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Inside the Sixties: Learning British English as a Foreign Language

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From "The 'Sixties Book:"
Inside the 'Sixties:
What Really Happened On An International Scale

NOTE: The material in this section was written during the early and mid 'Seventies when it was still quite fresh in the author's mind and is also based upon his large collection of 'Sixties documents. For further information, see the book outline by clicking here.

I spent much of my time trying to infiltrate the English language and the thought patterns it seemed to impose, both in its written and spoken forms. I had the advantage of a literary background, considerable training in languages and linguistic theory, and, as I have mentioned, I also had several close English relatives. I nonetheless treated the local language as essentially a foreign tongue, which I believe it in many ways to be, and studied it carefully on this basis. There are so many misconceptions on both sides of the Atlantic about the relationship between these two varieties of "English" that I will devote a later chapter to my own contributions to this continuing controversy. [This turned out to be How "Correct" Is British English?, accessible from both the Theatre and Language Menus of this website.] My efforts in this area were in a remarkably short time to be crowned with success when I was invited to write for the English repertory theatre company commonly believed to best embody the true spirit of the English language.

I had sometimes been accused of "talking like an Englishman" before I left the States, but now my attempts to achieve what I, by my own exacting standards, considered a decent English accent were assisted by the very air of London. It is not sufficiently realized, I believe, that the so-called correct" throaty upper-class English accent owes much of its quality to that common English respiratory ailment called asthma, or to its even more common sister, bronchitis. The English do not talk as they do entirely as the result of good taste or breeding. Rather, they usually have little choice, as the cold damp air does not allow them to articulate much differently. Soon I was wheezing with the best of them.

And so, as I have said, since I had come to London I had given myself over to a careful study of the English language as though it were a completely foreign tongue, as I was beginning to suspect it might be. I based my tactics on what I had undergone in learning other European languages nearly from scratch and on my growing knowledge of linguistic principles. Granted, I was an American, and the experiment could not therefore be completely successful due to the close historical links between the two language forms, but simply making such an attempt was proving to be quite worth while.

Experience had taught me that the first requirement for learning a new language while living amid its native speakers was complete subjugation of one's self to the language. By this, I mean that one has to totally suspend one's critical apparatus while learning the new words, meanings and connotations. One's accumulated knowledge or skills should be used only as a technical tool in deepening this self-subjugation, not as a means of questioning or criticizing what one learns.

This is because it is the natives who know their language, and the student must learn from the native, accepting their words, phrases, syntax, and paralinguistic stratagems (such as tone of voice or gestures) completely and implicitly. There is no place for criticism in this process as the only goal is to learn and absorb the accepted standards and be able to reproduce them so accurately as to be taken for a native. Only after one has passed through this process of submission may one allow the critical faculty to reemerge and begin to theorize about what one has learned). If this sounds laborious, far-fetched, or even pretentious, I nonetheless believe it is the only effective way of coming close to mastery of a foreign language. At least this has been my experience.

And it was around this time that I was beginning, so to speak, to come up for air from my linguistic researches. And I was also beginning to come up with a number of questions and criticisms about what I had found myself learning. I had learned, for example, that one rarely spoke loudly in correct English, an observation made no doubt by many others in the past, but one fraught with social and linguistic implications. If you were in a lift with a friend—say one of the giant lifts at a tube station—and there were others present in the lift, assuming you had something of great urgency to tell your friend, you were of course permitted to do so. But you had to say it in a voice very close to a whisper, so that no one else would be disturbed (or perhaps so that others could not overhear).

But most probably you would say nothing at all—rather, you would wait until you had left the lift behind. There were exceptions to this, of course, but on the whole a loud voice was used only by youngsters, working class types, or what were then coming to be called 'mods' and 'rockers.' And if you saw a friend on the other side of the street, it really wasn't correct to shout at him to catch his attention. It wasn't the done thing. You had either to cross the street, catch up with him, and finally greet him face to face, or you had to do without the greeting altogether. These are only two such instances I observed—I will save others for my later chapter*—but they spoke volumes to me about the relations between people in England during the early 'Sixties.

