When I graduated from secondary school (high school). I was informed by my parents that I would be moving to England to continue my education (A-levels and university). I was ecstatic. I was going to be a super cool international girl, like the girls in all the brochures I had viewed repeatedly in the previous 18 months. My dream was to be like these girls who looked super happy, spoke with a proper British accent and looked like they were having a blast in boarding school.
The day I finally left for England, I dressed like I was going to the hottest party in town. A far cry from my regular joggers, trainers and basic t-shirt I wear these days when I'm travelling. Honestly, I cringe now, when I think about that outfit. But you have to understand how seriously I took this move to England and I was dressing accordingly - To be the super cool international girl.
We stopped in London for the first couple of weeks, for back-to-school shopping. It was our usual stomping ground after all. I was usually with my mum and did not realize how much I leaned on her communication-wise whilst we did our shopping and probably all the other times when we were in London.
We then began the journey to the school (which was outside London). I started to get hints, that the London I knew, was very different from the hamlet (village) in England I was going to be living in. My first clue was when I struggled to understand some of the train-ticket sellers in their strong English accents or the people on the train. However, I was really just focused on getting to school and beginning the next chapter of my life.
Not actual footage of the the hamlet but it looks similar***
We got to the school, met the house parents and individuals who would be responsible for me. They were very lovely, but I started to get hints again ( I had to really concentrate to listen to them and make out what they said) I just put it down to nerves and got on with unpacking my things. After my Mum went back to London (after getting me settled) the reality of things began to dawn on me.
For a bit of context, coming from Nigeria at a young age with a very strong southern Nigerian accent, where I spoke very quickly (not necessarily properly) and having a bit of a thick voice, It was difficult for non-Nigerians to understand me when I spoke. I also really struggled to understand them.This was a small VERY English hamlet (also known as a village) three hours plus and two train rides away from London. The train that serviced this hamlet, came with ONE carriage, once every two hours. That's how remote that hamlet was. The accent was incredibly different and as English as one could get.
The two girls I shared my room with, were German and an Isle of Man resident. They assumed that English wasn't my first language. (THE EFFRONTERY! I had a great grade in my English WAEC! but clearly that meant nothing at that point)
I did however, make friends with these lovely Spanish students, where I ended up having a massive crush on one of the boys, simply because I liked how he spoke Spanish. English was indeed his second language and he had come to England to be more fluent in it. Clearly you can see I was not focused.
Then we started school (after a week of orientation) Honestly, I wasn't sure if I was still in England. If not for the fact that there were some teachers and individuals, I somewhat understood as well as my Nigerian friends, I would have been convinced I was in a different country.
Having normal conversations with non-Nigerians was hard. I had to ask people to repeat what they said, several times. I winged conversations, laughed at what seemed the appropriate part of the conversation and relied on a lot of visual cues. A lot of the time I really couldn't really hear them. It was also super tiring as my brain had to work extra hard, to process information I could not easily hear or understand.
The above GIF was how I felt so many times in the first couple of months.
I had teachers, who for the life of me, I could not understand what they were saying. I hadn't told them I was hearing impaired, so they didn't make the extra effort that would have helped. (I never felt the need to, I didn't need to do this at school in Nigeria). It was a shame, because I particularly loved history (which was the class I struggled with the most). Needless to say I failed the first couple of tests I got.
It all came to a head one day, when I went to the stationery shop to get what I now know is called a hole puncher. In Nigeria, this was called a perforator. (see below)
You would not believe it took about 30 minutes for the stationery shop attendant to understand me - when I asked for a perforator (aka hole puncher). I could not fully understand what they were saying either. This happened over 15 years ago. The internet was not as easily accessible as it is today, otherwise a quick Google search would have resolved things. After a very frustrating 30 minutes, a manager eventually figured out what it was I wanted. I found the experience humiliating and frustrating. I really just wanted a hole puncher.
At this point, I called my Mum and wailed - I didn't want to stay in school anymore. This is not looking like the life in the boarding school brochure. I just wanted to go home. I didn't want to be a super cool international girl anymore. She was, understandably, very worried and wasn't sure what to do. We talked through it and figured the only way to resolve this, was by persevering, asking for help and being solution oriented.
I started off by watching the newscasters on the BBC News in the evenings (to be more familiar with the British accent). Listen, I kid you not, this made a whole lot of difference. (the BBC jingle is stuck in my head for life now - Click here for a 15s clip). The little TV where i watched it in the boarding house was next to the payphone I used to call my parents. So it was a little ritual I had at the time. Call my parents and then watch the news.
I started making an effort to speak slower and tried not to put myself under much pressure or be afraid. In class, I started sitting in front (no longer at the back with the cool kids) really listen to the teachers and get notes off others after class (as a lot of the teachers dictated notes). I started being more intentional about having conversations with English people. I met some genuinely lovely people and learnt a lot about them and their families. A lot can happen when you meet your fear head-on.
Two years flew by and I made it into my first choice of university! The challenges continued but not it was not as difficult as it once was. It just meant having to put in more work and study a lot more. With time, as I built more relationships, I found that more and more people could understand me, without asking me to repeat myself. It was really incredibly satisfying. I took part-time jobs that would put me in contexts I would originally have found uncomfortable. This forced me to level up and I found them very helpful.
I also was no longer asking people to repeat themselves, and honestly it took years for me to get used to the fact, that people could understand me, without me having to repeat myself. (if I am being honest, I still feel this way sometimes).
I started my career in London, and with confidence, I was able to assert myself as a competent staff despite my hearing impairment.
You know what makes me so ridiculously proud? When people are surprised to learn that I grew up in Nigeria and they go "but I would never have guessed! you have a British accent" - the below GIF is how I feel inside. It's the little things people!
It may sound silly, but when I think of those first few years, how incredibly difficult they were for me and what I've been able to overcome. It makes this little "accent - win" worth it.
Unfortunately, I moved away from England. My British accent is waning and only occasionally shows up in my voice, when I'm trying to calmly communicate my feelings, when i'm very upset or i'm very nervous. It's the Canadian accent I suspect I'm now getting. I'm intrigued to see how I would sound in the next few years. I, however, have learnt, the key thing is to be clear and concise with my diction.
The major point is that my dream came true. - I am now a super cool international girl y'all :D
Until next time...