Monday, 7 July 2014

On being a non-native speaker of English.

I used to feel pretty bad because I can't speak perfect English. I remember the feeling of self-consciousness surrounding the fact that I am a late learner. It was always embarrassing to think of my stuttery, broken, Brazilianized English. Even though my learning process felt magical to me, I can't really say it was easy to overcome the inferiority complex surrounding my speech. To a certain extent, those feelings of being an odd/inadequate speaker still resonate at times. I don't really think I'll ever get completely over it, to be honest.

Although I still find it quite hard to effectively communicate with people, I can say things flow more naturally now (well, it's been over 10 years of learning the language) and I owe that to this inner urge I have to express myself. Also, as an activist, I started to think more of the power relations involved in language usage, and how I could be making a political statement with my so-called "broken" English. 

Before I turn to the political dimensions of being a non-native speaker, I want to take a look at the implications of being native, because that in itself has helped me overcome my anxieties when it comes to speaking up my mind, in public or elsewhere. When somebody reaches out to me for advice on how to be a more confident non-native speaker, the first thing I urge them to do is to reflect upon their own status as a native of any given language. Below I expose where I stand as a speaker of Brazilian Portuguese. 

As you might have known by now, Brazil is this huge country with continental dimensions and a vast array of cultures that can vary dramatically from region to region, and such diversity has a direct impact on the way people use the national language and, sadly, also on the ways they demonstrate power. Paulistas (those born in São Paulo) and Cariocas (those born in Rio) tend to be particularly arrogant when it comes to the accents of less privileged states, including the one I come from (Goiás). That means although I can perfectly speak and understand Portuguese, I am usually perceived as 'backwards' by interlocutors of said areas. There is even a book by sociolinguist Marcos Bagno ('Preconceito Linguístico' - Portuguese for 'Linguistic Prejudice') where he exposes the ways in which the Brazilian elite use language to discriminate against poorer states/lower classes. 

By now you readers know where I'm heading, I suppose. English is the lingua franca of the world, there is no doubt around that. However, it is also a locus for complex, intricate, and tense power relations that tend to be ignored by both native and non-native users alike. Maybe 'ignored' is not the correct word - I'd probably say 'naturalized'. For there has never been a place I set foot into where people haven't resorted to the myth that native speakers are 'authorities' in the language, whereas everybody else sucks, basically. The anecdote sounds even more amusing if we consider the fact that non-natives heavily outnumber natives of English. Given such scenario, it seems unfeasible to render only native speakers experts in anything. But that's exactly how the narrative goes, and it's all related to power, not necessarily a reflection of reality per se. 

Furthermore, it is interesting to observe how the industry around 'learning English' behaves. I don't know about you all, but as soon as I started learning the language (as an adult), the options presented to me were: 1. British English; 2. American English. It was only in my masters, like FIVE years after I started learning the damn language, that discussions were put in place surrounding the polarized ways we tend to approach it. If there is an effort being put in place by editors to present English as a language owned by either British or Americans, then we can ascertain, undoubtedly, that learning the language is a tiny part of a much deeper, pervasive imperialistic project to keep the world under a certain order. 

Therefore, given the above mentioned facts, I've decided to remain unapologetic about my own English. Foucault once stated that using the same structures of the powerful can prove empowering to the disempowered themselves, and that's exactly how I feel about my English. I relate to it in a very profound way and I made it my own. However, I feel today I'm mature enough to understand that being a foreign speaker of English means much more than choosing between two options: it means I have an Americanish accent, yes, but no American will ever see me as one of their own and guess what? Thank Kali for that! I realised I don't have to be anything other than myself. I realised I will ALWAYS mispronounce something, no matter how much effort I put into making it right. Above all, I realised that mistakes won't prevent me from speaking up my mind whenever I wish to. 

Besides, there is always the consolation prize of knowing that perfection is a construct aimed at keeping people under control. There's no such thing as being a perfect speaker - birth won't give you that entitlement, and if you really think it does, I'm sorry to say that but you are just one more delusional human being to inhabit this planet.

The very fact that such image exists proves there is no such thing as perfection (and in case you're wondering, this mistake is MASSIVE among natives)


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