There was also a physical rigidity necessary to speaking correct English—whether it helped the production of the voice or was caused by it I was unable to determine—but it definitely helped if you held yourself quite stiff at all times, whether in the lift or walking along the street, so that you were in the right posture for speaking correctly. This is far from being unfounded linguistically, as various other languages encourage a specific posture for their correct enunciation, especially in their more ritualistic utterances. I had much earlier spent a year and a half in Spain and had noted something of the same requirements for speaking good Castilian Spanish. Psychologically, the language came out feeling more correct if one assumed a rather formal relationship with one's body.

 A Few Lucky Breaks
(London, 1964-65, From Chapter 8)

The work that I wrote during my first months in London bore more the character of exercises than actual plays or essays, though some of them fall technically into either category. As I say, I was trying by these exercises to mimic what I considered a "correct" English style, should any opportunity come my way to write for the English stage or for British publications. No doubt what I then wrote was precious and pretentious beyond belief, but it served its purpose well enough.

My labors over the English language belonged to my more serious hours, which interrupted our many evenings of play-going and other pleasures. I was busy reading every book in sight that could give me some insight into the strangely exotic workings of the English mind and social system. I would underline all the words and usages which were relatively unfamiliar to most Americans, and I soon found there was scarcely a page of any average English book which did not contain some such usage.**

As I had majored in English literature at college and had fancied myself (and been fancied by my peers at that time) as knowledgeable in this area, I was positively amazed at how many opportunities there were—as I could observe now that I was part of the English environment myself—for an American to misunderstand, partially understand, or totally miss out on an English word or usage. The problem lay not so much in the obviously different words in use in use on either side of the Atlantic—Fowler and others have made check lists of these—for their mastery requires nothing more than a feat of memory.

The real difficulty lay partly in syntactic differences and partly in the many words and expressions common to both countries that had either a slightly or totally different implication in the two countries. Many of these implications were dependent on differences in the two social systems and hence could not readily be listed or catalogued. But this topic requires an entire chapter to itself* and could even provide, in the right hands, the makings of an entire book.**

My first break into print came only a few months after our arrival in England in the form of a prolonged letter to the editor of a radical theatre journal called Encore. It was edited by three of the enfants terribles of the English theatre and had managed to create something of a scandal in the more peaceful days before the real 'Sixties began by endorsing the need for more sex, radicalism, and experimentalism in English theatre. I had sent in my letter as a contribution to a debate then raging in England about "happenings," as they had just been introduced there from America.

An innovator named Ken Dewey, whose name will recur several times in this story, had just created a scandal at the stately Edinburgh Festival by staging a happening in which a nude girl was briefly seen carried across the stage. As Ilene and I had made something of an impact at one of Allen Kaprow's first happenings in New York a few years earlier by getting up and creating our own improvisations when we found the action rather tame, and as this in retrospect had been one of the factors which had led to more improvisation and audience participation in happenings, I felt myself knowledgeable enough to write a letter on this subject and was gratified to see it published. [ you can see this letter by clicking here ] But although I also had a few other sundry letters to the editor published in the English Sunday papers at that time—which proved to me that I was at least beginning to put words together in a coherent order—my plays were being sent back by agents, and I seemed to be really getting nowhere.
(And to continue the theme of learning British English as a foreigner, the narrative now skips to Chapter 9, which the author begins to examine British social differences mirroring the linguistic ones. The stroke of good luck described in the first sentence is described in greater detail in the section on London theatre.)

"The Scarlet Banner's Stained with Blood"
London 1964-65, From chapter 9

In a sense I had served a two year apprenticeship in the English literary world before my stroke of good luck came with Jeremy's phone call, but not all of this time had been spent with my nose to the grindstone. I had found time for a few diversions—or at least for such projects as I considered diversions. One of these took me with fair regularity each Sunday to Speakers' Corner to listen to the soap box orators and join in the repartee. Not even Henry Higgins could have found a better locale to study the varied accents and rhythms of British speech, and I became a habitué after my first visit.

At Speakers' Corner it was possible to hear, within a few yards of each other, every possible political view proclaimed in almost every regional accent of the British Isles, as well as many from beyond it. Socialists and anarchists of every possible tinge were a regular feature, as were all manner of evangelists and self-proclaimed prophets, while a Conservative member of the London County Council came each Sunday to upbraid the masses for their sloth and ignorance. Some of the orators specialized in inspired (and less than inspired) nonsense, and a few simply came along to recite poetry or sing hymns and folk songs. Among the politicians, the most vibrant oratory was to be heard from the West Indians and some of the other blacks. Though much of the talk was boring or repetitious, these Sunday afternoons were a great gift to anyone interested in the convergence of language and ideas.

