Speaking With an Accent Can Make You Feel Truly Foreign

Eric Green



I didn’t want anyone to hear my foreign accent.

But being embarrassed to speak boomeranged when I was riding a bus in Costa Rica where I had come from the U.S. to learn Spanish. The usual bus-riding custom in this country was to shout out “parada,” and maybe add “por favor,” meaning to please ask the bus driver to stop.

The bus was standing-room only. It approached where I was supposed to get off. I kept quiet, feeling self-conscious. I didn’t want the crowd to listen to how I butchered the country’s native language for fear of sounding like a foreigner.



I rode on for another minute. Finally, I made my way up front and hand-signaled to the driver to let me off. It was way past my stop, and it seemed I was in the middle of nowhere. He opened the door. I tumbled down the steep steps into a drainage ditch and became saturated in all sorts of unmentionable goo that fills such a garden spot.

It took a while to hitchhike back to where I was staying with a native Costa Rican family during my two weeks in the country. I’m still trying to forget the family’s unsuccessful attempt to refrain from laughing at the unholy soggy mess that stood before them at the front door. In contrast, I’ll always remember how this down-to-earth lesson I should have learned about not speaking up was manifested in how I ended up in a ditch, in more ways than one.

This incident makes me well understand the reluctance and fear of non-natives in this country to even try to speak English.



Some time ago, I was teaching an English as a Second Language class, and some of my students shied away from speaking at all. They most likely believed their heavy foreign accents would unjustly subject them to ridicule and make them seem unintelligent. They might have feared their classmates would have the audacity to laugh at them even as some of those students also kept silent when it was their turn to speak.

There was another reason I must consider this reticence to speak heavily accented English in public. It might mark them as a foreigner, and that in the current nativist, anti-immigrant wave sweeping parts of this country, somebody with a racially-motivated animus against non-natives might go so far as to report them to immigration authorities. It’s better to stay silent.

Writing in the New York Times, Ilan Stavans, a professor of European Studies, Spanish, Latinx and Latin American Studies at Amherst College, made this same point about immigrants keeping silent. Speaking English, he said in his article, Don’t Lose Your Accent! “hasn’t always been a choice for some” and “that immigrants are sometimes made to feel that they have to suppress their language in order to belong. Throughout history, children have been physically disciplined or discriminated against for speaking their native language.” 



Yet as a Mexican immigrant himself, Stavans wrote that “I find joy in hearing accents, particularly those by people who have mastered American English yet retain a beautiful trace of their native tongue.”

I see on a daily basis the hesitation for foreign-born people to talk in English in my own apartment building. The house cleaners who work here usually don’t attempt to speak with the residents, except possibly to utter a shy simple hello or thank you. I attribute that partly to either not knowing enough English to hold even a short conversation, and more likely embarrassment about their accents.

But the tables can be turned because, not to sound patronizing, I offer the crude Spanish I know to exchange a few words with the cleaning people in their language -- such as mentioning the weather or “how you doing?”

Now that the cleaning people hear me speaking a smidgen of pidgin Spanish, they sometimes try to communicate with me, and then I’m the one reluctant to start a conversation in Spanish because they might realize how bad my accent is. Or worse, because of my deficient grasp of their language, I really don’t understand what they’re saying to me at all.

Speaking of accents, I offer praise to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky for his address to the U.S. Congress last December about the war in his country. The native Russian speaker Zelensky (Ukrainian is his second language) had the courage to deliver his speech in English with his heavy accent. He apparently didn’t feel self-conscious that maybe his pronunciation wouldn’t be understood or misunderstood.



Which leads me to the conclusion about the ongoing effort by some legislators in Congress to make English the official U.S. language. The latest attempt is a bill introduced on February 14 by Congressman Bob Good of Virginia to declare English the official language of the United States. 

 All I can say about the bill by Good is that it’s bad. Legislators like him should consider that such a law would be an exclusionary measure, marginalizing those who don’t speak the language well and not what the U.S. is supposed to be about in welcoming newcomers to our shores. Of course, perhaps exclusion and marginalizing are what these proponents actually want.

Sure, everyone who lives here should learn to speak English as a means to assimilate into the social fabric of this country. But as the American Civil Liberties Union argues, a national language law would be unconstitutional and a violation of an individual’s right to due process. 

On a personal level, I wonder how people I encounter with limited English-speaking skills would react if English was made the official language. If nothing else, such an act might make them feel “unofficial” and discourage them from even trying to fit in here -- that it’s better to follow the old adage that discretion is the better part of valor.

If that is the America of the future, I might get so upset to the point that it would leave me utterly speechless.


Author Bio:

Eric Green, a Highbrow Magazine contributor, is a former newspaper reporter, U.S. congressional press aide, English-as-a-second-language teacher, and now a freelance writer in the Washington D.C. area. His articles have appeared in various newspapers and websites, including the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Geralt (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--Geralt (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--Prohispano (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--Fauxels (Pexels, Creative Commons)

--Isaac Taylor (Pexels, Creative Commons)


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