What does language mean to you? The dictionary defines it as being “the method
of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way”. Is it really as simple as that though? Not in the eyes of our latest ONEOFTHE8 guest who sees the concept of language as being a spectrum - a multi-faceted myriad of entities which extend far beyond being boiled down to straight-up speech and semantics.
Sandra Quarcoo is somebody I met through sheer serendipity when she joined my team at work. I pride myself on having rather spiritual faculties and the ability to suss out a person’s vibe and aura as soon as I clap eyes on them. I knew from the minute Sandra tucked herself in at her new desk two seats away from me that I was going to enjoy her company - a theory which was proven correct as time ticked by.
We bonded over Schitt’s Creek, Ru Paul’s Drag Race and often rocking up in unknowingly co-ordinated outfits and through conversation, I learnt more about her childhood in Ghana, her love affair with creative writing and how this girl had an endless catalogue of stories that you could listen to for hours. I said to Jake , we have to get Sandra on ONEOFTHE8 and here we are doing just that.
“You just have to keep going; keep being yourself and keep being unapologetically
I love Sandra’s stories: the stories of the questionable clientele on the bus during her commute to work, the stories of dates gone wrong, and the stories of pistachio ice cream recipes gone well.One of the most memorable for me though is of her move to the UK from Ghana at the tender age of 8 years old with an extremely limited vocabulary of English.
I’ll issue a bit of a *spoiler alert* here as I’m going to work backwards and start at the end of story first… I want to skip to the part where I tell you that this 8 year old girl with negligible knowledge of the English language is now a University of Manchester graduate with a first class degree in Creative Writing. Let that piece awe-inspiring information just be a testament to how Sandra
grabbed life by horns, transforming twists, turns and challenges into the opportunities which have made her the fabulous human she is today.
Right, let’s go back to the beginning…
“There [was] a difference in wealth that none of my friends from school or at home
made me feel was a reason not to be enough, or a reason not to have your opinions
Growing up in Ghana was a “relaxed” and “lucky” experience for Sandra. Her family where what some might categorise as middle-class, her extended relatives all lived close by and the sense of unity and acceptance within her local community was remarkable. She describes being at school as being like “a tale of two worlds” and “strange at times” but never unpleasant as she associated with kids much wealthier than her but never ever felt inadequate. “There [was] a difference in
wealth that none of my friends from school or at home made me feel was a reason not to be enough, or a reason not to have your opinions heard”, she recalls - a disposition some might put down to youthful innocence but the open-arms attitude was alive and well in the adults around her too.
She tells about John - an usual “neighboured character” who spent his days wandering the community, scrawling mathematical equations on people’s walls with a stick of charcoal. His differences never once causing him to be socially segregated, nor treated with any less respect than others. Sandra says how her and her siblings laugh now, when comparing their childhood to their westernised life in the UK, at some of the people and some of the bizarre incidents they so
blithely accepted as ‘normal’. For me though, having lived in the western world my entire life, I wish this kind of warmth and acceptance was normal; I wish the untainted human connection that was so inherent in the Ghanaian culture Sandra recounts could be more commonplace here.
“English and Scouse are two very different languages!”
Sandra’s move to the UK was catalysed by rather unconventional circumstances. Eight year old Sandra returned home from school one day to find her mother gone, without inkling or goodbye. She learnt from her family that her mum had moved to England to pursue a career in nursing and for the 12 months following, Sandra could only communicate with her via letter. A bitter pill for such a young child to swallow but one she commendably has never let breed negativity in her memory.
A year after coming home to find her mother had moved across the world, Sandra joined her family in the UK, with minor exposure to the Queen’s English and zero insight into the world of regional dialect. Sandra lived up north and describes how understanding Scouse and the Mancunian accent was an entirely different kettle of fish to the English she had been in touch with thus far. If you listen to her episode on our podcast, you’ll hear how today, her English is basically faultless - fluent with distinct Scouse overtones but still with a synonymous Ghanaian twang in homage to her cultural origin.
“There’s more than one way to communicate. You can communicate through
gestures, facial expressions and through actions”
There are more than 20 languages spoken in Ghana, Sandra tells us so I guess linguistic aptitude might be somewhat innate. However, to not only learn the language in multiple regional forms and then eventually use this deficiency to achieve a qualified skill is honestly mind-blowing to me. What we wanted to find out more about though, is where her love of language and storytelling first
When discussing the topic of language, Sandra offers a rather interesting perspective: she sees language as being far more than spoken word - she sees language in gestures, facial expression and actions too. She accredits her learning of the English language after her move to the UK as being as much down to reading faces and body language as it was hearing or reading the words
themselves. Today, she believes that this is probably where her passion for telling stories and creating characters truly blossomed.
There are roots in the folklore and myths her aunties and grandparents imparted on her as a child but Sandra’s fire for storytelling had laid somewhat idle until her exploration of language and expression through her own personal learning experience.
“If you think you’re weird, the chances are [other people] think they’re weird”
One particular personal leaning experience which Sandra draws upon during our conversation is having to monologue herself at school with a stutter. Her stutter is something Sandra has received speech therapy for over the years and now, is barely detectable to the untrained ear but a facet of her genetic make-up that has had a profound impact on her confidence and projection. A positive impact, that is.
She recalls having to stand in front of her class, multiple times a week, to talk about herself for over a minute. Doing so taught her to be open about her speech impediment, exposing it for what it was and credits the public monologues as being “like an intro to how not to be closed off”. She hoped taking this approach would teach the younger kids at her school to also be open, honest and confident because “nobody in the world is perfect” and “if you think you’re weird, the chances are
[other people] think they’re weird” too.
When asking Sandra who or what her biggest inspiration is, it becomes clear where her bravery,boldness and fearlessness stems from: her auntie. A woman who Sandra describes as brave,resilient, strong, “an incredible human being” and someone she aspires to become. She talks fondly of her auntie’s sense of humour and how this remains unfaltering even through immense darkness. Once again, we are reminded of the importance of family (both blood and non-biological)and the sense of human connection it affords us - something that inspires many of us more than we even realise.
To read more about Sandra’s fascinating past, present and future, head on over to her blog. To hear more about her transition from Ghana to the UK, or her intriguing outlook on the concept of language, make sure to catch up with her episode on the ONEOFTHE8 podcast now.