I was not only able to sharpen my control of spoken English here, but I also gained considerable insight into English thought patterns, for I imposed upon myself the condition that in all verbal exchanges I must make myself pass for English both in accent and point of view. And I also received a liberal education in the manifold ills and agues plaguing the British body politic and the many large and small injustices borne patiently or otherwise by Britons. It came as a surprise to me how intense racial antagonism in England had become, for I had grown up accepting the boastful claims of my own British relatives that race prejudice was a cancer limited to America and could never fester in the rosy bosom of purest Albion.

Class hatred—not the witty parody of this attitude one is accustomed to shrugging off in the works of Shaw or Kipling—but the real thing, hideous and putrescent, was also a major trait of many of the exchanges at Speakers' Corner, either in the attitudes of the speakers themselves or those of their hecklers. Anti-Americanism was another popular theme—I usually managed to back away from this issue, lest I commit the cardinal British error of appearing to be emotionally involved and thereby revealing my nationality in the process. But sometimes I would rise to the occasion by egging the speakers on to even greater orgies of hatred for America, catering to their ingrown paranoia and readiness to believe the worst until the edifice of their loathing became so unwieldy that it collapsed of its own one-sidedness. Alternately, I would take the mickey out of them in my best upper-class clipped tones by demonstrating to them that they hadn't the faintest notion of what they were talking about.

The communists were there in considerable force each Sunday, and I took great pleasure in arguing with them in impeccable English and correct radical terminology, as though I were a communist myself, but picking them up on small and not-so-small points of fact and interpretation. In fact, one of the reasons I finally stopped going was that I had done such a good job of convincing the communists of my sympathy that they wanted me to come to their regular meetings.

The anarchists were the ones I found most fascinating and/or amusing—I could never tell which. Listening to their speakers or reading their little home-made pamphlets, I would find myself in agreement with 90% of their principles and still come away telling myself there wasn't the slightest chance this small, ragged group could ever implement a fraction of their program. They were so disorganized and split into so many factions that on many Sundays they were not even able to field a speaker. Some of the faces I had first seen at Speakers Corner—anarchists, poets, black spokesmen, and just plain crazies—were to re-emerge two years later when the English underground press was born.

It was at Speakers' Corner that I saw my first two English May Days and became aware of the extent and character of formal British radicalism. My first May Day in 1964 was a prolonged joke that finally began to weary. There was an interminable parade consisting mainly of perfectly ordinary Englishmen, mostly middle-aged or older types tending to corpulence, marching with no particular style or distinction, carrying banners identifying this or that organization or trade union. There were very few bands in the march, and what little music they had was provided by scratchy loudspeakers on wagons. Most of the accompaniment to the march was in the form of chanted slogans, dealing largely with wages, prices, and the guilt of the capitalist class.

One or two small groups of younger people were marching, and these alone seemed concerned with any larger international issue, though it found little support from their fellow marchers or the throng of spectators. To my surprise they were shouting about the American involvement in Viet Nam, which in May of 1964 seemed quite distant and unimportant to most of those present. Later on, there was a mass rally of the marchers in Hyde Park, and here I watched the leaders of the Labour Party lead the assembled throng in the ceremonial party anthem The Scarlet Banner's Stained with Red, From Blood Which All We Workers Shed. sung to the tune of Maryland, My Maryland.

Here too the young minority started shouting about Viet Nam but were ignored by the vast majority. I quit the gathering with the impression that the left in England (and probably throughout Europe for that matter) was likely to die out altogether for lack of ammunition to interest the young, for it seemed certain to me that the war in Viet Nam was a minor passing incident, and our own government could never be so foolish as to prolong or broaden it, thus providing a cause for the left to expand their ranks again.

