On going here, and not there.

What’s the travel highlight of the country you’re in now? Which parts of the national culture does it represent? Would your experience of the country be complete without seeing it?



When I ask him if he’s ever travelled outside his home country, he proudly tells me about the six months he spent teaching music in the Galápagos. I try to point out that the Galápagos Islands actually do belong to Ecuador, and that while far away, they technically don’t constitute a foreign country. He argues me down until I give in, and tell him I must have made a mistake.

He is, however, the only person in his family to have been all that way. He may in fact be the only person in the entire neighbourhood to have seen what is internationally considered the highlight of travelling to his country. Despite the significantly lower entrance fee for nationals, he is one of only a handful of Ecuadorians I speak to who have actually seen the destination most tourists dedicate their entire trip to.

He asks me if I want to go; I tell him I’m dying to. He asks me when I’m going; I tell him not this year, and probably not the next either. He’s not surprised – a one-week holiday there costs upwards of what many Ecuadorians will earn in three months.

In contrast, when I meet an Australian couple a few months later in Peru, they’re horrified that I’ve spent three months in Guayaquil without booking any flights westbound. I tell them about slurping encebollado on the Pacific Coast, about Spanish dialects peppered with Quechua slang, about the fierce national pride of the Guayaquil Foundation Day celebrations. They’re still in shock. To them, I’m the person who goes all the way to France without seeing the Eiffel Tower.

What a waste, they tell me.


“What’s the full moon party like there? I hear it’s awesome.”

I look at her blankly. After an awkward silence, I finally tell her the truth: that I didn’t know there was a full moon party in Goa. And, if I’m being totally honest, that I’m not really sure what a full moon party is.

“What are you talking about?! It’s MASSIVE! I guess you don’t go back to Goa very often then?”

I shrug. She tells me about wild parties on the beach until 2am, about sleeping on the sand under the stars, about rainbow cocktails chock-full of mango and papaya, about the drink and the drugs and the trance music.

I think about the local weddings where dinner isn’t even served until 2am, and how you have to invite everyone in the village so the music until 7am the next day doesn’t disturb them. I think about the 5% of the Goan population living below the poverty line, for whom sleeping beneath the stars on the beach is just a fact of life, and not a glimpse into some other, more exotic reality. I think about how mangoes have been out of season for two months now, and besides they’re better when you poke them off the tree with the biggest stick you can find in the garden, raw, rubbed with fiery chilli powder and rock salt, scraping the sour flesh out with your teeth, eyes bunched up and grinning like an idiot. I think about the Goan music charts, full to the brim with the soundtrack from that Bollywood film we saw last week and a few covers of classic Portuguese folk tunes. I think about cultures being imported and exported across the world.

I’m missing out, apparently.


I’d spent a couple of weeks in Sucre, and then half a week in Potosí, and then Holy Week in La Paz. Truth be told, I’d have liked to see the world’s biggest salt flats at Uyuni, but there just wasn’t time. After two weeks of illness holding me to the south of Bolivia, I knew I needed to move on if I wanted to see any of Peru. I rationalised it by telling myself that I’d already seen salt flats in the Jujuy province of Argentina, and what a great adventure that had been, and not to spoil it by beating myself up for making a difficult decision.

The guy sitting next to me on the bus to Tarabuco told me he’d been for the first time that Christmas, after 26 years of living in Bolivia. It was spectacular, he said. Everything people told you, and more. More like Mars than Earth. Really shouldn’t miss it.

When I finally reached the border crossing to Peru, I was only too happy to get my exit stamp and leave Bolivia. Not every place is for everyone, and I knew in my heart I wouldn’t be paying for a flight back any time soon. But I still I wondered – would I have changed my mind after seeing the glaring white mirrors of salt in Uyuni, or the wildlife-rich jungle near Rurrenabaque?

Maybe it would have changed everything. Maybe my experience of living with three Bolivian families over an entire month would have been completely turned around after three days in a jeep, seeing the volcanoes and flamingoes and of course, the salt.

But somehow, I doubted it. Not every place is for everyone.


On anxiety.

What makes us nervous when we travel? Why do we choose to break out of our comfort zones? Where do our travel anxieties come from?

