An Interview With Fiona Pepper

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How difficult is it to understand the language of another person’s tongue?  This is something that many of us have dealt with, especially when traveling to/ in a foreign country. It is even more difficult when you are learning the language of the country you are living in, only to find that no one understands you because of the dialect and accent you use. Take German, for instance. Most of the non-native speakers of German speak high German, yet when communicating it with someone from a region with a different dialect, such as Mecklenburg-Pommerania (with its Plattdeutsch), Franconia in Bavaria, or even Schwabia in Baden-Wurrtemberg, they not only may not understand what you are saying. In fact, they may respond with their own dialect, which despite living in the country for many year, you may not be able to understand at all.

I have to admit, I was taken aback when my former boss at a German university, who had spent 12 years in Scotland, once told me that my American accent was too strange to understand, even though it is Chicago-style, the dialect that is considered high American English and spoken in the Midwest, where I originate (I’m a Minnesotan, by the way). An article about this subject can be found here.

But suppose our language is indeed strange to understand?

Last year, the Flensburg Files profiled a genre of the week entitled Skwerl, starring Karl Eccleson and Fiona Pepper, to show how a foreign language can be strange from an outsider’s point of view, featuring an activity for students learning English or any foreign language to try and decipher . Admittedly, as a teacher of English, I tried it with my students, only to find that there were many interpretations as to how the characters behaved toward each other in the five-minute skit. One of many questions the students had was what exactly happened in the story.

Well, I took a chance to find out for myself by interviewing Fiona Pepper. Absent from acting for two years and is now a radio broadcaster in Australia, Ms. Pepper took a few minutes of her time to answer some questions I had for her. For those who guessed that the couple would break up, you will be amazed as to what she mentions about Skwerl and and how a person can interpret the story from many angles.

Here are some thoughts to consider:

  1. Tell us about yourself: Why go from actress to radio host? How many years have you done both?

I studied acting at a well-respected Australian drama school called Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts (WAAPA), I worked as an actor for around 6 years and during that time I was involved in the making of Skwerl. I’ve mainly worked in theatre as well as acting in some films and commercials. I’ve now been work in radio for around 2 years. I decided to study radio because I felt frustrated working as an actor and not feeling in control of my career trajectory. There are many parallels between radio and acting and really when it comes down to it radio is simply another form of story telling.

  1. How many (short) films had you made before making the career change to radio host?

I had been working as an actor for around 6 years before I moved into radio, I’m not sure of the exact amount of short films/ films I had made in that time.

  1. Skwerl was released in 2011 and your role was the woman who makes a special meal for the boyfriend (played by Karl Eccleson). Can you briefly describe the character and her changes in personality in the story?

The character is a mid 20’s woman who is in a serious relationship, she lives with her partner and in the film they have a disagreement over her partner’s decision not to attend her mother’s birthday. I think this is probably an ongoing disagreement that the pair have.

  1. Skwerl describes the way English can be perceived by non-native speakers, yet even from a native speaker’s point of view, up until the last two sentences in the clip, it seems a bit more Dutch with some local Australian in there (from my observation). Given that plus the script formulated by Fairbairn and Eccleson that I read, what language is spoken here?

We weren’t speaking a particular language, the words were all made up. In terms of where the words were derived from, I can’t be certain because I didn’t write the script but Karl speaks fluent German and French, so I’m sure when he and Brian were writing the script they would have been drawing from other languages.

  1. After trying this out with some students, here is the plot: A nice dinner ends up going down badly after the man forgets to do something; they both get into a fight; woman wants to break up with the man for his actions, takes the plates and runs into the kitchen, crying; man is very angry because of all the years of love and dedication with her; woman brings out a pineapple with candles on there and in the end, there’s silence with the two staring at each other. Am I right with this plot, or are there some important details missing?

To be honest, I don’t think we were particularly clear on the plot when we made the film, it is therefore very much open to interpretation. The films focus is obviously on language, so the actions of the film were fairly open ended. When it came to Karl and I defining the plot it was really just to help us try and somehow remember the dialogue.

  1. What’s the symbol behind the pineapple and the three candles?

Once again I didn’t write the film so I’m not exactly sure, I think the visual impact of the pineapples and candles were more of a focus then what they actually symbolized.

Author’s note: One of the points students and teachers have mentioned with the pineapple is the three candles where the candles represented the number of years the characters had been together and the pineapple represented the place where the two had met. However, this is open for other interpretations.

  1. By looking at the clip once more and from an outsider’s point of view, how strange is English?

I don’t think it’s just English, I think all language is strange from an outsider’s point of view.

To sum up the interview, what Ms. Pepper and the crew did with Skwerl is to present a dialog in a language unknown to any of us for two purposes: to interpret the scene but also to make a point that no matter what foreign language you are learning, it will become strange at first, especially when dealing with the different dialects and accents. It is more of the question of learning the language and all the tricks and tips involved. When that is done and you have mastered the language, it opens a new world, both big and small. Small because you can understand what the “natives” are saying, but big because learning a foreign language makes you more open to new things, as well as helps you foster your development as a human being with intellect and a diverse background.

This is something to think about, not just when you try this Skwerl exercise with your groups, but also when learning a foreign language or even a regional dialect in your own language.

To follow Ms. Pepper and her works as an Australian radio broadcaster and actress, please click here and enjoy all her documentaries. For her help in clarifying this interesting play, whose activities and genre profile you should click here to view, the Files has her thanks.

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