By 1965 I was no longer anywhere near so sure. I had by then almost finished my first avowedly political play and had come to cultivate, more out of necessity than any personal taste, an interest in politics. The parade this year was considerably more militant, and the ranks of the young shouting about Viet Nam had grown greatly. They were even joined by some of their elders, and as many of the chanted slogans dealt with international issues as with domestic bread and butter. This May Day I witnessed one small incident, which I felt reflected the growing militancy. I was standing next to two young girls, one of them quite pretty, who like me were watching the marchers go by. There was a much larger contingent of police holding the spectators back this year than last. The prettier of the two girls was clasping an infant and pointed to a policeman meaningfully while speaking to her child.

"See that color, blue, that's blue," she told the baby, "Blue. Learn to hate that color. It's a terrible color. Learn to hate it."

The child burst into tears. It was all I could do to stop myself from launching into a fit myself, and I quickly moved away. To me this had been appalling. Whatever feelings I may have had about the police at this time (and I suspect they were a mixture of mild suspicion and indifference), I could not condone what she had told her child. It seemed incredible to me that here in supposedly mild, fair-tempered England I had heard such sentiments expressed.

But even in 1965, aside from this incident and the strengthened contingent of Viet Nam marchers, the May Day parade impressed me as an impromptu, informal affair, dominated by the older and paunchier of leftists, their minds fixed firmly on battles of the past. It was the sheer ordinariness of socialism in those countries where it was a dominant force, its utter banality if you will, that never ceased to amaze me. One had expected verve and excitement, blaring red trumpets and swirling red flags. What one saw instead was merely a somewhat tacky English version of a Labor Day parade.

Five months earlier in January of 1965, I had my first direct exposure to the one force which had a hold on English youth and had virtually replaced socialism as a major cause. During our time in London Ilene and I had become more than merely aware of the growing rock movement—it. was simply impossible not to be aware of it, as there was no spot in London so sylvan and peaceful that it did not contain its transistor-toting devotees. Although Ilene and I were still classical buffs and had never been jazz or pop lovers, some of these new sounds seemed pleasant enough from the few bars we would hear, and some sounded positively exciting.

Still, we held ourselves back from any real interest. It was only that winter that it occurred to me that something important might be going on, and I ought to find out more about it in case there was material for an article or a play in it. I called up my painter friend Richard Humphrey, who had become something of a recluse after Antoinette left him, as I knew he was sure to be in contact with the center of the youth scene, and asked him if he would mind showing me around. He was happy to do so, and we took off that very night on a tour of London's rock clubs. Richard took me to three or four different places in or near Soho, two of them rather small, and carefully explained to me the subtle differences in their clientele, taste in music, and class orientation.

The Beatles had by then to some extent betrayed the young by allowing themselves to be received at Buckingham Palace, and the Stones had become the most popular group because of their seeming contempt for authority. Richard reeled off names and inside stories at a prodigious rate, and I absorbed the information as best I could. But what most impressed me—bowled me over would be a more accurate word—was what I saw at the Marquee Club, the first place we went to.

I knew that rock was popular but I was not prepared for this. First of all, it was almost a physical endurance test to wedge one's way through the crowds in the hallways and into the center of the club. The noise level was at first unendurable, but suddenly I found myself liking it. It was almost tangible, like a special new kind of atmosphere that someone had just invented. All I could do was smile at Richard, and he would smile back. Occasionally we would shout brief one-word comments in each other's ear, though even these went unheard.

The musicians on the stand were unbelievably thin and looked so young I thought they must be just out of high school. They stood there almost motionlessly, their complexions deathly pale, their eyes totally removed from the scene, as the music poured out and the crowd went mad around them. There was no raised stage, and hence almost no separation between audience and performers. Once, listlessly, the lead guitarist lifted an unused music stand and threw it to the spectators as though it were a feather. The audience grabbed the stand like religious devotees being offered a victim for sacrifice. They quickly ripped it apart, and their roar added to the already tangible sound. Later, outside, Richard told me that these skinny young men were a relatively new group called The Who, though he disparaged their chances for attaining any real success, as there were just so many groups, and very few of them survived more than a few months.

