I sat at my first English class when I was 7. I had no idea what was that all about, but I went for it. I remember that some months later, the teacher asked my mom if we used to speak in English at home, because I was so good at it. (??!!)
Yes, I’ve been sort of a golden child most of my life. It has deeply affected me in many ways (not all of them positive). I should blog about it some day, but it won’t be today. You might get a glimpse of it with this post, though.
The thing is, I took English classes until I finished middle school. I never thought of myself as a natural, but I knew I didn’t suck at it. Then I started high school. We were sorted by English level, and I was surprised to find myself in the top class.
All those years, I never had the chance to properly gauge my English level, so I thought it to be good. The few native English speakers I met while travelling in the following years agreed.
In 2009, I had the chance to do an REU experience at the University of Florida. This REU thing allows you, an undergraduate with an interest in science, to spend 3 months working in a research lab. The experience is quite amazing, and you get to learn a lot, even more so if you do it abroad.
During my REU time I became more aware of how not so awesome my English was. Still, people at the university were really happy with it. Yay?
It wasn’t until I came to MI that I became fully aware of my English level, my accent and all the problems that can arise from them. By the time I moved here, I was already quite self-conscious about my English. I know I struggle to find the right words some times, I know my pronunciation isn’t the best and I’m also aware that my grammar ain’t great. But, you know what? People still seemed really happy about my communication skills. Wow, really?
The real shock, the biggest challenge came when I started teaching. Undergraduate Michiganders are not so used to foreigners (unless the UP counts as another country); thus, they are much less understanding about not being a native speaker. At first, when they didn’t seem to listen to me, I assumed my accent/poor English skills were the problem. Soon I realized that they wouldn’t pay attention to an American TA, either. But still, having an accent seemed a bigger problem when teaching.
I told my dad about these concerns once. True to his style, he said I shouldn’t worry about it. “And if for whatever reason they don’t understand you, tell those gringos to go f*** off”. Yes, very much like my dad… Although, he was probably right at some point. Being so self-conscious all the time would only harm me, and prevent me from interacting with those around. Do I have an accent? Oh well, we should all deal with it.
After worrying about this for a while, I decided to take Nico’s advice (yeah, it doesn’t happen very often). He said foreigners have a “foreign card”, and we should play it when necessary. Hmmm, interesting, isn’t it? What’s the point in trying to pretend you aren’t different, when you can laugh about it?
And so I did. I found out I’m the only Argentinean in the chemistry department (there are only 4 latin grad students total!), and decided to use that to my advantage (ish). Being Argentinean will many times be an excuse for me. Am I being weird? Oh, it’s probably my Argentinean nature. Do I have an accent that doesn’t quite resemble any other? That’s because there isn’t such thing as an Argentinean accent. Do I seem lost when the conversation revolves around football and tailgating and bacon? Argentinean here.
I also make fun of my “language barrier”. There isn’t really a barrier, to be honest, but I can’t find a better word now. There is something language related that might get in the way. It’s up to those trying to communicate with each other to overcome that “barrier”; it goes both ways, I’m not the only one that has to make an effort, ok?
Alli holds the title of being my first non-Spanish speaking friend. It has always amazed me how close we could get, how well we could understand each other, even though she doesn’t know more than a handful of palabras. Sometimes I would think “why are we still talking in English?” as if we were pretending, as if it was some “let’s not speak Spanish” kind of game. Weird, isn’t it?
I’ve made some more non Spanish speakers here, and I still find it surprising that I can be friends with people than don’t speak my language. I don’t think that feeling will ever leave me. I get a similar feeling when I can teach or “do science” in English as well. I hope I don’t lose it; it gives me something to be proud of. There, I said it.