‘Two Sides, Same Coin’ Column: Language Barriers

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Gaby Morera, B&W Staff

Gaby Morera, B&W Staff

As human beings, we all put up emotional walls to separate us from people. Maybe we don’t want them to get too close, so they don’t hurt us. Maybe we put up walls because we perceive people as weird, and we don’t want to get to know them.

Some walls are intentionally constructed between people to determine their relationships with each other. Others are imagined barriers that prevent us from getting to know other people.

Language is a big one. As much as it can be a unifying factor for people who speak the same language, it can be such a barrier between people whose first languages differ.

My mom sent me a quote the other day that said, “When a person has an accent, it means they speak one more language than you.” The picture attributed the quote to Fernando Lamas, and I, for one, agree with his sentiment.

We so often criticize people who don’t speak English correctly when they are here. We so often make fun of and ridicule the way they say certain words and phrases, but the matter of the fact is their accent represents their knowledge in two languages, which is more than what most people know.

These people might take the form of professors, TA’s, friends or acquaintances. I understand that sometimes these people might be hard to understand, and especially when your grade and your comprehension of a class is on the line, it’s very frustrating to not understand them. But that doesn’t mean you should ridicule them.

We have all probably taken a second language at some point in our lives. Trying to communicate in that language was hard, even if you took classes all through high school. Then, if most students have been in that situation, why do they still criticize and ridicule people with accents? I mean, they learned another language and are either almost or totally fluent in it to be able to be here.

Yes, their thick accents make them hard to understand. Yes, they came to the United States willingly, where the first language is English. But we should still respect them, because living in a place where they speak your second language is not a walk in the park.

We bilinguals constantly deal with all sorts of things monolinguals don’t deal with. Things can get lost in translation, or we might not be able to express ourselves as accurately as we might wish to in English.

I feel like it’s so easy to judge when you’re not the one in that situation. It’s so easy for us to just complain about our teachers having an accent we can’t understand because we have never faced that ourselves.

Personally, I’ve never had a thick accent, so I can’t say that I’ve had that much of a problem communicating. But sometimes I try to explain things and they come out sounding weird, or I can’t find the accurate words to explain because I’m using my Spanish thoughts to explain my English concept. My brain gets crowded with words of both languages, so I just end up stuttering and not being able to be coherent.

Just as it makes us get confused, often times being bilingual also makes us better communicators. It helps us see what is effective when trying to say something. We might have trouble pronouncing certain words (in my case, it’s “iron”; I always end up sounding Southern when I say it) and not understand some idioms. Put yourselves in our shoes for once, and consider what your life would be like if you were in this situation.

If you had to go to another country — let’s say Spain — and speak Spanish 24/7, you’d want people to be understanding of your limited knowledge in their language, right? So then why not extend that courtesy to everybody at Lehigh whose first language isn’t English?

I mean, it’s only fair.

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