I Speak English, You Speak! – An Immigrant’s Perspective #1

This is the first in a series about immigration.

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Until yesterday I believed that I’d thought through all the trials and tribulations that go with being an immigrant.

Wrong!

While attending a professional workshop, the speaker who was born in India, said the following to the audience: “I speak English, you speak!”, and then he continued and said: “I live in the U.S., you live!”

It took me just a second to understand what he meant, but I believe most of the audience pondered longer on the implication of these statements.

As a child, I never stopped to think that I spoke Hebrew. I simply spoke. I would imagine that for most everyone born in ‘their’ country, speaking is a natural process, one which does not need any definition.  One simply speaks.

You write, but I write in English!  As a child writing was writing, but writing in English was part of the skills one acquired (hopefully) in English class.

Despite speaking English for most of my life, it isn’t as natural to me as it is to you! Even though there was the day that I started dreaming in English rather than Hebrew, I’m still aware that my daily language is a foreign language.

First and foremost, I have an accent.  Even though I speak very well, read and write fluently, and I give workshops in English – I’m always aware of this the first minute someone meets me.

I know there are people who are more anxious than others at first meetings. Some people are anxious about their appearance; some about their intelligence; and others may be concerned about their business or social status and so on.

I am not anxious, but I am aware.

There’s always the same tedious process when I meet someone for the first time.  Some people were taught not to ask personal questions, but I can see the question in their face, “Where is she from?”  (I don’t have the typical Israeli accent.)  Others, more forthright, simply ask the question right away – and from their expression, I have to figure out whether they are for, or against Israel.

So an introduction is not an introduction of me, Rachel.  It is an introduction of my foreignness; my accent that makes me different; my belonging to a country and religion; and sometimes to a pre-conceived notion about my understanding of things.

Have you ever noticed that some people (not very savvy), speak loudly to foreigners? Have you ever done that? For some reason, they assume that you don’t speak the language so well, so they “help” your comprehension by speaking loudly.

There are other people who tend to explain their words, without realizing that your level of proficiency is better than theirs. They come up with synonyms.  In fact, one person I know tends to explain words with synonyms that are more difficult than the original conversation, as in: “This was very difficult, you see, difficult is like the word daunting“.

Yes, it can be quite exasperating.

So I speak English, and you just speak. I still make mistakes.  I can still have problems understanding some idioms, and I lack in the part of being acculturated when people around me reminisce about childhood TV programs, or recite lines from their favorite childhood show; or the funny commercial that all of you used to sing together while eating your cereal.  Me?  I read a lot as a child, and most of the popular childhood books from here were translated to Hebrew.

And one more thing:  Being from another culture and not speaking English from birth is a burden that I’m accustomed to, but most people don’t realize the additional cultural richness I, and other immigrants possess.

I can sing in a foreign language. I can read from right to left.  I read the Bible in the original language.  I know songs in French, Italian and Spanish, and as a child I used to watch movies from the above mentioned countries – and from India as well, way before there was Bollywood.

I know the history of the Jews and of the Middle East and of course that of Israel, and I can recite poetry in Hebrew.  I can go on and on, but I think I’d leave it to another blog.

Right now, I have to ask Peter to read my blog and tell me if I made any linguistic faux pas.

Do you know that faux pas is French? Of course you do.

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About rachel bar

Psychotherapist and supervisor.
This entry was posted in Foreign, Foreign Language, Immigration, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to I Speak English, You Speak! – An Immigrant’s Perspective #1

  1. David Silber says:

    One time on SNL, the show aired a segment called, “News For the deaf.” One one the stars yelled out the actual news and your peice reminded me of it in its inference. So think of that, Rachel, who spells her name like another good-friend Israeli woman I know and whose sister(also in your circle of psychotherapists) is a good friend of ours.

    David Silber

  2. Martha Carr says:

    What an excellent elaboration on a subtle but profound distinction! My father being Viennese had a german accent yet he was “my father, speaking.” Having been born to an American mother in the US I never distinguished between him as a foreigner, immigrant and him. To me, he was just speaking. He did share many stories that touched on some of the issues you describe and I am grateful to have been exposed to them early on. As was said yesterday – to me those stories helped me understand “Gold” and my direct experience was of “Ernest” (or dad). He had better command of the English language than many others and didn’t speak a word of it when he arrived here at 18 years of age! Thanks for another thought-provoking and eloquent post!

