English as A Second Language : Not Always An Easy Journey

Sitting quietly at a small wooden desk in an elementary school classroom, my 8-year-old self was holding a book open and staring, incredulous, at the bundle of letters arranged in a curious order on its pages. My English teacher stood near the chalkboard in the front of the class, reading the story aloud. Having no clue of what was going on, my interest was lacking and my focus would shift from the indecipherable text, to amusing daydreams. When the class was over, I was the first to eagerly close my book, ready to tackle the next subject, in French.

To this day, I have only a vague idea of what Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel Little House on the Prairie is about. 

At the time, I was in Grade 4 and it was the first time in my life that I was directly subjected to English and encouraged to learn the language. With the help of mandatory English classes, I gradually became more familiar with the language. But it’s only around the age of 14 that I began to practise it outside of school and weekly extracurriculars, when I started going to the mall with my friends instead of with my mom. It forced me to use English to communicate with cashiers and sales representatives, whom I didn’t always understand, especially when they spoke too quickly. During those verbal exchanges, I would often have to ask them to repeat themselves. Though challenging and at times embarrassing, these encounters were always short and minor and as soon as I exited the mall, I was back in my comfort zone, speaking French with friends and family.

The Root of My Insecurities

I think that most of my insecurities emerged in high school. By then, around 15 years old, I was better in English, fluent even, but I still lacked practise. Even though it was a French school, most of the students exchanged in English amongst each other. On the surface, it didn’t affect me much because I still found my way to people who, just like me, preferred to communicate in French. But under the superficial front, having people my age exchange in English with such effortlessness all around me led me to compare my level of comfort and skill in the language. Not only was I putting myself down for not matching people’s ease with the language but my classmates also never missed a chance to comment, with underlying judgment, on my accent and correct, with a condescending tone, any words I mispronounced. I noticed myself becoming increasingly apprehensive to participate in my English classes. Eventually, I wouldn’t even speak English in most contexts without either mentioning from the get-go that I had difficulty in the language or trying to cover my discomfort by purposely struggling and asking about the pronunciation of some words. 

 While this one struggle was going on at school, I was undergoing another one at home. In fact, my younger siblings were learning English earlier than I had because they were speaking it with their friends and as a result, they ended up with a subtler accent than mine. They loved to tease me by constantly reminding me that they had more facility in the language than me which, normally, shouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did. However, growing up in a community where most people were fluent in both French and English and as a teenager who just wanted to be as comfortable with the latter language as everyone else, any depreciating comments toward my English affected me deeply.

I was frustrated that people judged my abilities in English based on my accent and some mispronunciations. At the time, I blamed my parents for shielding me from the language for so long as a kid, my siblings for whom English seemed effortless and my classmates for making me feel like being more comfortable in French was such a bad thing. 

I was the French girl at school and the French child at home. Yet, I applied and was accepted to Ryerson University.

University : Reclaiming My Confidence

When I moved to Toronto in August 2018, I was expecting to need some sort of adaptation period. Not only due to my lack of confidence, but mainly because my whole education up until then had been completed in French. Much to my surprise, however, the transition was smooth and for the first time in a long time, my accent didn’t make me feel less capable than anyone else. For the first time, my accent was positively perceived; it sparked curiosity and interest in my new entourage and some of my new friends were even impressed that I was fluent in two languages. Seeing as the people around me appreciated that I was bilingual instead of putting me down for being “too” French, my own perception of my abilities in English slowly started to change. 

I realized that my insecurities were not solely to blame on external influences, but that they were equally – if not more – generated by myself. In fact, in the midst of my teenage quest to fit in, I had chosen to give power to people’s comments and opinions instead of focusing on my truth, and I had allowed myself to believe that my fluency was defined by my accent instead of my actual abilities in the language. Thankfully, the change of environment helped me get to this realization. Although I still struggle at times, I no longer feel bad for my accent or for asking questions or for remaining a little more comfortable in French because I’ve recognized that some clumsiness is to be expected. After all, English is in fact my second language.

For anyone experiencing a similar situation or struggling with a language that is not their first, this is my advice to you: 

 

  1. If it takes you a little longer than people around you to learn or become comfortable in a second language, remind yourself that not everyone learns or adapts at the same pace. Avoid comparing yourself to others and instead, have trust in yourself and your abilities. You’ll get there

  2. It’s OK to feel like you’ll always be a little more comfortable in your first language. It’s normal, even, and it doesn’t take away the fact that you are bilingual.

  3. Asking questions, any questions, is a sign of betterment, not ignorance. There is always room for growth, in our second language like in our first.

  4. Having an accent, no matter how big or small, does not define your skill set. Everyone has one and if anything, having a more distinct accent adds to your character and makes you stand out (in a good way!). 

  5. There is so much value in knowing more than one language. Never forget that.