According to the Holmes and Rahe stress scale, travelling is just a little bit more stressful than breaking the law. For a couple of my friends, the sheer idea of being abroad for any significant length of time is enough to make them break a sweat, and in some cases causes so much anxiety that it prevents them from travelling at all. The thought of not being able to communicate fluently, of having to eat unfamiliar foods, of having to make do without phone signal and mobile data … Any one of those situations is a deal-breaker for them.

Of course, keen travellers still worry about the same things, to some extent. We look up basic phrases in the new language, or we learn a lingua franca to help us talk to the locals, or we screenshot a hundred different maps and guides on our phones while we’re still within the hostel wifi zone. But despite these numerous contingency plans, there is a fundamental difference to be noticed: while travelphobes are crippled by these anxieties, the seasoned traveller is encouraged by them.

Fear becomes a challenge — just another hurdle to be cleared on the path to personal fulfilment. The idea of getting lost in some far-flung country, of travelling without a return ticket, of not hearing your native language for the next few months is enough to kick-start the flow of adrenaline in our bodies. We’ll make do with the bare bones of a plan, but no plan is so much better. We thrive on the uncertainty; we live for the thrill of the unknown; we leave with the sole guarantee of having no guarantees at all once we arrive at our destination. But just reading those last four sentences might make my travel-phobic friends pass out.

So why is it that two people can have such polarised reactions to the same stimulus? How do those who love to travel find stress-relieving experiences where others find stress-inducing ones? If travelling is a fear then how can we overcome it? It’s obvious that our attitudes to travelling must have evolved from some point on the nature-nurture scale, an eternally controversial topic among psychologists. But if we find ourselves lacking, is it possible to teach ourselves how to embrace the spirit of adventure? There are a million questions on this topic and very few concrete answers; in a way, a very accurate representation of travelling. It all depends on the task at hand, your individual character and to a certain extent, on luck.


When I first thought about what it would be like to only have 25 days of paid leave every year, my stomach began to twist itself into painful knots. No spontaneous trips to Belgium to satisfy a craving for hot, sugary waffles. No endless summers spending more time outside the country than in it. No more calling in sick to your part-time job or skipping lectures to snag the best airline fares. When it comes to travel, you have to choose: a way of life, or just a hobby that you indulge a handful of times per year?

When I saw the description of the internship online, I thought I was hallucinating. Work abroad for five weeks? In three different cities? And get paid for it? It was a no-brainer. I applied within the hour and didn’t sleep all night, sure that the entire student population of England had done exactly the same thing. After all, who wouldn’t want an opportunity like that? I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than discovering a new career and a new place at the same time. It seemed almost to good to be true and I was sure I had no chance, that my application could only drown in a vast ocean of similarly enthusiastic CVs and cover letters.

When I was eventually given the internship, I slept with one eye open for the entire five weeks, determined to do whatever it took to secure myself a job where travel was not only offered but encouraged. I lost myself in the stories of my coworkers and the different places their work had taken them to. I lived for the day when I could call that lifestyle my own. And I was absolutely dumbfounded to discover that during the application process, on the personality questionnaire where I had automatically ticked the box next to “willing to travel for work”, so many of my friends applying to similar companies had crossed it out. When I asked them why, their answers ranged from wanting to be close to family to feeling reluctant to adjust to a different way of life.

I couldn’t understand it then and I can’t understand it now, but in every waking moment when I’m not travelling myself (and at times, when I am), I’ll spend my time trying to pass on my wanderlust, hoping to share the incomparable gift of travel with as many people as I possibly can. I realise now that as worried as some of my friends are about travelling, I am even more scared — by the thought of being confined to one place forever. My anxiety stems from the possibility that I might not have a way to challenge my anxieties. It’s a total contradiction, and it’s one that I’ve found in so many friends I’ve met around the world. But as anxieties go, it’s probably not the worst one to have …

Nathanael on a rock looking out over the Peak District, England, UK.

On the road, upwards.

What makes a memorable road trip? Why did we choose to drive to our destination? How does it affect the way we see our surroundings?


