the world. But there are times when, suddenly, the hybrid is no longer there; it becomes unified. The other week, Agnieszka’s children officially qualified as White British by a NHS receptionist:

– What’s your daughter’s background?
– She says she is mixed race. Mix of White British and White Other.

– Was she born in this country?
– Yes.
– I’ll put her down as White British then.

Agnieszka has been a naturalised British citizen for the past seven years but it does not come naturally to her. Unlike her children, she is still a White Other. She still drinks her cup of tea with lemon. This can cause a lot of problems. Agnieszka is determined to have her cup of tea with lemon served to her with no questions but this never happens.

Last week, for example, she ordered tea with a slice of lemon, and heard the following responses:

Answer 1: Would you like some jam in it, too?
Answer 2: You mean hot water, with lemon? Or real hot tea, with lemon?

Agnieszka and Asia are not that original, really. Like many Brits today, they were born into more than one culture. So are they really a threat? The fear of the other, and in their case the White Other as they are categorised by the British, is not unique to Britain. In Poland, they are treated with suspicion as soon as they open their mouths and forget a Polish word or two, which is only natural, if you only speak Polish to your children and a few friends. Once, in her hometown, Wrocław, a man told Asia, ‘You are not from here’. Have I lived too long abroad? she wondered. Do I look different? ‘I don’t know what it is exactly,’ the person said, ‘there is something strange about you.’

‘This is something Joseph Conrad often wrote about,’ says Agnieszka. ‘A stranger even to yourself kind of thing.’ There is this brilliant scene in a short story ‘The Secret Sharer’ where two captains meet on the ship. One, presumably Conrad’s alter ego, a White Other, fully clothed and responsible for the ship. The other, called Leggatt, presumably White British, is naked and asking to be rescued. However, as soon as the fully clothed captain tells Leggatt the time, presumably with an accent, Leggatt questions his status:

– Are you alone on the deck?

– Yes

– Suppose your captain’s turned in?

– I am the captain.

I heard ‘By Jove!’ whispered at the level of the water.

For Asia and Agnieszka, the language has become an act of resistance, play and creativity. These days, the question ‘Where is your home?’ transforms, between the lines, into ‘I can’t really place your accent. You talk almost like a native speaker. I need to know where you’re from, so I know how to treat you.’ The British needn’t fear immigrants like Asia or Agnieszka, but rather their children, and the children of their children. They are the real double agents, the perfect cross-cultural hybrids who can flawlessly camouflage their heritage.

– Mum, did Napoleon like the English?

– No.

– Did he like the Polish?

– Yes.

– So would Napoleon like me?

In post-Brexit Britain, the level of one’s English is the denominator of belonging, of being perceived as ‘us’ not ‘them’. Any suspicious sounds, misplaced accent or unusual grammatical constructs are promptly noticed. The silence of the written language offers a safe space. This is the territory Asia and Agnieszka claim as their own. They become invisible on the written page.

But do they really?

Opposing camps? Peter Shilton (left) and Roy McFarland of England, after the World Cup qualifying match England V Poland, October 1973 (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty)

‘The British could breathe a sigh of relief when Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature. Here, after all, was a British writer, who, luckily for the British, decided to write in English, not Japanese, the language he was born into. The majority of the British might not have felt as alienated as they may have when an obscure Ukrainian journalist, Svetlana Alexievich, or a French author, Patrick Modiano, won the same prize. The supremacy of the English language has been confirmed once again,’ says Asia. Agnieszka disagrees.

‘No, he is like us. He is an immigrant, too. This is exactly what we do. We are confirming the supremacy of the English language, too. We feel hostage to it. But we are exposing it. We are fighting it.’

The ‘below the line’ comments after Ishiguro is awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in the Guardian reveals a similar split:

mamdad12: He’s not English, he’s Japanese. And he’s not in the same league as waThiong’o.

mscommerce: He got here when he was 5. He writes in English, which is his first language. He’s not Japanese, he’s British.

garrys1234: It doesn’t matter does it. He has lived 57/62 years in the UK and has Japanese parents, speaks Japanese and writes in English. A rich cultural mix.

‘It is the great challenge, and tragedy, for a nation like Britain, to become a victim of its own success,’ says Asia. English is still the lingua franca of the world. There is no incentive for the British to learn foreign languages, if everybody else is already learning theirs. Consequently, the majority of the British are monolingual and around 98% of the population uses English. And yet, over 300 different languages are spoken in British schools. ‘Writers are aware that if they would like to be heard, their work needs to be published in English,’ says Asia. We feel a tangible reluctance perpetuated by the media towards other languages. It is easy to wave a supportive flag for the immigrants in Britain, but how real is the support for non-English speakers?’ The mainstream media may champion immigrants and their rich cultures, but it is still reluctant to publish, let alone read their narratives. Foreign narratives need greater visibility, or else Britain faces becoming a secluded and hostile cultural territory.

‘But we are enriching English,’ argues Agnieszka. ‘We both write via Polish, even if we do it in English. Polish must leave a significant mark, even if the accent is undetectable, on the page. Even if nobody knows. There will be Polish directness, sense of humour, our impatience with words.’

‘Take a look at the pages of some of the newspapers and magazines published in Britain,’ says Asia. ‘What emerges is the alienation of narratives of the Other out of the mainstream’ . There is simply no space in Brexit Britain for narratives written in languages other than English. Learning another language and, by extension, another culture, helps us to imagine the perspective of other people, helps us to be compassionate human beings. ‘Immigrants and their languages are the bridge to better humanity. If languages are pushed into the cultural underground, what kind of society is Britain building for its future generations and the future of its country?’ asks Asia.

But it’s not so simple. Brexit is a romantic idea of empire and superiority. ‘It’s not easy to shake it off because nationality is such an annoying term and yet comforting too. It all comes down to nationality, like some kind of branding we have,’ says Agnieszka.

For instance, she adds, before you read the following poem, imagine that the ‘I’ is a Somali immigrant. Then read it again, this time imagining the ‘I’ as a Polish immigrant. Next, read the poem as if the ‘I’ were a French émigré. Finally, please ready this poem with ‘I’ spelled in small caps – i – like in any other European language:

“A Very Secret Wish of Every Immigrant”

by Agnieszka Dale

I wish I could
Not hear English
Just for one day
For one hour
For one minute
Half a minute
At least
Could all English speakers
Leave Great Britain
Both Americas
New Zealand
Et cetera
For a split second
I beg you
Just so that I can

Agnieszka doesn’t know why she wrote this poem. It sort of came out. ‘Shall we delete it, or keep it?’ she asks Asia. They decide to keep it until characters like Magda from the German TV show start appearing on British TV, too. Then maybe this poem will completely disappear, or be kept as historical evidence of Britain’s sudden madness, sudden but short-lived. You know, this bad dream. This boring dystopia. This menacing B-word everybody seems obsessed about in the English language.

AM Bakalar’s Unbound book choice is ‘A Country to Call Home’.