Working in a Second Language
Written to the song: The Sweetest Thing — Lauryn Hill
“Do you know what a foreign accent is? … it is a sign of bravery” — Amy Chua
Languages have always surrounded me. Growing up, my parents and relatives spoke in Russian. With my Bubby and as well in the French classroom, we spoke French. At school, in synagogue and with some relatives, we spoke Hebrew, and most recently, my husband and I converse in Spanish. Code-switching (switching between languages in the same sentence or conversation) has always been a norm for me in each language that I speak. Whether it’s conversing with a Russian-Israeli butcher in a Hebrew/Russian mix or inserting a Spanish word representing an emotion that is not accurately portrayed in the English language, I have always felt extremely confident in understanding each language I know (known as receptive bilingualism), but speaking…can be difficult. Growing up, I was scared to make mistakes; I didn’t want people to make fun of my accent, and (a still genuine concern of mine) — I was scared to accidentally insert a word from another language into the language I was speaking. Recently, I was placed in a French practicum, where I am expected to be in a 100% French environment all day long. For weeks I was so nervous, doubting my abilities and dwelling on my “terrible” accent in the language. While my experience is one of many, I had learned so many lessons that I wish someone would have shared with me when I was a young language learner, nervous about speaking up.
- Having an accent is okay…and even a good thing.
Many native speakers of the languages that I know have made fun of my accent in the past. This has always made me hyper-aware and self-conscious to speak. While I used to think that having an accent was negative, I realized that it is a different way of speaking and should be celebrated. Having an accent means that you speak a whole other complex language or dialect, and it sheds information on your rich history and background. Having a native accent also does not make you “better” at a certain position. On my first day, my supervisor complimented me on my “cute accent”. That compliment made me feel so much more comfortable, but at that moment, I realized the importance of getting out of my head and focusing on the tasks that I could control.
- Speech sounds are unique to each language
While this sounds extremely obvious…it is hard for second language learners to remember. Speaking a different language FEELS awkward — I still am reluctant when pronouncing the guttural French “r,” as it feels comfortable for me to stick with my English “r”. This is extremely real to me. Last week I learned that the French “l” is different than the English “l” (you hold your tongue behind your teeth for longer in French). When you jump outside your linguistic comfort zone, you realize that different sounds need to be learned through muscle memory. I never wanted it to seem like I was making fun of an accent or its pronunciation; however, the speech sounds are different. This concept took me years to learn, and I am still learning this. No matter what…I still am coming to terms with accepting my accent and pronunciation (see point 1).
- Accidentally mixing up languages is normal
I have countless awkward language scenarios that I have been in (ex: using the wrong word or unintentionally and unknowingly using a swear word in a scenario). I have also had moments where I have unintentionally used a word from one language, and inserted it into another. For example, the other day I slipped in the Hebrew word koneh “to buy” when speaking French. This happens to me sometimes when the word in one language seems like it could fit and sounds like the other language. However, when working fully in French, I was worried about my competence. There were two occasions when I mispronounced French words with a Spanish pronunciation. Both times, my students laughed and politely corrected me. It was totally fine!!
For many people, especially individuals starting new careers — there’s a pressure to be perfect. We want to be perfect in the way that we present ourselves, have no errors in our work, and if we are working in a second language, we want to speak like a native speaker. From personal experience, it is extremely challenging to balance everything at once, especially while learning. Mistakes are necessary when learning a language, and can teach you lessons that you will stay with you for the rest of your language career. While it’s easier said than done, overcoming the perfectionist mindset of having a native accent, helps you recognize your true potential and abilities in a language. Finally, when we thank someone for bringing up a language mistake that we make, we show them the value of being human, of feeling comfortable with continuous learning and we create an environment where it’s okay to make mistakes.