The map unfolds across the width of the back seat, the full extent of the Algarve – so tiny on a globe – illustrated in minute detail on the brittle paper. The meticulous labelling is a world away from the carefree, countryside idyll rolling out before us. We take turn after nameless turn, eyes on the shadow of Monchique in the distance, finding and losing our bearings at each hamlet and stream we pass … but eventually, unmistakably, the road begins to climb inch by careful inch as we ascend towards the mountain pass. The lane winds back on itself, hairpin bend after careful hairpin bend; I study the map, my finger following our progress along the road.

The tall, dry grass tickles my ankles and invites me forward.

The next time I look up, waves of bristly trees have quietly enveloped us on either side, brief darts of sunlight peeking through as we flash past. Rounding the bend, we pull over and step out onto the deserted plateau that stretches past the road, crashing suddenly into lush green valleys just a few feet later. I walk a few steps away from the concrete; the tall, dry grass tickles my ankles and invites me forward. Above us, a single sparse cloud has torn itself into four cottony trails, as if mapping the compass points for our benefit. We pile back into the car and I let the dappled sunlight flicker over me, eyes closed, imagining the Portuguese sky leading us into the wild.


It’s always parked on some ridiculously steep gradient, and it rolls back just a millimetre or two when the handbrake goes down. We feel the tyres give a little as the brakes hold us to the road; the car rocks on its hind legs before it crawls slowly forward, up and over. The people here say that Sheffield, like Rome, was built on seven hills; the inner city nestles tightly in the central valley, the glimmering heart of South Yorkshire. We veer manically around this natural rollercoaster track, dipping from the hilly suburbs as we follow the road deep down into the central pit. Traffic, noise, life. The car swings carefully around the roundabout, and we take the western exit; it leads to a different world.

The narrow terraces of the city collapse rapidly into elegant mansions that dominate the view, looming over the ever-narrowing road. The trees flanking us on either side turn from solitary sentinels to a fully-fledged sylvan army, keeping watch over the passageway from city to country. We pass carefully beneath their opaque canopy, silent now as we wait to emerge from our green blindfold. We are alone.

The road runs perilously close to the edge; we lower the windows to peer over the drop.

We blink and the shelter of the trees is suddenly ripped away as we escape the forest and the car plunges forward into the wide open. We carve our route into the side of the hill; its towering outline traces a soft peak above us before flowing gently into the distance. Snaking along the matchstick-thin lane, we pass local pubs and quiet cottages, their owners and patrons nowhere to be seen in the crisp afternoon. The road runs perilously close to the edge; we lower the windows to peer over the drop and the cold Yorkshire air rushes up to meet us, cold yet comforting on our skin. After a few seconds or hours or days, or maybe all our lives, we leave humanity behind and allow ourselves to be utterly engulfed by the unfathomable beauty of the English Peak District.


Before that moment, the mountains hadn’t seemed real, their glossy peaks a world away from the sweltering heat of the Moroccan day. The road is a straight arrow, four empty lanes bridging the gap between us, in the lowly city, and the colossal might of the High Atlas; we shoot past olive trees planted like pawns on a chessboard, a neat row of green against the stark brown fields. They guide us silently to our destination.

I feel alive with an inexplicable spirit, contained somehow in the agelessness of the Atlas.

We are alone on our concrete pilgrimage route, not another vehicle in sight, heading ever onwards to the otherworldly peaks dominating the skyline. The rising heat waves ripple across those sharp zig-zag edges; the line between reality and mirage blurs. As we approach the vast shadow of the mountains, the air loses the dust of the city, cleansed by the chilled waters of crystal-clear springs. I feel alive with an inexplicable spirit, protected by this remote place, contained somehow in the agelessness of the Atlas.

The mountains are entwined together in soft gradients of blue, thin veins of snow trickling from their summits, ethereal creatures bleeding white under the intense sunlight. They run from south to north, as far as my eye can see, seeming to mark out the very curvature of the earth. The tallest one is silhouetted, solid navy against the feathery-blue sky; I imagine it is Atlas himself, holding the entire world on his shoulders; holding up the sky while the world revolves, unknowing, beneath him.

A stone angel trapped under snowfall in Highgate Cemetery, London.

On waiting.

How much of our time do we spend waiting when we travel? What are we willing to wait for? Is there any value in the wait?

Here at home, I’m starting to feel a little lost.