But what most impressed me was what these young people were doing on the dance floor, for I had never seen anything like it in public before, and yet I was intimately and totally familiar with it. I had read about the various so-called new dance steps—the hulley-gulley, the monkey, etc.—and imagined that what I would be seeing would be just some new variant on the dance steps that had made my own teenage years so miserable. But what I saw instead, performed publicly by hundreds of excited Londoners, was my own secret form of dance, which I had long indulged in privately to classical music or whatever was available, somewhat shamefully for fear that my elders or peers might catch me at it. There were no rules—it was just a sheer frenzy of self-expression or self-forgetfulness (depending on whether you viewed it from a western or eastern perspective), and one did it until one dropped from pleasure or fatigue.

And yet here was my dance being performed in public as the latest rage of the era. I realized of course that there must have been any number of others like myself dancing this dance privately and sheepishly all through the preceding decades, and yet it still seemed to me that it was personally mine in some private proprietary way. I somehow felt that my own intimacy had been violated, and it was a few days before I could bring myself to explain to Ilene what it was I had seen that night. And even then it was several months before we were to begin to do this sort of dancing ourselves. In case anyone thinks I was wildly behind the times in London, let me add that when I began to move among London's intellectuals and theatre people almost a year later, I found that they were even less informed about the emerging pop culture than I had been before that evening. In fact, I soon gained an ill-deserved reputation among them as an authority on that world, and I helped break down some of the barriers separating the two realms.

As we left the Marquee, Richard explained to me that most of the people who frequented it were, in his opinion, mindless jackasses who hadn't a thought in their heads and went there to dance to forget their own vacuity. He went on to inveigh against much of the rock scene as being infantile in character, even in its so-called revolutionary character, as there were no real ideas or solutions being offered, only safe, stupid escapism.

This seemed to me a rather severe judgment for Richard, still in his mid-twenties, and I asked him why, if he truly felt this way, he continued to go to these clubs so regularly and had bothered to learn so much about the music. He evaded my question briefly by saying he went mainly in search of girls, but then he sheepishly admitted that it was the only bloody half-way interesting thing going on in London. This seemed to me as revealing and accurate an explanation as any, not just for Richard but for myriads of his fellow rock-lovers. My mind was still reverberating with the sounds from the Marquee as I caught the last tube home from Leicester Square.

It must have been in the fall of 1965, shortly after I finished my first translation job for Jeremy, that I saw something else that sent my mind reeling. I was in the hardcover book department of my neighborhood Smith's (and a more prosaic place than any of the various branches of this English book and stationery monopoly cannot be imagined) when I suddenly saw an attractive young girl reaching up to take a book from an upper shelf. My eyes boggled, my mind curdled, and my blood stopped short in my veins. For this tall, shapely long-legged creature was wearing what at first glance looked like no skirt at all, though further examination revealed that there was in fact a rather small one.

My first reaction—or rather, my second, after I had recovered from my first—was that this girl must be participating in some kind of publicity stunt, whose point would soon be revealed when she started distributing leaflets for some product or event. I waited for a sign that this was the reason, but none was forthcoming. The girl just stood there reading, demurely unconscious of the effect her attire was having on me. And on a few other men, who were also doing double-takes and either stalking out in a state of shock or standing around like myself with a silly grin on their faces

My next thought was that she must be dressed that way as part of some initiation in a schoolgirls' organization or on some sort of dare. But there was no way of proving this. After what seemed like an interminably long time, she simply took the book to the cashier, paid for it, and left.

Much to my confusion and continued delight, I was to see quite a few other girls wearing such skirts all over London that very day, and by the end of the week they could be seen almost anywhere. I found myself quietly gloating that the heavens had opened to me alone and had chosen to gratify my voyeuristic bent. I realized of course that this must be nonsense, but this was how I felt at the time.

The mini-skirt had struck. By the following week Ilene was, by mutual consent, also wearing such a garment. I was soon to realize that it could only have originated in England—and only at this time—but I will save my explanation of this for my chapter on sex in England.


* Most of these other instances have long since also been gathered into my article "How 'Correct' Is British English?" which is readily accessible from the Language Menu of this website.

** Many years later I would discover Norman W. Schur's 1987 British English, A to Zed, a full-fledged dictionary of 5,000 words and expressions that differ between the two language forms. Needless to say, I was not terribly surprised by the number. For some reason, I am not able to link to the precise order page at Amazon Books, but those interested in obtaining this book can simply connect to them and look it up on their website.

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