We work with universities and organisations to explore how language impacts the experience of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK
Language can be a huge barrier for refugees and asylum seekers and affects almost every aspect of their lives.
"When you can’t speak or read English, you can’t trust your eyes. But it is everywhere and you don’t understand any of it. You can’t find the bus, how to find the GP or register, it’s very hard."
Jilla - Afrocats participant
The Accent Van is a research project led by Manchester Metropolitan University.
We were invited by our partner the Manchester Poetry Library to join workshops with Shamshad Khan to explore the accents, dialects, and identities of people living in Manchester.
Nine women aged 24+ from Iran, Africa and South Asia took part in the research which used poetry, relaxation and breathing exercises to hold open and honest conversations
The space was set up as a relaxing environment, decorated with a welcoming sign, soft lights, and flowers. Every participant’s seat was arranged with a decorative cloth, snacks and an extract from the work of local poet, Shirley May.
The conversation was initiated by Shamshad with some music and breathing exercises. After a brief introduction, the women shared their experiences with language in Manchester; they talked about their different native tongues, their thoughts about accents in the United Kingdom and who they associate these accents with.
‘Mi mother used to seh…’ by Shirley May,
‘stay with a kind heart’
‘do your job in a way that no one else can’
‘learn how to cook and look after your kids’
‘you should always be kind, kindness never kills anyone’
It became clear that some women have not had an opportunity to discuss the accents of the United Kingdom before. They were unable to identify them by name, not sure what Scottish or Liverpudlian accent were, even though they’ve heard them before. However, they could recognize accents through popular culture which are accessible in their native countries, like the “Queen’s accent” and American accent from television.
Participants shared the difficulties they face with speaking English in Manchester. Slang is particularly challenging for them; phrases and words like ‘muck in’ and ‘sarnies’ came up. Contrastingly, they also displayed challenging attitudes towards these experiences, showing courage and having a laugh about their everyday struggles.
After a reading of Shirley May’s poem ‘No cold woman in your bed’, and encouraged by Shamshad, participants were asked to name qualities about themselves and each other, allowing them to discover how others might positively perceive them without their knowledge.
The women showed real engagement in this exercise, they enjoyed writing poetry and it was rewarding to see them being able to share their feelings. Lastly, after a short break, Shamshad proceeded to the closing part of the session, audio recordings. Participants were recorded individually and asked to read out loud some of their comments and notes taken throughout the session. Finally, they were given a rose as a memento of the day.