When I finally step on the plane to Ecuador this September, it will have been seven months. Seven months since the last flight, seven months since the last passport stamp, seven months since the last hilarious misunderstanding in a lingua franca. I’m not even sure I can wait that long. How long is the average time to wait between travelling? Everyone else seems to be doing it all the time. I’m starting to wonder if not travelling regularly could actually be bad for my health in some way. Grounded with no tickets booked, reluctantly deleting unopened British Airways sale e-mails, flicking through itineraries I won’t be using for the best part of a year … Here at home, I’m starting to feel a little lost.

I’m no stranger to waiting, of course. I’ve waited for hours in ill-equipped airports and deserted train stations. I’ve waited days for visa applications to come back just in the nick of time. I’ve waited with complete and utter impatience for weeks leading up to any given trip, knowing I was on the verge of falling in love with a place I hadn’t even seen yet, brimming with anticipation for the people I would meet who would all somehow change me in their own infinitesimal way. I’ve waited for trains that never arrived in Bangkok; I’ve waited for the sun that never shone in Oslo; I’ve waited for the downside that never came in Bruges. But I’ve never spent this long just waiting for the waiting to stop.


Back in the nineties, nobody cared about Goa. Before it became the go-to beach destination in India, it was just the smallest state, a bit odd, very out-of-the-way for most tourists. In the nineties if you wanted to fly London to Goa, you actually flew London to Bombay to Goa. You spent that hellish half-day stopover in the sham that was Bombay’s international airport, because you couldn’t drag your child out into the insanity of the city. You had to book two separate flights, so you’d packed your hand luggage to the brim with overnight essentials. All that remained was to find a spot in one of the most oversubscribed airports in one of the most overpopulated countries in the world.

And because you couldn’t leave your bags unwatched, and you couldn’t leave your family in case you got separated, and you didn’t have any mobile phones, and Bombay airport’s answer to overnight couches were thin, flat, raised, partially reclined, plasticky single mattresses … all three of you had to cram onto one oversized grey “bed”, bracing your legs against the seat dividers, curling your arms strategically around luggage handles, trying not to put your elbow in someone else’s stomach or vice versa. And then, you had to sleep enough to recover from the previous 9-hour flight but not so much that you missed the boarding call for the next one.


When we hit the turbulence somewhere over Turkey, I didn’t bat an eyelid. Although coaches scare me and I frequently feel car-sick, I have never had a problem with packing myself into a tiny metal tube and being propelled thirteen kilometres into the clouds. But when the plane started to sway somewhere over Syria, my confidence took a tiny blow; my fingers unconsciously began to choke the armrest. The lightning and thunder didn’t help, and as the tropical storm grew progressively more violent over the following hour and forty-five minutes, for the first time in my life I mentally calculated the probability that my boyfriend and I might end up just names in a newspaper article the next morning …

Strange city. No information. One grainy phone call.

So when we landed safely in Qatar and were told that our connecting flight had been cancelled due to a technical issue with the plane, I was more than relieved. The handful of passengers on our route dutifully queued up at the information desk, where we were issued 24-hour emergency visas. Then the airline staff drove us to a hotel, plied us with meal vouchers, and left. Strange city. No information about our connection. One grainy phone call to my family in India to let them know we wouldn’t be arriving in the morning.

Thanks to our baggage being flown straight to Goa, we didn’t even have toothpaste that night. To this day I joke that my boyfriend is my personal travel jinx, having blessed me with two overnight stays in train stations and one overnight stay in an Arab emirate during our travels together. But it was only when I started to cry at the thought of spending less time with my family than I’d hoped to that I began to realise how much I took my annual visits home for granted. It dawned on me that one day I might not be able to fly halfway around the world when I felt like it, however much I missed Goa. Looking at the strange new stamp in my passport, for the first time I admitted to myself how little I knew of Asia, how little I had bothered with the vast and varied continent that informs half of my heritage.

As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes the wait is half the journey.

On travelling in the dark.

What is it like to travel in the dark? How different can a destination be at night compared to during the daytime? What kind of surprises are we looking for when we travel?


