Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Your English is so great; you don’t even have an accent!
Every time I tell people that I moved to the US from the Philippines, that's almost always the 1st or 2nd thing they tell me, without fail.
Mind you, I don't get this just from folks who grew up speaking English -- although I could argue that I'm a much better English writer and speaker than Americans who think "your" and "you're" are interchangeable -- but from fellow immigrants as well. Every time, I feign a polite "thank you" and go into a short explanation I’ve perfected over the years, of how English is a 2nd language for most Filipinos, and how I grew up watching Friends to mimic their accents, that flat, nasally, non-accent accent with a bit of upspeak?
Truth be told, my feelings about this seemingly innocuous comment are as complex and varied as there are accents in an episode of Downton Abbey. The only US show I can come up with for analogy is Modern Family, which I refuse to use because even they make a caricature of the one person who “sounds different” (looking at you, Gloria).
I can settle one thing right now, though: I love the English language. I love studying it, reading it, writing it, hearing it. As a child, I read English so well that I vividly remember my late uncle Jordan, who was a high school English teacher, drag my 9-year-old self in front of a group of high school juniors to read an excerpt from a book. Afterwards, he told the class “that’s how you read English.” I love the language because of its complexity, its vastness, and its messiness. You think there are rules, but then there are loopholes and exceptions to those rules! English is the US Tax Code of languages, basically.
And because English was such a foreign language that was a challenge to master, I had put it on a pedestal that made me feel falsely superior because I spoke it eloquently (relatively speaking). I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that felt like this, and there’s probably a better anthropological explanation to it, but that’s how I felt about English growing up in the Philippines. English was my skill and my pride, my passion and my conceit.
Having a good command of the English language also made the transition to the United States a bit easier. Being a teen was hard enough; can you imagine being a teen and moving to a new country? Welcome to the United States of Insecurity, population: me. So back then, when people told me I spoke such great English “with no accent,” I beamed. It was the one thing I could be proud of, the one thing I had control over. That compliment – as I saw it – was a sign that I was assimilating to the American culture seamlessly. Look at you speak perfect English as you order a large pepperoni pizza from Costco. Would you like a giant soda with that?
A funny thing happened on the way to growing up, though. See, coming from the outside, I imagined the US as a homogeneous society, that there was only one way to communicate and fit in. I wasn’t exposed to the diversity that is the United States. Thankfully my family moved to San Gabriel CA, which had a euphony of accents found in the Chinese restaurants, the taquerias, the banh mi shop, the nail salons, Gabrielino High School, my parents’ workplace, everywhere. I started to appreciate the way someone’s native language influenced the way they spoke English, whether it’s Spanglish (only second to my favorite hybrid language, Taglish), or the brisk way a native Chinese speaker talked to me. Most importantly, I realized that my old notion that someone who spoke ‘perfect English’ was somehow better was wrong. It does not matter as much how you speak, but what you choose to speak about. I mean, the Kardashians speak ‘perfect English’ and I could probably gain more knowledge by moving a cat’s mouth apart. When I went to UC Berkeley, I met so many wonderful, brilliant friends from Thailand, Indonesia, Ukraine, France, etc. I loved listening to them in their accented English as we talked about college courses, economic theories, or just life. Throughout my career at Target, I’ve worked with highly skilled, intelligent individuals from East Asia and I’d much rather talk to them than listen to another mind-numbing conversation about the Bachelor.
My simplistic ideas of the value of the English language evolved over time, and I’m the better for it.
Which is why I have such conflicted feelings towards that comment: Your English is so great; you don’t even have an accent!
Nowadays, if someone tells me that, my first thought is that they’re really saying, “Your English is so great; I’m so glad you’ve learned to speak in a way that doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable.” Everyone should know by now that we actually live in a diverse world, and not everyone talks like your local news anchor. But, if I were to pass judgment that quickly, then that makes me no less prejudiced than my old self, when I used to smugly mock folks who can’t differentiate their “fees” and “pees.”
Maybe the person telling me I speak ‘good English’ really meant it as a compliment, like the time one of my ESL students showed genuine admiration for my immigrant story. I volunteered as an ESL teacher for a few months, and I could see how difficult it is to pick up a new language – any language – especially for an adult. So, I know their hearts are in the right place. I could only hope to share my knowledge of the English language with them as they try to make a new home in this strange country of ours.
Or, maybe someone is really surprised that I speak ‘good English’ because he or she thinks that every immigrant from a non-Anglo country speaks ‘broken’ English. If that were the case I would never know because either a) they’ll never admit to thinking that or b) they have that stereotype imbedded in their subconscious. Whatever assumption they make about me then is their burden to bear, though. It has no bearing on my self-worth, either positive or negative. I could only hope that they would be more exposed other languages and realize, just as I did, that it doesn’t matter as much how you sound, but what you sound out about.
Your English is so great; you don’t even have an accent! English is my skill and my ambivalence, my passion and my uncertainty.