I was born in the United States and moved to Mexico when I was seven years old. Learning Spanish was difficult for my young self as I was basically plunged into the culture and the school and had to learn as I went. They say immersion is the best way to learn a language, and I have to agree. Being thrust into a culture, having to practice Spanish with your peers, being graded on your execution in Spanish in second grade, even when you are still trying to learn the language, all of this will force you (in a good way) to learn the language.
As I grew up –and it still persists today– whenever I mention I speak Spanish to someone who doesn’t know (because I look like a white girl from Minnesota) they remark “wow, you speak Spanish so well!” Or “Your accent is so good!” I speak Spanish fluently like I was born in Mexico, and that is because I learned the language at such a young age. The earlier you learn a language, the easier it is and the more fluent you will sound.
However, I did learn the language. I consider it my second language because I only started learning it when I was seven. And, it was hard. I remember learning Spanish. I remember the hardships and the tears. I am proud when someone praises me for my hard work. I have never thought anything of it when someone tells me my accent is good or that I speak good Spanish, even if they don’t speak Spanish. People think it is cool that I know another language. But, those same people don’t think twice when someone has an accent in English.
Since I’ve moved from Mexico to Canada to begin university, I’ve realized that not everyone feels the same way when they are told their “English is so good.” I’ve mostly spoken to people who are from India. The people I have talked to consider English their first language, as well as their state's language and sometimes their parents’ languages too.
I’ve been praised for knowing a second language by my white, anglo peers, but it’s expected of others to know English, and to know it perfectly. An accent different from native English speakers from North America means people don’t have a good grasp of the language. However, this is not true.
There is an ignorance circulating in North America about how prevalent the English language is in the world. And, just because someone has an accent different from yours, that does not mean they, like me, learned the language as a second language. In fact, many of the people who I have talked to feel degraded when told their English is good because, of course it is, it’s one of their first languages.
When I tell someone that I speak Spanish, my white, anglo peers are impressed that I know another language. However, if someone speaks English with an accent, they are expected to know this language, and no one is impressed by the fact that they speak other languages, as long as they speak English well.
I recently had an experience where I was applying to be a tutor for an online company. A lady called me and told me I had a fascinating life. She was impressed by my being bilingual. I began to think, what if I had an accent? What if I wasn’t from the United States? This conversation would have probably been a lot different.
I take my white, North American, anglo privilege for granted. Having people tell me I speak my second language boosts my confidence immensely. But when people whose first language is English are told they speak English so well, I can’t begin to understand how it feels to be told that they speak their first language really well. I can only be mindful of my words, and be mindful of those who may not speak like me, but learned the language like me, from birth.
If you want to learn more about the difficulties of students who come from English Speaking countries, but still are forced to take remedial English and language requirements at UBC, check out our opinions editor, Luz Marina’s, article “UBC Invites Diversity But Does Not Accommodate It: International Students Face Challenges With Language Requirements.”