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"Be True to Thyself" in any Language

Does speaking another language fluently mean I must give up my own linguistic quirks?
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9 Jan 2015

“Be True to Thyself” in any Language

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Guest Blogger: Cory Stewart

I’m not a native speaker of Spanish. However, when I speak Spanish, people generally tell me “you don’t have a familiar accent… not a native one or an American one… where is your accent from?” I always say the same thing “When I speak Spanish, I’m basically talking to myself. I don’t sound like a guy from Latin America or any other guy from USA because I’m not from Latin America, and I’m not some other guy… I’m just me!”

When people ask me what’s the best way to learn a language (which happens a lot because I’m an ESL teacher), I tell them to remember who it is that is learning the language (hint: it’s you). Just because you are speaking a different language, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t you anymore. A giant obstacle that everyone has to overcome when learning a language is you have to relax and be yourself.

Self-awareness is something that I have to continuously encourage in many of my language acquisition students when they get preoccupied with how “good” their English is. While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to measure progress, the stick that students tend to measure themselves against is how much they sound like a native speaker. People have a natural tendency to want to sound like “they” sound. No matter who “they” are, whether they be regular people we hear talking on the bus, people we see on TV, musicians, poets, or even imaginary people we have made up in our heads, we have this idea in our mind that when we speak another language, it’s our goal to sound like them.

Here’s the thing: They don’t even sound like them. Ignoring any Whorfian influence on the culture as a whole, individuals have various internal and external factors that influence the way they speak. And you, as the non-native speaker, have a completely different set of influences that you bring to the table. People add conversational nuance, sub-culturally specific slang, dialect, intonation, and various other language tools to express themselves in a way that is unique to them at any given moment. You have the freedom to do the same. For instance, I have no idea if “it’s all good” is a phrase that translates well in Spanish. However, I say that phrase about a hundred times a day in English. So, even though most native Spanish speakers would never say “todo ‘ta bien”, I say it all the time because that’s something I would say. Spanish speakers may not like it, but there are people who don’t like that I say it so much in English also. Who cares? It’s still me talking (and I say what I want). The idea that one should (or even could) imitate another person’s way of speaking with any sort of authenticity is kind of absurd bordering on offensive (looking at you, Iggy Azalea).

There are limits, of course. Every language has an acceptable set of parameters in syntax and semantics. Even when a native speaker is speaking to other native speakers, some things just don’t work no matter how hard we try (to quote Mean Girls: stop trying to make fetch happen, it’s not going to happen). But, outside of any obvious linguistic faux pas, feel free to go nuts. Make the language something that a person like you would speak. Also, stop worrying about whether you sound like “they” do; you sound like you do… and that’s all that matters.

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