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“Your English isn’t good enough” — and other misconceptions about EAL speakers

Reassurance for my fellow non-native English speakers
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SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY
SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Have you ever been in a situation where you were made to feel like your English wasn’t “good enough?” Have you been reluctant to participate in a conversation because you thought you wouldn’t be understood? Contrarily, has anyone ever told you, “I’m really surprised your English is good?” If so, this article is for you. 

English is my second language. I became a fluent English speaker in the third grade, so it’s been a while since I’ve thought about the struggles that accompanied the process of learning the language. On March 17, however, I was prompted to remember my journey while attending Overcoming the Messaging That Your English ‘Isn’t Good Enough,’ a seminar hosted by U of T Student Life. The event was designed for international students, multilingual students, newcomers to Canada, and students who use English as an additional language (EAL). It covered topics like the legitimacy of World Englishes, accents, dialects, and the benefits of multilingualism in academic settings. 

I moved to Canada when I was in elementary school. Back then, some of my teachers had an ‘English-only rule,’ meaning that, in class, we were forbidden from speaking any language other than English. I understand that these teachers perhaps intended to help us learn English more quickly by fully immersing us into an English-speaking environment. In hindsight, however, all this rule did was take away my confidence in communicating altogether. 

The English-only policy’s biggest flaw became evident on the occasion that I got bullied or fought with a classmate. The fight itself wasn’t a major issue; kids fight all the time. But because I wasn’t fully familiar with the English language yet, I didn’t have the vocabulary to defend or explain myself. Even if I did, I felt embarrassed that I might not be speaking correctly, which would make teachers regard me as unintelligent. 

Thinking back, I wish I’d known that my intelligence didn’t equate to my familiarity with one specific language. It’s never too late to share that knowledge with someone else, though, which is why I’m writing this article.

This brings me to the topic of accents. If you’re an EAL speaker, it can be helpful to know that accent and pronunciation are terms that are completely unrelated from one another. While pronunciation refers to how we say a specific word, an accent is the melody of spoken language, which is unique to each person. As learning strategist and host of the seminar, Yaseen Ali, said, “Everyone has an accent. It’s just there’s a hierarchy that accents are positioned on.”

For many of us who’ve immigrated into an English-speaking country, a prevalent experience is feeling embarrassed by our accents. This is also a point that Ali brought up: “Having an accent is like having a fingerprint, [because] it’s so unique, and it’s so specific to you.” 

Ali also added that, out of the world’s two billion English speakers, the majority speak it as their second language. This has led to a concept known as ‘translanguaging,’ which refers to using elements and vocabulary of two different languages to communicate. Keeping variations of speech such as ‘Spanglish’ in mind, does it even matter if you pronounce English words with an accent? 

Moreover, multilingualism is a desirable trait. On a basic level, speaking another language can help you connect with members of your community and your family members. But it also lets you communicate with a bigger range of people, which can turn your dating pool into an ocean. In 2017, dating site Elite Singles and language learning app Babbel surveyed 450 Canadians and found that 82 per cent were more attracted to people who could speak another language.

There are also some expressions, feelings, and thoughts that can only be appropriately conveyed in specific languages. Being multilingual can promote an additional worldview, as it gives you the ability to understand concepts that would otherwise be lost in translation. 

Lastly, multilingualism exposes people to many more career opportunities. Studies have shown that multilingual individuals are able to switch tasks more quickly and easily than monolinguals. They’re also better equipped to process information efficiently and simply. This might be why, over the past five years, demand for bilingual workers in America has more than doubled. Overall, your ability to speak two or more languages can give you a leg up during hiring processes.

Attending Overcoming the Messaging That Your English ‘Isn’t Good Enough’ helped me better navigate misconceptions that have impacted my confidence in language learning. While in the past I’ve believed that it was my responsibility to prolong talks with a native English speaker, I’ve realized that all conversations should be a joint effort to understand one another. My teachers should have put in more effort to understand me in class, rather than to expect me to instantly articulate my thoughts thoroughly.My advice to anyone experiencing the same obstacles I did is this: stop being apologetic for having an accent, confusing the grammar in a sentence, and occasionally being unable to get your message across. The experience you bring to the English language makes you unique and that’s as good as it needs to be.