On Speaking Perfect English

By Elizabeth B.

From a former ESL Student, Now Primary School Teacher: HowThose Tables Turn!

I’m one of those people who once in awhile get called outfor having an accent.

 “Were you born here?”

“Are you from New York?”

“You sound kind of hood…”

When I was growing up in Queens, whenever someone called me
out for not understanding a common idiom or pronouncing a word weirdly, I’d
feel such intense hatred! As a proud New Yorker, I couldn’t have people
thinking I was some sort of impostor, a fake American.

But I was kind of an impostor.

I grew up with parents who didn’t speak English. That was my
“dirty” secret. I learned to put aside any feelings of shame because I had to
help my parents. I had to translate at the hospitals, I had to talk to credit
card companies, and I had to ask sales associates about the prices of clothes
or food. Basically, I learned how to speak English by haggling with tough New
Yorkers. There is no better way.

 Once I got to high school, I made a bunch of Colombian
friends, and began to embrace the beauty of my roots: we enjoyed listening to
reggaeton, cumbia, and salsa; we spoke Spanish more than English, and above
everything, adored Colombian food. I began to understand why my parents had
forbidden me to speak English at home while I was growing up. I always thought
it was such a stupid rule.

My parents knew that one day I would finally realize that
speaking Spanish was an important, special part of me, just as much as speaking
perfect English.

I thank my amazing parents everyday for their amazing
foresight: as a teacher, my bilingual ability is a huge asset, and I am so proud
of it. I love whenever people notice my accent – yes, I’m from a working class
neighborhood in Queens, and yes, my parents were immigrants from Colombia, and
yes, I have a slight accent. Is there a problem?

As our society moves toward becoming more accepting of cultural
differences, embracing what makes us unique as Americans, I hope that my
children will not grow up feeling how I did. First generation kids grow up
having to straddle that cultural divide, which, in all honesty, is no fucking

My kids will grow up with an American mother, so it’s going
to be fundamentally different. However, I decided a long time ago that me
passing on the Spanish language to the next generation was something I could
not compromise. Guess that’s something I picked up from those tough New Yorkers
along the way.

Hay un problema?

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