The Collegian
Wednesday, December 07, 2022

MARGINS: When did being a non-native English speaker become a sign of academic inferiority?

<p><em>Graphic by The Collegian</em></p>

Graphic by The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.   

Most of you probably don’t remember how you came to learn the first language you speak. We all grow up hearing stories from our parents about moments in which we would say a word incorrectly. As a toddler, I would chase after balloons and call them “ball” — the same for every object I encountered that had a spherical shape. When you are a toddler it is OK to make mistakes while acquiring a new language. Why is it any different for adults who are also learning a new language?

While constructive criticism can always be helpful to become fluent in a different language, sometimes people tie language proficiency to intelligence, which shouldn’t be the case.

As an American citizen living overseas, my parents thought it was important for me to learn the language from an early age even though they are not citizens nor speak English at all. Spanish is my first language, but I began learning English when I was 7 years old. 

This is often the case for children who immigrate to and settle in the U.S. Attending school and being surrounded by people who speak English allows them to immerse themselves in the language.

Studies have shown that children who grow up bilingual are better able to concentrate, focus and make decisions; they also tend to score higher on cognitive tests. There is a large body of research that proves being able to speak more than one language makes a person a better problem solver and critical thinker. 

Being bilingual is a source of pride and a great achievement. Yet, non-native English speakers have to deal with people telling them to speak “American.” They are mocked for their accent. They have to fight a common misconception: that if a person doesn’t communicate fluently in the language a class is taught in, then they might not be able to perform as well in the class.

I’ll admit, it can often be tempting to use the “English is not my first language” card to receive better treatment from professors or extensions on papers. I would suggest every student whose first language is not English reconsider using this in the future. 

The years of time and effort that we have put into learning English shouldn’t be put to waste. I urge you to challenge yourself and prove to your professors and peers that you are as capable as any other student in understanding and performing well in the classes you are taking. 

The acceptance letter you received is enough proof that you can and will excel given you are fully committed to succeeding at UR. 

Being a non-native speaker shouldn’t be an impediment. We are capable. 

I once had a professor ask me if the reason I was struggling with the subject was because of a language barrier. Already frustrated with my inability to understand the topic, I said that it was true. 

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Ironically, I tend to do better in classes that are writing-intensive, so being a non-native speaker was not the problem at all. My performance in the class was not due to language barriers. It was because of a lack of confidence in my own skills.

UR has a large population of international students and exchange students from all over the world. As of fall 2021, we comprise 11% of the student population, representing almost 80 countries

For all native English speakers, please be kind to your international friends. 

Imagine sitting through two semesters of a Spanish language class to complete UR’s second language requirements. You do your best to become fluent, but there are still words you cannot formulate — and it doesn’t help that the teaching assistant for drill speaks too fast. 

You decide to study abroad in Spain for a language immersion experience. You meet a group of local students and become friends with them. 

Would you like your friends to leave you out of conversations because you can’t formulate sentences quick enough? Would you like them to remind you of your distinctive accent each time you speak? Would you like them to find you irritating for not fully understanding idioms? 

Of course not. 

Moving to another country is an amazing, but often terrifying, adventure. It is even more so when the language spoken is one you are used to using in a classroom setting, not in everyday life. Having a distinctive accent is a characteristic that every non-native English speaker has to learn to live with and embrace. 

Having an accent doesn’t mean you are not fluent. 

Accents are formed based on how we pronounce vowels and consonants; in other words, it is the prosody of one’s speech. They are tied to the musicality and tone of your words. 

Again, it has nothing to do with how well you know grammar rules and vocabulary. 

I used to often think of my bilingualism as being two different people inhabiting the same brain, that the Spanish-speaking version of myself could be more outspoken and composed than the English-speaking version of myself. 

There was a powerful quote I heard a while ago on “Modern Family” that I believe can often describe how it feels to be bilingual. 

Sofia Vergara’s character, Gloria, says to her husband: “I know what I meant to mean! Do you even know how smart I am in Spanish? Of course, you don’t. For once, it would be nice to speak to someone in my own language in my own home.”

As I started using English in my daily life, outside of a classroom setting, I understood that this was not the case at all. You don’t develop multiple personalities from being a polyglot. You can be yourself while sloppily speaking a language you picked up on Duolingo. 

Don’t let your fluency in a language dictate how authentic you are, don’t let it dictate the way you should behave or how you show yourself to different people.

As cliché as it may sound, we should help foster an environment that’s inclusive of people from many different backgrounds at UR. 

The only way to do this is by learning to listen. 

Is your friend having a hard time remembering the name of an object in English? Tell them the answer without unnecessary comments, such as, “How do you not know this?”, or,  “Right, English is not your first language.” 

Is your friend too afraid to speak for the group presentation because they don’t feel comfortable? Encourage them to practice first without an audience before jumping into the challenge. 

While communicating with others, especially with close friends, sometimes it is inevitable to unknowingly come off as rude or disrespectful. The point is not to be too scared to offend anyone when you correct them on their use of “your” and “you’re,” but it is to keep in mind how difficult it can be to express your ideas in another language before mocking or being disrespectful to a non-native speaker.

Hi everyone! This is the new editor for the Notes from the Margin section. I hope you enjoyed reading this article, if so, I encourage you to browse through all the stories we have to offer in this section. Notes from the Margin is a place meant to uplift underrepresented voices on campus. If you have an experience that you would like to share with the UR community, please feel free to send your submission to me at notesfromthemargins@thecollegianur.com.

Contact notes from the margins editor Nicole Llacza Morazzani at nicole.llaczamorazzani@richmond.edu.

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