Yes, I speak English with an accent: A letter to all international students

Dear international students
Adeline Belsby/Staff

Dear international students,

Here we are, people who come from afar, who left their homes in pursuit of a better education in a foreign land. We each harbor an ineffable dream in our hearts, which carries us through moments of loneliness, of homesickness, of bitterness. In this letter, I would like to share a few thoughts on a particular aspect of my personal experience as an international student in the United States.

It always happens to me that, after I strike up a conversation with a native English speaker, that person then asks me where I come from. After spending several years studying abroad in the United States, I am getting more and more used to replying that I come from Philadelphia, the city my high school is closest to.

Most native speakers, however,  seem to receive this answer with raised eyebrows and a somewhat dissatisfied, “Oh,” as if I have been disguising part of my identity with a half-true statement. In fact, they are probably right about my conscious concealment:

Yes, I am a Chinese international student who speaks English with an accent.

I still remember that during high school, one of my classmates, a friendly American girl, asked another Asian girl and me to pronounce the word “three.” Both of us tried several times, each time pronouncing the sound /th/ differently as /f/, /s/ or /t/.

Then the girl who gave us this “challenge” shook her head and said: “No … I don’t think you are pronouncing it correctly.” But then, as if in an attempt to comfort us, she added with a laugh, “It’s ok. I think your Asian accent is cute.”

“I became scared of being caught with mispronounced vowels and overly accentuated consonants.”

I wouldn’t say that her comment was the origin of my self-consciousness about this accent, but in some way, it deepened my fear and anxiety toward such a difference between what comes out of my mouth and that of other people’s.

I became scared of being caught with mispronounced vowels and overly accentuated consonants. I became scared of being stereotyped as a nerdy Asian who spent too much time studying for written tests and too little time socializing with native speakers. I became scared of not being understood the first time I spoke, thinking that it was absolutely my fault to deprive friendly people of their patience when they had to ask me to repeat what I had said. I became scared of being judged as different — not only different, but also different in an inferior way for not being able to do something “correctly.”

After I graduated from high school and came to UC Berkeley, the fear was still there. When people asked me where I was from, I replied “Philadelphia,” no longer out of a habit, but out of the  fear of being alienated. I would say “Philadelphia” and try to end the conversation as soon as possible, faintly hoping to not expose myself through the accent within the few words I said. I struggled to allow my identity as a foreigner to remain disguised for as long as possible.

I grew quieter. Whenever I was about to open my mouth and speak in this foreign language, this fear stood right there in front of me. I knew that no matter how successfully I altered my makeup and outfit to look like an Asian American who spoke perfect English, I would give it away the moment I talked.

In class, I would not raise my hand until I had rehearsed in my mind several times what I had to say. Even then, I immediately felt my cheeks and ears start to redden, throbbing with heat for an augmented self-abased consciousness.

During most social events, all I did was laugh. Even if I had a burning desire to tell a joke, I ended up laughing at other people’s jokes instead. Because there is not a correct way to laugh, nor is there an incorrect way to laugh. Because laughing was the only sound I could make without exposing the abnormality in the way I spoke. I said to myself that I would rather be repressed to normalcy than to be liberated into abnormity.

I grew more sensitive: not only more sensitive towards others’ reactions at my spoken words — interpreting and misinterpreting every squeezed eye or biting lip as an indication of discontent, but also more sensitive toward other people’s accents. I began to see these distinct accents as mistakes, as weaknesses, as defects, as the yellow stains on white clothes. I began to give the side-eye to anyone that spoke English with “mispronounced” consonant sounds or dramatic intonation.

During my sophomore summer, I went to a summer school in New York. On the first day of class, I sat next to a Chinese guy who seemed very affable and gentlemanlike at the first sight. But when he began to introduce himself in English, I simply became distracted by his heavy accent and completely changed my impression of him — in a negative way. In fact, I can recall now that he was even more considerate and thoughtful beyond his age than I first had imagined. But I had attached an invisible yet powerfully deceiving label on his back simply because of his own habit of speaking. The label was so powerful that it negatively impacted my thoughts of him.

But what I did not realize was that these accents were the walking mirrors through which I saw my own biting lips and unconfident smiles. The same label that I attached to  others I had long ago attached to myself. What I found the most repulsive in others was the shadow within myself. The more I repressed this shadow, the more manipulative of a power it had on me. That’s why I chose to write about my accent and to expose my fear in the first place: I need to bring this shadow into the light.

  “The label was so powerful that it negatively impacted my thoughts of him.”

This shadow of fear in me is everything but original. I saw this fear in the eyes of many international students here on the campus of UC Berkeley. I have seen accomplished international students being reluctant and afraid to speak in a group and share their ideas because of this fear. I have heard stories told by some international students of how their knowledge or intelligence levels were considered low simply because of the unconventional ways in which they spoke. I have met some international students that stuck with each other not because they rejected other cultures, but because they felt the need to avoid speaking English and thus exposing their weaknesses.

The barrier is not cultural, nor is it linguistic. It is our own misconception and misjudgment as people who speak English with accents.

In her book “English with an Accent,” Rosina Lippi-Green suggests that linguists think of both “standard language” and “non-accent” as “abstractions,” “myths,” powerful “constructs.” In fact, the term “accent,” insofar as linguists are concerned, has no more concrete meaning than a “loose reference to a specific ‘way of speaking.’ ”

These terms, just like “race,” are social constructs without basis, which fabricate the line between Black and white, between right and wrong, between orthodox and heterodox. More often than not, we as non-native speakers impose such inventions upon ourselves so as to purposely constrain our sense of belonging by labeling ourselves as the perpetual foreigners.

Of course, there will always be people who unapologetically mock non-native speakers. There will always be people who complain harshly about having a GSI who spoke fluent English — just with an accent. There will always be people who refuse to engage in conversation with foreigners because of their ethnocentrism, racism or simply laziness.

But the majority of people I have met here on campus are open-minded and patient enough to embrace differences in other people. They are willing to listen to what we have to say, regardless of how we say it, as long as we are confident enough to speak out. Therefore, instead of imposing a negative connotation upon ourselves, we should be proud of ourselves for speaking in our own ways.

Only now have I realized that it’s never about differences, but rather uniqueness. We should be proud of our own unique accents embedded with an awareness of our own native roots. Our accents are rhetorical devices through which our unique life stories are told. They convey not only stylistic or geographic meaning for different groups, but also improvisatory expressions that serve as unique voices for our personal experiences. They are the golden treasures bestowed upon us by our motherlands.

So next time I get asked where I’m from, I will proudly say China.


A fellow international student

Contact Raina Yang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rainayanglw.