Language acquisition is not about being perfect

My mother speaks English with a Spanish accent. I remember one time a man said to her in a rude voice, “Speak clearly. I don’t understand you.” This made me furious. I couldn’t believe that someone could be so impolite. But you know who wasn’t bothered by it? My mother. She’s understood a principle that few of us have learned. That principle is…

I’ve seen her navigate her way through many interactions with native English speakers with composure and confidence. If they didn’t understand her the first time, she tries again and again.

Unfortunately, humans love to judge others. And often times, for the most arbitrary reasons. I understand if you judge someone for unethical behavior, but to judge a person based on the accent they were born with is not very nice.

I had a conversation with a man from the Black Forest and he told me that when he was growing up he was ashamed of his accent. People in the city called him ‘stupid’ because of the way he spoke. In the UK, 8 out of 10 employers admit to making discriminatory decisions based on regional accents. In Germany, the accent that is most mocked is the one from Saxony.

The problem is twofold. One, we look at diversity as something negative. Instead of seeing the beauty in it and embracing our differences, we want to make everyone sound and look the same. Two, we are perfectionists. In school we’re taught that making mistakes is bad so we look down on others who, in our opinion, make mistakes.

My hope is that we can counter these behaviors with respect, openness and empathy.

Respect: Show respect to all people, regardless of where they come from, how they look or how they speak.

Openness: Be open to different people. There is so much to be learned from others, but we have to overcome our prejudices first.

Empathy: Follow the Golden Rule. Treat others the way you want to be treated. How would you feel if you were judged for your accent? And show empathy to yourself. As long as you are doing your best, be proud of your progress.

If you are learning a new language, never stop trying to improve yourself. Life is about growth and development.

If you are the native speaker interacting with someone learning your language, do your best to understand them and help the other person as much as you can. Our communities will be healthier and more vibrant if we all do our best.

Vocabulary Words

  • acquisition: the learning or developing of a skill, habit, or quality.
  • furious: extremely angry.
  • bothered: worried, disturbed, or upset
  • composure: the state or feeling of being calm and in control of oneself.
  • arbitrary: based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.
  • mock: tease or laugh at in a scornful or contemptuous manner.
  • counter: speak or act in opposition to.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever been mocked for the way you speak?
  2. How do you treat people who have a different regional or foreign accent?
  3. How important is it to you to have a perfect pronunciation?

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