English was not my mother’s first language. Ironically, she was the first to teach it to me. I grew up hearing her speak a form of English that sounded different from many other Americans; I understood her English nonetheless. I heard my mother’s English as often as I’d hear American English. I would go to school and listen to my teachers and peers speak English one way only to come home and hear my mother speak it another. In my mind, the difference between the two was so little they were the same. To me, my mother’s English was perfect.
When my mom and I were together in public, whether talking to teachers, parents of American friends, or a clerk at the store, it would often frustrate me when people couldn’t understand her. I’d reiterate what she was trying to say with my American accent and glare at the them for the remainder of the encounter. I felt like I was translating English to fellow Americans, and it didn’t feel right. It felt like a cop out. People would hear her accent and become immediately incompetent of comprehension. A Somali English accent, if you didn’t know, sounds much like a combination of an Arabic English accent and an Italian English accident. It sounds distant for many, but feels near to me. Her English may have been different from what they were used to, but she was trying. Instead of trying to discern her speech, people would act incapable of understanding. So, I’d glare. I’d glare as a way to say, “I know you are capable of understanding her.”
It was true, they were capable. I, however, wasn’t reflecting on the way I experienced my mother. Internally, her English was clear to me. I’ve listened to her speak all of my life. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I realized the strength of my mom’s accent. Being away from her for long periods of time caused me to become unfamiliar with the way she spoke. This was humbling for me; it showed me that, as an English speaker with an American accent, I was not so distant from the many people who struggled to understand my mother. The difference was I knew my mother’s story, and it sensitized me to the challenges of language. I changed the way I engaged with English.
So, were those people who couldn’t understand my mother in the right to be confused by what she was saying? Sorry, but no. I too encounter other immigrants with strong accents that I am unfamiliar with.
Being reminded of your accent means also being reminded that you are seen as a foreigner to many, and not as a contributor to a society that thrives on your diversity.
Other accents, such as the Hindi accent, Chinese accent, or Spanish accent are more challenging for me to understand, and yet I’ve found myself engaging with these individuals without the help of a translator. It’s not that I’m used to their accents, but simply that I’m trying to understand them. I don’t close myself off on instinct. I also sense the wall between us drop as soon as they recognize that they don’t have to repeat themselves. They’re already working hard to speak a language outside of their native tongue. It’s important we do what we can to make non-native English speakers feel comfortable.
Being reminded of your accent means also being reminded that you are seen as a foreigner to many, and not as a contributor to a society that thrives on your diversity. To isolate folks based on their speech is not only counterproductive, it is un-American. To this day, after 25 years in the United States, my mother’s Somali English accent remains strong. It likely always will. The only way to bridge the gap is to try.