The other day someone made fun of my accent, and it really hurt my feelings. Well…kind of. Not really.
As I was doing my best to express myself in a language that is not my own, this person laughed at me because he thought the way I
mispronounced a word was funny. It didn’t stop there. Said individual went on mocking and ridiculing me, along with the person next to him who wouldn’t stop laughing, continuously repeating the word I had just said and doing a surprisingly accurate impersonation of me. Those persons were my offspring.
I was on my honeymoon the first time someone pointed out that I have an accent. While on our trip, we met an American couple who made it very clear that they couldn’t believe my husband and I were both from Mexico. “But why don’t you have an accent like hers?” she asked my almost-accent-less husband as she pointed at me. My husband grew up speaking English at home, so there you go, lady. Mystery solved!
As you’ve probably guessed already, English is not my first language. Even though I’ve been bilingual my whole life, every so often I find myself in situations in which people don’t understand what I’m trying to say. By “every so often,” I mean all the time, and by “people,” I mean my kids.
I was rocking this bilingual thing until my children got old enough to notice their mom talks funny. It started with their friends’ names. Apparently I don’t know how to say “Charlotte” or “Jack.”
“Mom,” my son once told me trying to be nice while shaking his head in disbelief, “’Jack’ starts with a J, not a Y. You’re saying ‘Yack’!” Goodness gracious! I have two little English vigilantes at home.
They correct my pronunciation at least once a day, and through the years there’s been a good amount of words that they’ve decided I can’t pronounce: waffles, shark, gone, chew, gym, etc. Basically every. single. word. I. say.
“Tooth” is the word that made me a victim of their mockery the other day. My kids were rolling on the floor laughing because I said “Toot Fairy.” Apparently, people do notice if you add an h at the end to make the th sound or what I just learned is called a “voiceless dental fricative.” [Insert eye roll here.] I can hardly hear the difference between “toot” and “tooth,” but to my children the way I say it is the funniest thing in the world.
As we were all laughing, I realized that many people may notice when I say things like that; they just don’t bring it up and laugh at my face because, unlike my kids, they have a filter. Well, most people do. There was this server once, who
pretended he couldn’t understand when I asked for buffalo sauce because I said “boo-ffalo”—at a wing restaurant, of all places. “Oh! You mean ‘buffalo’? Buh-fuh-low?” he asked, raising an eyebrow as he went on with a not-so-nice lesson of English for dummies. He also didn’t have a filter.
Whenever I have trouble expressing myself, most people make an effort to follow, which I really appreciate. If I notice someone struggling to understand my accent, I often tell them, “Bear with me; English is not my first language.” I say this not to make it awkward, but because it’s a fact and there’s nothing wrong with that.
No one should ever feel embarrassed for having an accent or mispronouncing a word, and whenever we hear someone struggling as they attempt to speak in what is clearly not their native language, we should all be kind and patient and recognize the accomplishment it represents, even if it’s choppy. As someone once told me after I apologized for my not-so-perfect English, “Hey, you can speak two languages! We’re the ones with a handicap here!” I’m so grateful for my friends who tell me “no worries; I understood” every time I mess up a sentence.
I want my kids to know that growing up bilingual is a gift to enjoy and for which to be grateful. They should always be proud of speaking a second language, and most importantly, I want them to know they should never, ever make anyone feel uncomfortable because of an accent. Well, maybe except me, because I’m always up for a good laugh, and let’s face it: the “Toot Fairy” is pretty darn funny.