    • rachel bar says:

      Thanks Martha. I forgot that you had a first hand experience with your dad. I believe though, that when you are Ernest Gold, your accent becomes part of your mystique.

  3. Peter G says:

    A wonderful union of words, pictures, ideas and feelings. Well done. BTW, in this context, ‘union’ is like the word, ‘confluence’… ; )

    :

  4. Margot says:

    When I was a child … many, many, many years ago … I didn’t realize that my grandfather only spoke Russian (although he understood some English). It took one of my friends to point it out to me after overhearing a conversation I was having with him, me in English and my grandfather in Russian. One of the things I love about Los Angeles is the many languages and accents of its population and the cultural diversity that those languages and accents mean.

  5. Amy says:

    Great points, Rachel! I remember spending a few weeks in Mexico City and staying with the family of one of my close friends. One of her aunts used to hilariously yell in Spanish at me because she seemed to think I would understand her Spanish better if she did so. I’d already get migraines when I was there from the mental energy required to understand & respond in a language foreign to me. Her shouts did not help the migraines. ;D I’m very impressed by people who move from the country they were born & raised in to another country where they have to learn a whole new language, slang, culture, currency system, etc. To me, that takes a high level of courage and intelligence that is to be admired, not negatively judged simply because that person has an accent. However, I did notice at Saturday’s presentation, I had to chide myself for thinking, “Oh, I love his [the presenter’s] Eastern Indian accent! It’s so cute & charming!” I figured this incredibly gifted & intelligent man (with an encyclopedic memory of academic publications, etc.) probably would not appreciate me assessing his accent as “cute and charming.”

    • rachel bar says:

      As always Amy, your comments reflects the special person that you are. As far as the workshop and the speaker, there were a couple of times I didn’t understand what he said, and I found myself thinking, gee, is it my hearing or his accent.

  6. Barbara Cooper says:

    Personally, I’ve always loved a foreign accent. I have attracted many people into my life from far off lands, and in fact , have become very close friends with most. My first very best friend was Dutch, and I currently have close friends from Wales and Belgium, and of course, Israel. I find an accent to be charming, almost melodious. But what I love most of all is the different cultures that I get to experience by knowing them. Europeans in particular get to travel to so many different countries and experience so many different cultures because hopping from one country to the next is as easy for them as it is for us to go state to state. They bring with them wonderful stories of far off lands and open my eyes to upbringings so very different from my own. I get to experience new foods with strange names that I would never be brave enough to try on my own. (Spotted Dick comes to mind here) They bring interesting conversations to the dinner table. I love to hear about what life was like for them growing up, what were their particular holiday traditions, how did they spend their summers, how and why did they end up here? Do they miss what they knew of home? If they were alive during World war 11, what was that like for them?
    For me, it is like being immersed in a great book and makes me promise myself that someday I will go to these places and see them for myself through their eyes, not just as an American tourist. I travelled quite a bit in my lifetime, but always to big cities, Paris, Rome, London, Tokyo, Florence to name a few, and I’ve loved every minute, but these are major metropolis cities and I grew up near the biggest one of all, the Big Apple. I saw the landmarks, I visited the museums, but I could only imagine what it would be like to actually live in these cities. My friends, with their beautiful accents, take me there in ways I cannot experience without them. So yes, when I meet someone new and they have an accent, I always immediately ask, “Where are you from?” as I excitedly anticipate all the new things I will learn from someone who speaks differently than I do. And interestingly enough, as a person who has lived in LA for so many years, when I hear a New York accent, I am immediately drawn to the person from “home.”

    • rachel bar says:

      So nice of you Barbara to express your love of the new, foreign and unfamiliar. At the same time, the attraction you have towards New Yorkers is similar to the feeling I have when I hear someone speaks Hebrew.