The sixth day was the first time he’d seen Bangkok in daylight – or so he claimed, traipsing into the hostel common room towards the mass hangover in the far corner. The group had arrived the week before, taking full advantage of the local nightlife and cheap exchange rate; they were planning to move on to Ko Pha Ngan in a few hours, to the party that claims to celebrate night’s most iconic symbol. I wondered if our Thai experiences would have any overlap at all, given my recent habit of rising and falling with the sun. I imagined neon lights and euphoric highs battling piercing dawns and crisp mornings. I daydreamed about what was still hidden from me, deep in the Bangkok night. For the first time, I craved the enigma, the mystery, the dark.

As a solo female traveller, the night held nothing for me.

By the time the taxi had rolled to a stop outside the hostel, it was already past eleven. The entrance looked completely alien to the photos posted on the booking website. The road was deserted. A single streetlamp flung its light haphazardly across the pavement, tracing the edges of prayer flags hanging in the humid air. I dragged myself inside the hostel, fumbling groggily through the check-in process and completely failing to hear the staff’s repeated requests to take off my shoes before going into the dorms. In the back of my mind, I knew those few minutes would be my first and last glimpse of Bangkok at night, but I didn’t care. I’d never really cared about savouring the dark. As a solo female traveller, I was used to sticking firmly to the security and warmth of the daytime: the night held nothing for me.

I was already wide awake by five the next morning. Somehow my jet lag had completely inverted itself and I couldn’t lie still. I dressed slowly, lazily to stretch out the hours but traces of the indigo night still dragged across the sky as I slipped into the street. I noticed the enormous tree that reclined over the entrance to the hostel; invisible in the night, unmissable in the new day. Maybe it was just sleep deprivation, but Bangkok seemed to be holding its breath. Inertia hung heavily in the almost-silence of the early morning, just the muffled sounds of stallholders breakfasting and the odd bike whistling past me. I hadn’t ever realised that Asia could be so quiet. I sipped an orange juice and waited for the city to open its eyes and brush the night aside.


It had been a long time since I had last travelled with company; I was grateful for once to be with my family, that week in Marrakech. For months before, my head had been filled with visions of exotic Arabian nights from childhood stories and Disney movies, and now we had finally arrived. We were exhausted. The sun had disappeared long before our taxi approached the medina; to pass through those walls is to enter another world. We snaked through four lanes of traffic crammed side-by-side in the narrow streets, before stopping abruptly by an anonymous red mud wall, no hotel in sight.

There were only mud walls on either side and black Moroccan sky above to orient us.

A porter appeared from thin air and silently took our luggage from the car; we followed his vanishing shadow through hidden alleyway after alleyway, breathing in and contorting our bodies just to fit through the skinny arteries of the city, pausing every so often to give way to an oncoming donkey or scooter. After a few dozen turns we were hopeless victims of the unforgiving labyrinth, relying completely on the porter leading us ever onwards; only mud walls on either side and black Moroccan sky above to orient us. Finally, we stopped in front of an ornately engraved wooden door. He knocked twice, loudly, confidently. The door swung open, and we walked into low light, the sugary scent of mint tea, the smokey waft of incense: paradise. The high walls of the riad sheltered our oasis from the dust and noise of the outside world; we were safe from the night, for now.

After our dramatic arrival, the Moroccan morning seemed completely foreign, as if the sunlight had stripped away its magic and colour along with the night. We dutifully visited ancient tombs, museums and mosques, but the life of the city seemed restrained somehow, held hostage by the plain and obvious day. But the sun always sets, and when it sets in Marrakech, it washes the sky in impossible turquoise and saffron and rose; the colours are so strong, so vibrant that they hurt to look at. And as the light fades, the spark of the city swells in a frantic rush of activity centred around Djema El-Fna: snake-charmers, monkey trainers, street food stalls, lantern-sellers, musicians, dancers, and the people – the ordinary people who come from everywhere and nowhere, just to feel alive in the dark.

On doing as the Romans do: part ii.

What does global citizenship mean? How can it help us as travellers? What separates the traveller from the tourist? How can we develop those traits in ourselves?

In a previous post, I wondered briefly whether the idea of a national border is a meaningful definition or just an arbitrary political construct. After all, any country can be dissected into regions grouped by similar landscape or religion or dialect, and then further dissected into smaller components by class or political beliefs or income, and so on until we’ve deconstructed an entire nation into nothing but a collection of citizens.

