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The Struggle of Learning a Second Language


I’m so deep into my upper division language course that I’ve reached the point where I’m not allowed to speak any English in the classroom. It’s terrifying. It’s my only class of the day, but sometimes I dread the idea of what I’m going to conjugate wrong. I’m battling nerves over a 50 minute class, so I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to live in America and not have English as my first language.

Spanish  is the second most spoken language in the US with more than 37 million speakers and some have the reality of being forced to speak outside of their comfort zone every day. It takes bravery to go out and run errands without being sure how each communicative experience is going to turn out. I’d try and find excuses to stay indoors, but the reality for many is that life goes on. There are parent-teacher conferences to attend, groceries to buy, and income to earn.

Second languages are difficult to learn- especially as an adult, so it breaks my heart to see the condescending tones from cashiers when non-English speakers don’t understand. Intelligence isn’t based on the knowledge of the English language. Nothing is more constructive than rephrasing and patience, I promise.

This condescending attitude is more than ever present in America. “You are in America. You should speak English.” “I can’t understand you with your accent,” are all the reality of many, not just Spanish speaking individuals. However, America is in no way against accents. I would argue America loves accents- just not ones from people of color. When someone opens their mouth with a European accent in America- the earth stops moving. There’s an unspoken double standard that I’ve seen helpful Americans cater to a European’s every need with the language barrier, but I can’t always say the same for those from the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and the list could go on.

Those so adamant about non-English speaking learning to not only speak English, but to lose their accent as well, could do more about being constructive, kind, and helpful. For people who demand everyone in the USA learn English, they aren’t as willing to help those practicing. Shutting down people trying to learn shakes their confidence in their abilities. Although they say they want others to learn English, it seems at times that they would rather non-native speakers leave. A painful irony despite getting tongue tied on “quesadilla” at a Taco Bell drive thru.

With 20% of Americans identified as bilingual- we could work to be more accommodating and stop pretending and promoting that Americans only speak English. Let’s celebrate all accents and cultures without picking and choosing which people are worthy of communicating with. Learning a second language is a tough skill to master, so let’s be kind.

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Elisabeth is a senior at the University of Oklahoma, a wifi enthusiast, and an avid follower of pop culture.

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