My relationship with the English language has been a complicated one, and most likely, many of you out there can relate as well. In this episode, my friend, Angela Upreti, and I share our frustrations over the stigma and stereotypes behind English “accents” and overall struggle with the language.
Having obtained a Bachelor's Degree from Smith College double majoring in engineering and computer science, Angela is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in computer science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She identifies herself as Nepalese.
TRANSCRIBED BY SHIVANGI RAMACHANDRAN
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NGUYEN: Hi. Welcome to Project Voice. This is Jess, and today we have Angela Upreti. She’s our special guest for this episode, and well, let’s just start off! I think that as we come from two different cultures, we probably have experienced a love-hate relationship with the English language. Well, at least for me. Angela and I bonded over our perspective or our experiences with the English language. Except we both come from very different places.
There are many Asian international students who come here to study abroad and they have to learn English of course, to be able to study abroad here. It’s not just like studying abroad for a semester where you take classes in that native language from the country that you’re studying abroad in, but studying in that language that you weren’t born into. So, we have Angela here today who will be sharing with us her experience growing up and learning English language as a second language. Thank you for joining us today.
ANGELA UPRETI, INTERVIEWEE: Thank you for having me, Jessica.
NGUYEN: Yeah, no problem. I’m excited to hear what you have to share. I know that you feel very passionate about this topic. How about you tell us a little bit about yourself? Angela is also a friend of mine whom I got to know at Smith College. We both graduated in the same year.
UPRETI: I’m a grad student, and I came to the US 5 years ago as an international student. A bit about my background: my school was in English. Other than Nepali, all the other subjects were taught in English so I had that background, but the English that is spoken in the US is quite different from what we learned. Being a Commonwealth country, the language that we learned is British English but coming here to the US, I realized that it is quite different from the English spoken in the US because of a lot of slangs, you know.
UPRETI: Say for example, I didn’t know what “all set” meant. Suppose I am buying something at a grocery store, and then people tell me, “You’re all set” and I didn’t know like that it meant that you have paid and can move on.
NGUYEN: (LAUGHS) Aww!
UPRETI: So yeah, a lot of the slangs like that. But like, Urban Dictionary is really helpful.
NGUYEN: I find it helpful as an American, too! There are some I don’t even know.
UPRETI: So yeah that’s why I chose to talk about English. Being an international student, you first have to try to assimilate into a new culture and then realizing that you often have to repeat yourself because you have a very thick accent. That added to the amount of effort I had to put in to trying to assimilate into the US culture and then,the culture at Smith.
NGUYEN: Yeah. English is a tricky language. For me, as an Asian American, as a child of immigrants who came over here. My parents came over here to learn English on their own, and they are the ones who taught me. I remember at 3 or 4 years old, my mom would be the one to hand out flashcards and pointing out objects and repeating their names in English. My English wasn’t perfect. I would say my first language was Vietnamese and then I had to grapple with the fact that I had to learn English. There were words that I would mispronounce or I didn’t pronounce very well. I even had a speech teacher for a year.
NGUYEN: Yeah. (LAUGHS) A lot of my friends don’t even know that part about me. But it happened. I used to pronounce brother as ˈbrədər. And it was only a couple of years ago that the word album was supposed to be pronounced ˈælbəm. For the past twenty years, I’ve been pronouncing it ˈælbuːm. (LAUGHS)
NGUYEN: People were giving me weird looks and I didn’t know why. So yeah, English is definitely a very frustrating language and I have a hard time even as someone who grew up in this country. I had a hard time speaking comfortably in English and what’s interesting is that there are times when I get really nervous. I just forget my grammar. I feel ashamed about it because I’m American. I’m supposed to speak well already but you know, we all have our experiences with this particular language and I know that we have a shared experience over feeling self-conscious about our accents. I think that’s a very important topic to touch on.
UPRETI: Yeah, I agree. I sort of was taught in English so that helped me navigate it a little bit but I know a lot of the international students, even when they come to Smith have not been taught in English, except English, you know. So Math or Science - all subjects would be taught in their native language which meant like just pretending in Math class. It’s such a difficult thing to do because you don’t know all these scientific terms that you have to use in class.