Needless to say, we’ve missed something here, because national identity is definitely more than the sum of millions of unique parts. People have fought for it; people have died for it. Clearly, any definition by national borders has to contain some element of plurality, but this doesn’t necessarily weaken what it means to be a particular nationality; if anything it introduces nuance, realism and therefore strength. The one defining factor of national identity is that it brings together a large social group who have managed to identify and strengthen their common habits, interests and passions despite all of their obvious differences.

So what does it mean to be English or Vietnamese or Colombian? These are the questions we try to answer when we travel. We say that we’re going to new places, but really we’re going to meet new people and immerse ourselves in the unique culture that their ancestors developed over thousands of years. We’re going because Vietnam has a clear definition – to the Vietnamese, at least – that doesn’t rely solely on its geographical borders, and we, as outsiders, want to understand what that is.

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”Clifton Fadiman

One way to do this is by comparing everything to our own culture: a completely natural reaction, and by far the most common. This means seeking out and actively noting all the differences between our culture and theirs; we use the former as a baseline and judge the unfamiliar culture by those standards. Unintentional or not, it’s easy to see how this mindset can lead us to construct imaginary social barriers separating “us” from “them”, when really all we’ve done is to separate ourselves from a fabricated perception of people we never really got to know anyway.

The reason this type of judgement doesn’t make sense is that we’re using a false set of criteria; we are using the norms that our usual culture deems to be the right ones, perhaps the only ones. But really, who are we to say that our way is the right way, until we’ve tried someone else’s way on for size? The judgemental approach is far from ideal; speaking with and getting to know natives is better; but by far the best way to understand a particular cultural identity is to walk a mile in the shoes of a native.

Do this before you judge those people for their cultural heritage.

If you’re near Rome during Holy Week, go to the Vatican City. Even if you’re an atheist, pray with the people. Celebrate and commiserate with them in their unimaginable numbers. Meditate on your wrongdoings. Empathise with people you’ve never met. Repeat the Latin prayers, smell the incense, wish your neighbour peace. Feel what it means to be part of the ancient tradition of Catholicism. Do this before you judge those people for their religious heritage, and all the other attached connotations that take precedence in the mind of the outsider.

If you’re a female traveller visiting Egypt, by all means go to see the Pyramids at Giza and the Valley of the Kings – but do it all wearing a hijab. Try to understand why many Egyptian women view it not as a form of oppression but rather as a means of liberation. Wonder to what extent, if any, it has played a role in subjugating women’s rights in Egypt. Consider its long history and its modern-day use. It’s not compulsory and it may not even change your opinions in the long run, but at least you’ve attempted to uncover another little piece of the Egyptian female identity.

After we’ve walked the figurative mile, we’re free to compile our observations, draw our conclusions and announce our verdict accordingly – but we shouldn’t even consider doing it until we’ve lived as a part of the group that we’re about to judge. We shouldn’t let the facts of our lives as we know them so far preclude us from having an open and accepting mind, even when we feel that the very people we’re trying to understand wouldn’t return the favour. We have been accepted into their home; we have a responsibility to be good guests.

What happens when we stubbornly continue to observe our usual customs in a new country?

Whether or not we decide to live by these ideas, we should take time to consider what happens when we stubbornly continue to observe our usual customs in a new country. At best we are signalling our differences, drawing a thick line in the cultural sand between ourselves and our hosts. At worst, we are being outright offensive and ignorant of the very people we wanted to understand. It’s simply not possible to travel without affecting the local people that we meet along the way; real life is not a zoo, in which the exotic and the unknown are shielded from consumers.

As in every situation, we should use our common sense to decide which aspects of the local culture we want to take part in; generally, concerns of safety can be easily separated from cultural bias for this purpose. Travelling is dangerous for so many reasons, but the accidental development of our global citizenship isn’t one of them. It’s scary talking to strangers, but it’s even scarier being one of those strangers: do it anyway.


Read part i of this series here.

On doing as the Romans do: part i.

How strong is the relationship between language and accent? How much should accent factor into our language-learning process? What difference does it make if we choose to ignore accent altogether?

