My Thick Accent Doesn’t Define Me

I understand English, but still struggle to be understood.

by Geraldy Mercedes

When I moved here four years ago from Santo Domingo, I did not speak any English. The advice people gave me was: listen to music in English, watch TV in English, or download Duolingo. I did not like any of these methods; I hate watching television, I hated listening to music in a language that I did not understand. Plus I like enjoying music, not stressing about it. And American music was not my type of music. I am more about Ana Gabriel than Ariana Grande.

When I logged into Duolingo, it took less than three minutes for me to get bored, but it was more effective than the others. Eventually, I also found it was useful to watch Netflix shows in English with Spanish subtitles.

I got here in 9th grade and attended an International high school, where I took English classes. I learned a lot and I am thankful to my teachers. But most of my friends were Hispanic and we did not practice out of the classroom. So I tried to have conversations with my teachers in English or with seniors who originally spoke Spanish but had mastered English.  If I did not know how to translate a word, they helped me. Or if the sentence was incomplete, they corrected me. Yet I often felt like my brain did not retain the information that I learned.

“What did she say?”

Still, I had no choice but to keep trying. By the time I reached 11th grade I was able to understand when others spoke to me in English. I even participated in parent-teacher conferences as an English to Spanish translator. I started to understand lessons and get better grades. Even though I sometimes had to ask a person to use different words or talk slower, I was able to understand most of the conversation with others. I reached this breakthrough without even realizing it.

Still, my accent lagged behind so people had a hard time understanding me.

One day, my cousin who was born here and had perfect English so he never had to go through this, asked me to go to a party. I rarely went out but this time I said yes.

We arrived at an apartment full of people; when I saw them I regretted going. “Hey sit here, Geraldy,” shouted my cousin from the kitchen, where he was surrounded by people I didn’t know. I walked over and said “hola” to all of them.

They answered “hola” with an American accent, so I deduced that they did not speak Spanish. They were talking and laughing among themselves, but it was difficult for me to hear because of the music, so I did not say anything and sat looking at my phone.

Someone led me over to a group playing a riddle game. When it was my turn, I started talking, giving details of the object that they had to guess. Suddenly someone said, “What did she say?” with a laugh. Everyone started laughing. I felt uncomfortable. “Repeat it,” the same boy said. I said the same thing again and everyone laughed again but louder. “No hablar ingles” someone said like a person who only speaks English.

Someone else who was actually being nice said, “OK, so try to talk slow. Let’s see if that is how we can understand you.” I repeated what I was trying to say but I got stuck on the word, “purple”—I couldn’t pronounce it. Everyone laughed while I couldn’t get the word out of me. After that, my self-esteem felt as low as the ground.

Taking the Risk to Speak Up

Last spring, one of my English teachers who always reminded me of my improvements in speaking English, told me about the summer writing program at Youth Communication. I decided to send in my application, which included writing three essays.

One day I received a call about having a Zoom interview. In the interview there were four young people with me. They spoke professionally and very naturally, which made me feel insecure and intimidated. After the interview I stayed on the Zoom and I apologized to the editors for not having said too much. I knew that my voice was barely understood because of how nervous I was. I explained the reason why I was silent, which was because of my accent. I was wondering whether to do this or not, but I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t interested or being mean or unfriendly.

But they appreciated that I spoke up. “Oh no, it’s OK you don’t have to apologize,” said the female editor who wore glasses and had a big smile. The other editor, a male, looked at me with a small smile, as if to say, it’s not a big deal and that it’s OK.

My accent does not make me less than others.

When I received an email saying that I was accepted into the workshop, I did not know how to feel initially. I was proud of myself for being accepted, but scared because I did not feel that I could talk openly with others without feeling nervous or intimidated. I thought maybe at some point I might say something wrong, or maybe offend someone for not being able to express myself better. Or worse, just say absolutely nothing out of panic.

When I gave the news to my English teacher, she was happy for me and she congratulated me, which made me feel proud. I also told her about how I felt intimidated. But I also said that I will try even if I’m scared and nervous. I also told my other teacher and she reacted the same way, and even gave me some advice: “They speak English very well, but perhaps they don’t speak two languages ​​like you do.” That’s what she always says to give me some confidence. So I decided to accept the offer. I wanted them to feel proud of me, and I also thought about how this would be an opportunity to improve my English and release the panic that speaking to others in English gives me.

The writing workshop was mostly online. Before speaking, I planned what I would say so I wouldn’t make a mistake, which one of my teachers had suggested. But even so my accent was still there, and sometimes it was difficult for the other teen writers to understand me. Whenever I talked, I turned off my camera so that others would not notice how nervous I was. When I had to read out loud, I always read it first to myself to see if there was any pronunciation for me to memorize.

I gradually started to feel better and good when talking to them. I raised my hand and started talking without anybody asking me first. I’m not sure if it was because I didn’t consider them strangers any more, or because they made me feel comfortable. Or maybe I’m just beginning to regain my self esteem. My accent does not make me less than others.

I like this new step of mine. It is a sign that I have changed. I recently even talked a lot about the difference between what we learn about Christopher Columbus in the DR versus here, which made me feel good. I did not let my worries about whether they would understand me stop me. I’m sure I will continue to feel insecure and anxious about speaking English with strangers. But that’s OK; it will not stop me from trying to be better.

Discussion Questions

1. Despite Geraldy’s accomplishments of being multilingual, how did her accent change how others viewed her?
2. How did Geraldy’s experience at the party affect her confidence in herself?
3. After joining the summer writing program at Youth Communication, how did Geraldy’s view on her accent change?

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