NGUYEN: I even have a hard time processing words or sentences for some reason. I don’t know how many people are out there like me. It just takes some time to put words together and yeah, it’s a bit different for everybody. Like, I know that I have some friends who grew up in a household where they have to speak their parent’s language more, at the same time having to grapple with English. Oftentimes, some of them are 1.5 generations, so they end up getting it over here, at a later age, maybe when they’re in elementary school or older or something. So for them, it’s a challenge, too, having to come over here at a later age to pick up the language.
UPRETI: Yeah, so kudos to all the international students and Asian Americans who have been fighting… not fighting, but actually struggling with language somehow, either when they’re young or when they are adults coming for college, or any point in their life, because it takes effort.
NGUYEN: Yeah, you have to learn another language, besides their home country’s language, and you have to use that language to get by, get a degree, get a job in another country. There are so many people out there who didn’t choose that path, say like me, they decided to stay in their home country and go to school and go to classes in their own native language. There are people who studied abroad, like, I studied abroad but I didn’t have to take my classes in Mandarin Chinese, besides Chinese language classes, but besides that the others were in English so to see international students coming here, and having to be on their own, live independently, and not only get by, but to excel and exceed expectations using the English language... I’m just amazed. I have to give props to all of you, I don’t know how you do it, and I say that all the time to my international friends like, “How do you do it?” Because sometimes I know that in your home country like, the English classes, like some students don’t really take the English language curriculum very seriously and you really have to work extra hard or take extra classes after school to catch up or to be able to get on that level where you can comprehend and communicate well enough in English. And we talked about our self-consciousness about our accent…
UPRETI: Yeah, so I’m just stressing my experience. I think the part that was a bit hard for me was repeating myself because I was used to people getting me on the first go and then, my native language is fast, so I speak really fast because that’s how Nepali is spoken. But here, I’ve learned to slow down so people understand me. So yeah, I think it’s further good too because just navigating that bridge where I wanted to make sure people completely understand what I’m trying to say. Communication is such an important part of life, like (whether) it be in academy or school or social life or work, I’ve learned to slow myself. And that’s like I’m doing something different from my native language, because literally, when I speak Nepali people tell me, “Don’t you breathe while speaking?”
UPRETI: Because I speak too fast.
NGUYEN: Oh. I didn’t notice that, really!
UPRETI: Because I’ve slowed down a lot. Like, if you hear me talk in Nepali, you’d think I’m speaking too fast.
NGUYEN: So when we were talking earlier, was that how you normally speak or were you slowing down?
UPRETI: I think I’ve normalized it quite a bit, like I don’t talk very fast nowadays.
UPRETI: I was so aware of this during my presentations. When I presented my thesis, I knew at a point I’m going to try to speed up because the whole idea is… For me, the whole point of communication used to be…. see, I’m speeding up (LAUGHS)… to get as much information in as little time as possible, so I would like speed up in between, and then I would realize, these people need to understand me. It’s not just about me talking.
UPRETI: So I would slow down.
NGUYEN: I have roommates, and I noticed that they have British accents, and they’re from India. Sometimes I have to ask them to repeat. I like to say it’s because, I have a hard time hearing. You know, I’m half deaf but um...
UPRETI: And I think that’s completely fair. I think it’s about both parties realizing that it takes more effort.
NGUYEN: Yeah, it’s interesting. But when it comes down to it, you shouldn’t feel self-conscious about how you speak, or your accent. It’s just more about just getting the messages across, and being respectful of each other. If you’re the listener, trying to be more respectful of whoever is speaking, but when it comes to speaking English, we both are very gung-ho about not feeling self-conscious about your accent, and just embracing your heritage and your accent.
UPRETI: You know, It’s both self-consciousness but also, coming from a place where you never had to repeat yourself because everybody got what you were trying to say. The whole point of communication is the other person understanding you somehow, right?
