I visited English poet William Wordsworth’s home Dove Cottage on November 28, in the Lake District of England. The breathtaking beauty of this land inspired much of his poetry. I was looking forward to reliving some of his poems which I had read and studied as a student of English Literature in college. However, I was more excited to visit the exhibition of Dorothy Wordsworth’s work. I really wanted to find out more about this famous sister who remained less known and less popular than her brother.
I went into the building across Dove Cottage to buy the entry ticket. I asked for a ticket for myself with the girl at the reception and also said I wanted to buy the booklet that gave details about Wordsworth Trust etc. While saying this I picked up the booklet, opened a couple of pages quickly and put it on the counter. I asked her if there were any guidelines to go around the Cottage. She said ‘Oh yes. We have this drawing of the Cottage and description of each room. By the way, what language can you read?’ I said if they had an English language version that was good for me. I glanced at the different language versions they had on display – mostly European, Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese and a couple more that I couldn’t recognise. She handed me a chart and quickly ran me through the information. Off I went across to the Dove Cottage.
After the Cottage, I had to get into another building for Dorothy’s exhibition. I asked the person (another girl) there if there was any information booklet that gave more information on this particular exhibition. What I had collected before was a combined one of the Cottage and Wordsworth’s Trust.
The girl asked me ‘What’s your first language? Or can you read English?’ Again, my quick glance at the general information leaflets that were displayed on the counter gave me only the option of English language. I said ‘Probably, English is the only language that I can pick from this lot’. She gestured and said ‘Oh well, then you can read everything that’s here!’
Reflecting on this later I wondered if both the girls assumed that I could not read English language. But why and how did they think so, I thought. I spoke to them in clear English, looked at some information as I was talking with them, surely that was enough for anyone to understand I knew the use of English language.
What were their assumptions, then? Where did they come from? What was their belief about my language ability? What are my own assumptions and beliefs here? Are there any associations between my skin colour and accessing English language? For a person like me, coming from a postcolonial country, English language is everywhere around us, whether we like it or not. On the other hand, for an English girl, in her own home land, it could be hard to imagine and think even a non-white person (in this case myself) without an English English accent could actually be proficient in her (the girl’s) first language, English.
Well, I am glad I can read in English language too – I could read all about Dorothy and her life. It was, nevertheless, a delightful experience – reading on Dorothy and her journals.