When I was seven, I hated what came out of my mouth. It was too thick. Laced with difference and heavy with otherness. At the time, I believed so strongly in my displaced shame that I intentionally moved further away from my mother tongue.
My accent today is a product of a deliberate contortion of the lips. It is the twists and turns of a tired, embarrassed tongue. It’s a 10-year-old girl who stood in front of a mirror, placing the EM-pha-sis on a new syLLA-ble until it sounded “right.” It was the intense desire to rid myself of the pitying glances and giggles that accompanied every “mispronunciation.”
It’s a product of the belief that there is a “correct” way of speaking, and it involved not only knowing English but speaking it a “right” way. Most importantly, it’s a product of a stupid, naive declaration I made as a child — succumbed by my own vulnerability and frailty — that my culture was inferior to that of my peers.
Gen-OOH-EN-lee Leena, OT-HEN-ti-CALLY me.
Almost everyday at Elon, people reaffirm this misplaced shame.
Illustration by Christina Casillo
The unreasonably impressed eyes that tell me, “Wow, your English is so good” reaffirm a culture based on the idea that those who speak English a certain way are more intellectually capable than others.
The peers who drop out of classes from professors who speak English as a second language — because, “OMG, I don’t understand a thing she says” — reaffirm a culture where people who have to learn English must be the ones to accommodate and acculturate.
And the many students, faculty and staff I encounter who apologize for their accent reaffirm the existence of the damaging insecurity that others can instill in people who learn English as a second language.
It was reaffirmed when I was told recently that non-native English speakers still have to take “English literature-based classes” in order to meet the international studies foreign language requirement, despite receiving writing and reading-intensive academic instruction in English.
We boast about the benefits of bilingualism in our classrooms and applaud native English speakers for their abilities to master foreign languages, but we still perpetuate an unwritten culture that places the English language on a pedestal and expects others to adopt a certain “right” way of speaking it.
In John H. Esling’s “Everyone Has an Accent Except Me,” he reminds linguistic scholars that the idea that there is one dominant way of speaking English is a fallacy. He says that the fact is everyone has an accent, and that those who believe absolutely that their speech is devoid of any distinguishing characteristics that set it apart are severely misguided.
If you’re a non-native English speaker, never apologize for your accent. The tongue twists and turns in many, equally beautiful ways. And when others tell you they don’t understand you even though you know you’re speaking English, let their ears strain instead of immediately demanding your tongue to.
I’m 21 and I absolutely hate what comes out of my mouth. It is thick, heavy with otherness. It is representative of an intentional descent away from myself and my language — and I will never forgive myself for it.