Living in the land of ‘sorry’

Story by Tunde Farrand | Photo courtesy of Jim Dimond

Land of Sorry
Land of Sorry

We have been talking to a group of women from North Africa and the Middle East. They come from countries from all over the region, from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria, Iran, Somalia, Morocco and Libya. But there is one thing in common: they moved to the UK with no or very little English. We wanted to find out about the difficulties they faced due to the lack of language skills.

They all agreed that expressing themselves was extremely hard and limited often leading to misinterpretation. Sometimes it left them feeling debilitated. Being ignored, sent out of a building while waiting for family, getting on the wrong bus and feeling embarrassed are common, every day experiences. The lack of language skills can further contribute to the sense of loneliness and alienation that is an inevitable part of moving to a new country.

They agreed that in addition to this, understanding the Sheffield accent was another extra struggle. How did they cope? First it was the good old-fashioned body language. Of course, it is not possible to communicate everything through body language also the meaning of different gestures differs in each culture.

The general opinion was that in their culture eye-contact between strangers of different genders is not accepted. The other thing is to use someone to interpret for them. In many cases it turned out to be their child who has a near native proficiency – having arrived in the country at an early age when the brain is still very receptive to language and picks it up naturally. An official translator is sometimes provided but one student experienced that their translator simply missed out important information.

Cultural differences can also contribute to the feeling of alienation. In Iran the calendar is different from the European one and our Iranian student simply can’t tell her birth date when asked as it has no equivalent in English.

The frequent use of sorry – though unusual – interestingly has also proved to be a saviour.

A student explains:

“When I don’t understand something or don’t know what to say, I just say sorry.”

The solution might be having more English classes than the two per week they currently get. But government policy on this it is very unlikely to improve in the near future. Women with large families don’t have other opportunities to learn English as they spend the majority of their lives at home looking after the household and family and living in a community in which only their own language is spoken.