NGUYEN: That’s interesting. I feel a bit nervous venturing into or talking about it because I don’t want to offend them. I don’t want to offend the speaker and I don’t want to make them feel bad or self-conscious when they’re speaking to me but at the same time, I’m facing the dilemma whether, should I tell them? Because I can’t understand or I couldn’t hear them very well, or should I not? At the same time, that’s…
UPRETI: That depends on the person, right? Because for me though, the most honest feedback I received was, for one of my presentations, somebody told me I should work on my enunciation, and I thought that was really helpful. I understood because I speak so fast I was not pronouncing the words fully, so that helped me improve my communication skills somehow. I really appreciate honesty in terms of my communications style. But it depends upon the person. Because some people don’t take feedback nicely also.
NGUYEN: I also had a friend who - she grew up here but she’s very in touch with her parent’s language, her home culture’s language, so she spoke a lot of Cantonese, and we speak English too whenever we’re hanging out but she would express self-consciousness because I know that she would get called out by some people. She never asked them to correct her, and they are those who just come in and tell her - “This how you’re supposed to pronounce this word.” Or they would fix her grammar when...
UPRETI: It wasn’t asked for, yeah.
NGUYEN: ...she wasn’t asking for it. I also think that’s something to...
UPRETI: ...keep in mind, right?
UPRETI: Yeah, I get that. I was thinking about it and then I thought, I appreciate the feedback because I asked for it and it was somebody I knew. If it was coming from a random person, I’d probably not want them to correct me if I’m not asking.
NGUYEN: (LAUGHS) I think it really depends on the depends on the situation. I have another roommate and she’s from Taiwan, and I let her know if she asks me. It’s just like another form of imperialism.
UPRETI: There’s no way getting around it.
NGUYEN: Correct me if I’m wrong but in Asian countries where English education is on the rise, it’s in high demand because it’s important to keep in mind that, yes, everywhere we’re touched by British imperialism, so we can’t help but face that English is a universal language or a language that more and more people feel is a means to take off to have more opportunities. Sometimes though in Asian countries where ESL or English teaching is on the rise, they forget that English isn’t a better language. It’s not supposed to be superior to your own country’s language. It’s just a tool we use to get by. And that’s something that I think teachers should stress more because you just forget. Along with the language comes with the whole western culture, and you forget the value that your culture has.
NGUYEN: Going along with that, going to accents. It’s interesting to see how people love European accents or have preference over Asian accents for some reason. It’s like oh, if you have a British accent or a French accent, it’s sexy and it’s desirable.
UPRETI: I agree, and all the comedy shows show South Asian accents in a very funny light. So I think like, that’s what contributes to people feeling self-conscious about their accents, right? Because if all the funny TV characters talk like you, then it’s kind of weird.
NGUYEN: Yeah, if all the TV characters… why couldn’t they just speak like everyone else? Why do they have to have an accent? That’s what gets… why aren’t Asian accents desirable?
UPRETI: Yeah, why aren’t they cute?
NGUYEN: Making fun of accents on TV shows aren’t really helpful either for us. It’s still perpetuating stereotypes (for) Asians. So I’m curious to know… what kind of takeaways can our listeners gain from this episode?
UPRETI: So this is going to sound a bit cliched, but I think the idea is self-acceptance. Because your accent is a part of who you are, your background, your heritage, and then being comfortable with that is really important. Because besides your accent, you get a lot of cool things from your heritage, right? Like, I get Mt Everest, (LAUGHS) cool mountains, and a lot of other things Nepali culture provides me. And same with everyone’s accents so you have a lot of things to brag about and you’re unique. I think that’s the important part. Be proud of your heritage and your accent and sometimes it might take extra effort to be able to communicate effectively, but you can always overcome that when you have right people around you.
NGUYEN: Yeah, I definitely agree. So, I have a confession. When I was younger, I remember my sister and I would tease our parents about their accents when they speak English. That’s very bad.
