Just Because I Have an Accent Doesn't Mean I Don't Understand You

Li Misol
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Image Source: Jessica da Rosa / Unsplash

Soon, it will be five years since I moved to the United States, and although I write, speak, and understand the English language very well, my accent precedes me. I must confess that I used to be very ashamed of the way I speak, but little by little, I've overcome that shame and learned to view my strong accent with fondness.

Whether it's in our native language or in one we learned, the accent is that personal seasoning that gives flavor to the words we say. And, to be honest, there's something special about the cadence, tone, and rhythm of the Latin accents. Sofía Vergara and Salma Hayek are the best proof. Instead of seeing their accents as a weakness, they - and many other Latinx in the entertainment business - have capitalized on it and use it as their personal trademark. And we all should do the same.

For me, sadly, it was a long road before I was able to embrace my accent. I admit that not being able to speak English as a native has given me more than one headache, and has affected my self-esteem. In my first days in the country, I frequently talked to customer service representatives who asked me if I needed an interpreter to better understand what they were saying.

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Image Source: Hello I'm Nik / Unsplash

Some of them, especially in Miami where most people speak Spanish, stopped speaking to me in English right away and hit me with the same condescending comment: "We can continue in Spanish if it's easier for you." For a long time, I thought I couldn't speak English.

It doesn't matter if the conversation in English is flowing smoothly, knowing you have an accent triggers something in your mind. It becomes an irrevocable statement: this person can't understand me.

Work wasn't any different. I was overlooked to take charge of important client presentations because communication needed to "flow as smoothly as possible." One time I even told my boss that I had an accent to speak, but not to think.

Sometimes I doubted myself so much that I thought about taking accent-reduction classes. Then I remembered the best advice a close friend gave me: "Why do you care? You can speak and understand two different languages, plus you are collaborating to create a more diverse and multicultural work environment." So if you've ever felt unsure about your accent, please keep that in mind.

No one should feel insecure about expressing themselves, even with a borrowed language. For a long time, I saw English as a straitjacket, I only used it for what was strictly necessary, and I even avoided reading in the language of Shakespeare, looking for vain excuses such as "it's not the same as reading in Spanish."

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Image Source: Charles Deluvio/Unsplash

When I moved to the US, I had to dive in head first and use English at all times. I had to overcome my fears and start writing, reading, studying, and practicing pronunciation in English in and for everyday life situations. Doing so changed my perspective, opened my horizons, and gave me new, and very valuable, opportunities and experiences. Once again I confirmed that if you're scared of something, you have to do it anyway.

Of course, there will always be an unfortunate comment, a mockery, people who will attempt to detract from the capabilities of others. We are not exempt from meeting head-on people whose insecurities drive them to diminish the virtues of others in a desperate attempt to exalt their own.

Yes, I have had to deal with comments like, "Wow, despite your accent you speak quite good English." Luckily they are not that many. Most of the people you meet along the way appreciate the effort Latinx make in the US to communicate and survive using - and honoring - a borrowed language. Many have praised me and encouraged me to continue learning.

The important thing for me was to understand that I don't have to apologize for having an accent, but rather pride myself in my bilingualism, not apologize for not speaking perfectly, but be proud of trying my best every day. I have learned to see my accent as an indelible mark of who I am and where I come from. I know that I can carry on a conversation and be understood perfectly with the level of English I have today. And that is more than enough.