During my first weeks of college — a time of shaky introductions and awkward handshakes — I stumbled upon what seemed like a catchphrase locals used to warmly welcome foreigners.
Upon learning that I’m an international student, the unknowing American, with the excitement and naiveté of a child on their first day of school, would exclaim, “Your English is so good!”
I’m sure that they mean it as a compliment, but it doesn’t feel like one to me. Because when people make comments like these, they’re not talking about my knowledge of the English language — they’re talking about my accent.
When people say that my English is good just seconds after meeting me, they imply that they only think it’s good because they didn’t detect a foreign accent in my tongue. This has nothing to do with my use of grammar, my vocabulary or any other factor that constitutes English proficiency.
People praise me for sounding American. And even though they may not realize it, this praise is rooted in a system of privilege.
When I was five years old, my family and I moved to Puerto Rico. In my time there, I learned English at an international school, and I spoke it casually with my friends. I soon found out just how much of a privilege this was.
Three years later, when my family and I moved back to Mexico, I realized that sounding American had its perks. I was automatically perceived as smart — all I had to do was speak in English. My classmates marveled at me. I remember overhearing my third-grade teacher telling another teacher how she wished all the students spoke like I did.
At eight years old, I bought into the idea that having an American accent means you are better than others who are just learning the language or who don’t speak the language at all. As a child, I felt proud of the way my tongue was able to turn Spanish into English. I loved the way the R’s flowed smoothly and the S’s were just lisps. I didn’t like listening to Mexican accents, and I admired the teachers who spoke this “perfect” type of English.
A number of things contributed to the development of this bias, such as the bombardment of American television, literature and education that enveloped my life in Mexico. A significant factor was the praise I received, and continue to receive, for my accent.
But what happens to those unlucky foreigners who fail to master this so-called “good English?”
I’ve talked with many international students about their struggles to connect with Americans. Their insecurities arising from having a “thick accent” often hinder them from starting conversations or speaking up in class. Interviews are yet another cause of stress, not only because they’re being evaluated on their responses, but because they worry the interviewer might focus more on their mispronunciation of a word than on what they’re actually saying.
A friend of mine who is from China said that a lot of the time, her accent just feels like an elephant in the room. If people don’t understand what she says, they merely nod their heads, stilting the conversation, rather than asking her to clarify what she meant.
I was speaking to a classmate from Pakistan about cultural shocks a few weeks ago, and he told me that the biggest challenge he has faced has been getting rid of his accent. He explained how, just a few months after he had moved to the United States, a high school teacher had rudely commented that it would be very unlikely for him to achieve his dream of being a lawyer because of the way he spoke.
As individuals from other countries and cultures, we are faced with the daunting task of fitting into the American way of speaking. Because of this idealization of the American accent, we are either praised, ignored or belittled.
Why can’t people simply listen to what we are saying, not to the way we produce English sounds?
The “American accent” is used as the optimal standard of speech. It is equated to a higher IQ, to a less threatening immigrant, to a more approachable international student. It is equated to so many things, except to what it actually is: just another accent.