NGUYEN: We didn’t realise how terrible we were for doing that. We didn’t realize how far they’d come to get here and they probably experienced a lot of different forms of oppression or harassment from other people outside in the real world as well. Just because you have an accent… it means that you know another language. A lot of people assume that when you have an accent, you’re not an intelligent person and that's obviously not the case.
UPRETI: Yeah, I agree with that.
NGUYEN: Yeah, I think that’s a stereotype. When we see people with accents, we sort of look down on them, not realizing that English is their second language. They actually have to learn it on their own. Sometimes not even through education. Sometimes it is on their own; sometimes they just pick it up along the way, at work. I have to give props to all the immigrants out there who came here and they have to learn another language just to survive.
UPRETI: I agree with that, Jessica. And also, it’s interesting that you brought up the point about intelligence. Having to communicate in a language that’s not your native definitely changes the way you communicate, right? So, as in, you really might want to say something but you might not have the words to say it exactly in the right way. So oftentimes, people think, “Oh, you have an accent so you must not be that intelligent.” But sometimes it might be that the person might be really smart, but does not have the right words to express what they wanted to say.
NGUYEN: And they are probably really good in their own- in other languages and again, it goes back to not such quick assumptions about others.
UPRETI: I have one thing to add… I’m just thinking about this right now. You know how a lot of academic journals are published in English and I feel like a lot of the times, the committee might be biased towards native English-speakers but it’s sort of fair, too. If you read a paper, it’s very well written in English. It’s probably more likely to get accepted than something that has very good idea, and is very novel, but did not explain the words through… You know what I mean? Maybe scientifically one of them is better. I’m not saying that all non-native English papers are better but... (LAUGHS) I’m just saying in a case where something was very good but was not written in a nice way. Say, for example, somebody who did not have that much experience writing in English wrote a paper… would the paper committee be biased towards a well-written paper?
NGUYEN: Yeah, definitely. Language is not only a barrier for communication but also a barrier for knowledge as well. To share your knowledge. Now it’s getting me to think about the education system all over the world. Universities in other countries aren’t in poorer quality. It’s just a different language but what gets to me is that for some reason, we often just hear about universities in the western world, papers that are being cited are of course written in English. I think if you grew up speaking the language as your main language, your native language, it gives you an advantage. That’s just something to keep in mind. Be proud of the fact that you are here, and you got here using a language that’s not your own.
UPRETI: You said it right. It does not define your intelligence. Your accent is not your intelligence or your emotional capacity or anything...
NGUYEN: ...or your potential or yourself..
NGUYEN: Just feel empowered by the fact that you’ve gone far and just kudos to all of you out there listening to this. So my next question for you is that: do you have any resources or spaces that you can think of that you’d like to share to our community?
UPRETI: I think it’s hard to find organizations or anything that’s a support group for people with cute accents.
UPRETI: But what I think is important is having people around you who know your background who know that it makes a difference when you’re talking in a different language and who are supportive. I think the best resource you can have is having the right community that will help you succeed in a different language. And same with your friends, or even your professors who understand that your potential, or how much they think you’re important and are going to help you succeed with your accent and with your English-language capabilities. Most of the international students who come to the US to succeed have taken TOEFL, so we all have good English. We all know what we’re supposed to know. Anyway, so I just want to stress on that. You know what you need to know. Everybody has an accent. It’s just that sometimes you might have to repeat yourself.
NGUYEN: Yeah. Everybody has an accent. Even in the U.S.
NGUYEN: We have different accents. Like, what is correct English? I don’t think there is such a thing, like there is a standard way of speaking English. So, don’t worry about it. I think everybody has their own way of speaking English. (LAUGHS)
UPRETI: Yeah. Definitely.
NGUYEN: Thank you so much, Angela. I think this (has been) a very special episode. And I’m so excited to be able to share this with all of our listeners. So again, if you’d like to get the latest updates on Project Voice, follow us on Facebook, Tweet us at @projectvoiceaaw or email us email@example.com. I hope all of you have a great day, and yeah, looking forward to hearing what you all think about this episode. Bye!
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