  7. mim collins says:

    Thanks, Rachel, for your thoughtfulness, and your willingness to share. I, for one (or many) appreciate it…Mim

  8. Maurice Labi says:

    I’m always astounded how interpreters are able to translate simultaneously a diplomat’s native language into English. The good ones are able to not only convey the content but the spirit, the energy, and the speaker’s personality. They’re truly gifted. It’s something I attempt when I read Hebrew or watch the Israeli news, but with limited success.

  9. Debbie says:

    Hello! or, if formality rings your bell (excites you), Greetings! I’ve spoken English, really ‘American’ since day one. I refer to American when i use the word English because i want to be sensitive to the fact that our friends who live in the Btitish Isles blanch whenever an American says ‘I speak English’.

    I’ve always been interested in all languages. Some are beautiful to hear spoken, others, not so much.

    Words are fun, especially words that i can’t immediately understand. Like the word orangasmic that my brother Peter just used when commenting in this same Blog. What does pithy have to do with the word ‘orangasmic’? No, really. Oranges, especially really juicy sweet and tang-y ones are certainly a party for the mouth but……..’orangasmic’? C’mon bro. It’s a fruit already.

    • pgarey says:

      The pith, as I’m sure you know is the white, interior part of citrus skin – i.e. an orange rind … which can be very tasty in the right context … in fact, downright orangasmic!

  10. aFrankAngle says:

    After our our encounter yesterday, thought I would return to learn more. This is wonderful. My mother was Italian, thus never became a US citizen – so she had a heavy accent. She learned English the old fashion way – no schooling, just through daily encounters. I say this because if I met you, to me, your accent is just that. And in many ways, it’s a positive in my mind.

  11. Vasca says:

    I’m so pleased to find and read your blog…this post is wonderful. I speak ‘American’ and moved at least once each year until I married. Thinking we would live in one city forever…never happened since my husband became an active duty Army officer and travel to exotic places was our blessing. We lived in Ekali Greece for two years; I began Greek lessons my first month there and did quite well w/the language. Spent two years in Stuttgart Germany and I understood the language but never spoke it. Spent some time in Eritrea; never learned the language. Then wonder of wonders, a few years ago my wonderful husband and I moved to China…where both of us taught in a Chinese university! We taught conversational English and it was truly the experience of our lifetime. My life is so rich from all the wonderful friends we’ve made in each country…so rich. Back now in the U.S. I always politely ask where ‘foreign voices’ are from…and I’ve met many who were from some of the places we’ve lived overseas. It’s truly an awesome experience and I thank you for your most interesting thoughts.

    I think I’ll be one of your ‘faithful followers’…thanks!

  12. Kathryn says:

    Here in London we have people from every nation..My friend from Israel complains that the immigrants from Eastern Europe don’t know how to queue at the bus stop… whereas,the English always queue.. properly.I noticed when my husband came round after an accident the paramedic
    was SHOUTING:WHO IS THE PRIME MINISTER
    to test if he was demented…..in fact,she frightened him.I explained to him he was in an ambulance and he was perfectly normal though shocked…
    I found your piece both interesting and amusing,I can’t think of a really difficult English word to tease you with…..mmmm musing,pondering,wondering,…. my mind is a tabula rasa I fear!

  13. backonmyown says:

    Hi Rachel. I like this post on many levels. I speak Spanish. The people with whom I attend church just speak. I never thought of it that way. This weekend I will tutor a young Peruvian as he prepares for the SAT. You see, he writes in English, and he’s finding it difficult. I just write. I hope I will be able to help him. And you, Rachel, may write in English, but you do it very well.

    I appreciate your take on your foreignness. I’m drawn to accents. I enjoy trying to figure out where people are from, what language is their first. That means I often ask questions when I meet someone new. I do so because I’m truly curious and interested. I think I do it with care. I hope so. This post cautions me be sensitive. Thanks.

    • rachel bar says:

      Thanks for your comment Pat and I like the fact that it made you aware of one element of “foreignness”. And no, you don’t have to be sensitive about asking people where their birthplace was, as we (the immigrants) all know that you (pl.) wonder about it anyway.

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