Throughout my foreign language education, a small minority of my classmates have always fallen into a peculiar category: they refuse to copy the accents of native speakers, preferring to apply their own accent from their mother tongue to the new language. They believe that accent and language shouldn’t be intrinsically linked, because one can be understood without the other. While the results can at first sound like completely new languages, most advanced speakers are eventually able to extract meaning. Imagine a person speaking English with a heavy Russian accent; as a native or fluent speaker, the outside influence is undeniable but we can still understand their speech.

In some cases, it’s involuntary: the older we get, the harder it is to hear and copy a new accent correctly. Those who come from areas ruled by one particular, distinctive accent are also at a disadvantage. Surrounded by endless speech variety during childhood, the listening skills of children in Andorra will be far more extensive than those of children in rural Argyll; from birth, the phonetic palettes of the former group have been enriched with sounds from several distinct dialects and languages. They know how to copy a large number of different spoken sounds, so they can make themselves seem more local than they actually are in several countries.

This isn’t about achieving linguistic perfection – it’s about putting in the effort.

This means that if we weren’t lucky enough to learn a second language or live in a multilingual environment at a young age, we’re far less likely to sound native in that foreign language. In fact, researchers have generally agreed that it’s a near-impossible task. But this isn’t necessarily about achieving linguistic perfection – it’s about trying, and what it says about ourselves if we aren’t willing to put in the effort. The underlying idea is, of course, that native is always better; after all, accents and languages have historically evolved in tandem. But what harm does it do if we don’t try to sound native at all? What happens when we stubbornly cling on to our own accents, as unnatural as they might seem among the landscape of local sounds?

“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” Robert Louis Stevenson

In certain Asian cultures, upon entering the home, the host will typically ask guests to take off their shoes as a mark of respect. All around the world, we observe a huge variety of customs when we are invited into someone else’s house. They want to share their lives with us, however similar or different they may be to our own, and if we choose to accept the invitation then we must also follow their rules. On a personal level, it’s easy to see that removing our shoes, albeit a simple gesture, goes a long way towards demonstrating our acceptance of our host. Attempting to speak a foreign language not with your usual accent, but with an accent associated with the language you are trying to learn, is the exact linguistic equivalent. It’s a small effort, but a painful blow to the international barriers that divide our global society.

Even the rarest of accents has the power to alter a common language.

This doesn’t mean that we’re only allowed to learn Castilian Spanish, or Parisian French, or RP English; instead, learn Spanish from a Colombian, learn French from a Québécois, learn English from an American or an Irishman or a Scot. Any accent connected to the language is native and therefore relevant, and each one can be equally rich and important in its own right. After all, every accent is connected to a region, each region has its own particular expressions and slang terms, and each new generation of people from that area will be culturally affected by this idiosyncratic set of vocabulary. In this way, even the rarest of accents has the power to permeate and alter the way that a common language develops over time.

But wait a minute! Isn’t this is all pointless anyway? Language and accent and speech are all constantly adapting to keep up with societal evolution. Who cares if I can’t be bothered to copy an Italian accent? It’s lost in a multicultural society. As with all things, we have to learn the rules before we break them. If we’re speaking a language but neglecting the accent, we’re only seeing half of the picture. The likely scenario is that we’re learning the language as a means to an end, and we’re failing to understand that this set of words and sounds and ideas is inextricably connected to a nation, a culture, an identity. Until we’ve learned the accent, we’ve probably never had a conversation with a native speaker, and it’s likely that we don’t really understand what it is to be French or Spanish or English. We’re not in a position to judge until we’ve seen the inside.

This is the mindset that separates the advanced speaker from the beginner.

I’m going to sound ridiculous. I won’t ever sound native anyway. My accent is part of my personality. I don’t know who I am without it. There are a million and one reasons not to try, and most of them fall under the long shadow cast by fear. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we’ll wait until we know a little more of the language; that’s when we’ll start trying out the accent. But as anyone who has ever learned a language will tell you, there’s no aspect of language learning that just “kicks in”. We must decide whether we really want to be anglophone or francophone or hispanohablante, and if so how we’re going to align our lives with that ethos. This is the mindset that separates the advanced speaker from the beginner. It all develops slowly, gradually, over time – so start now, or resign yourself to being forever on the outside, looking in.


Read part ii of this series here.