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The Woes of Speaking English as a Second Language

I’m lucky to have learned English at a young age. Though Bahasa Indonesia was the national language in Indonesia, the educational curriculum still emphasized the importance of learning English. I wrote essays, practiced conversations, read stories, and had English listening tests at school. My English grades were decent and I even enjoyed the challenge of the language courses.

Fast forward to the start of my university career, which happened to coincide with my family’s move to Canada. Having to suddenly use English all the time, I quickly found out that speaking English the entire day was profoundly different than just using it for an hour or two in an academic setting.

The Woes of Speaking English as a Second Language

Early during my first year in university, my anthropology professor wondered out loud as I asked him a question. He said, “You have a slight accent that I can’t seem to place. Where are you from?”

That was the first time someone had asked me about it when I hadn’t brought the subject up myself.

I stuttered out a reply to him. He nodded, smiled, and answered my question about the upcoming assignment. After class, I took a bus home and turned his question over and over again in my head, unable to figure out why it had felt so unsettling to me. Was it because he pointed out my accent? Maybe. I wasn’t delusional enough to think I didn’t have an accent, but I thought that it was something people wouldn’t mention out of politeness, like if a stranger you’re talking to has spinach stuck between their front teeth.

I didn’t know it then, but that wouldn’t be the last time someone would ask me about my accent.

The Woes of Speaking English as a Second Language

As classes went on, I started to worry about my fluency in English. My worrying closed down several opportunities for me. In my first year, I received countless emails about on-campus opportunities that I wanted to join, but I would think to myself: “Well, if I join this event, I would have to do some public speaking and I’m completely awful at that.”

I refrained from speaking up in class or contributing in group discussions. I chose to go home instead of hanging out with a big group of friends. I apologized a lot to people about my English.

It wasn’t until I talked to a friend about it that I realized this was a normal anxiety to feel.

At the end of the second term of freshman year, we needed to choose our major. I sat in the library with my friend, both of our laptops open on the wooden table.

My friend hunched over in her seat and drummed her fingers on the table. “I don’t know if I should major in Communication,” she said.

I frowned at her. The cursor on my screen hovered above the list of program choices. “Why? You’re really good at design and you love technology.”

She shrugged. “I think I would have more luck in a program where I don’t have to do as much public speaking.”

I bit my bottom lip and pondered her words. “For me, the problem with public speaking is that I don’t know if my English is good enough.”

She pointed at me, her dark eyes wide. “That’s exactly my dilemma!”

As English was also her second language, my friend was nervous. She admitted that she enjoyed the creative aspects of the Communication major, but she didn’t know if her English could match that of her peers.

It occurred to me that if my friend was feeling the same way, maybe I didn’t need to be as nervous as I was. After all, contrary to what I believed before, I wasn’t experiencing it alone. This made me look back on my first year with regret because of the chances that I had missed out on. So, at the start of my second year, I wanted to be more open towards opportunities that came my way. I knew I couldn’t change my mindset instantly. Instead, I took gradual steps to try changing my attitude. The worry about my English fluency still gnawed on my mind, but I tried my best to not turn it into a reason for not participating or cancelling plans.

The Woes of Speaking English as a Second Language

Here are a few things that have helped me overcome around my language concerns and maybe could help you too:

  • Knowing that I’m not alone. Talking to my friend who was also going through the same experience helped me feel more grounded and connected to others. BuzzFeed’s division Pero Like published a relatable video about the struggles of being bilingual. The best thing about the existence of videos and articles like this was that I could always be reminded that other people were going through what I was going through. I know I could talk to people and voice my feelings about my complex relationship with English.

  • Starting and joining conversations. An effective way to be more confident in speaking a language is by practicing it. I initiated conversations with friends and strangers, and tried to contribute in group discussions when I could. The more often I tried to speak in an environment and around certain people, the more comfortable I felt.

  • Not shying away from mistakes. Sometimes I would get the wrong answer in class, and other times I wouldn’t even feel up to participating, yet the rest of the time I would try. I also realized that it was alright to slow down, take my time to think, and to make mistakes. Yes, it was daunting, but people would still understand what I meant, or they would try to help, and I could always learn from my experience.

  • Using the available language resources. Colleges and universities have language resources that are open for their students. One that I would utilize from time to time is the writing centre at my university, as they would help me with questions about the grammar in my essays. Most professors are also happy to help once you talk to them. Dropping into their office hours or sending them a polite email goes a long way. Additionally, sometimes local libraries and community centres offer language programs that are accessible to the public.

The Woes of Speaking English as a Second Language

It’s currently my last year as an undergraduate student. I’m majoring in Communication and Sociology. Sure, early this term one of my professors still asked me where my accent was from in front of the whole class. But this time, I shrugged it off and answered with a steady voice instead. 

Indonesia, I told him.

The class moved on.

Alternating between Bahasa Indonesia and English requires concentration and energy. There are moments when I fail to think of a word in one language, or sometimes even in both. When I’m tired or nervous, I tend to speak slower because I need to think about my words more. But now, instead of thinking about these quirks of mine as a hindrance, I’ve learned to navigate around them. I’ve learned to accept them and ask for help when I need it. If I stumble on my words as I answer a question in class or speak with a friend, then so be it. At least I’ll know that I have made an effort.

I pause in the middle of a conversation with my friend.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” I tell her. “I don’t feel like there’s an English word to explain this accurately.”

She says, “Okay. I might know it. Could you elaborate?”

I continue speaking.

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The Woes of Speaking English as a Second Language