I’m bilingual, and I’m not dumb

A student writes about the hardships she faces with English as her second language.


Being bilingual is generally considered a great advantage. It opens up so many doors. 

It even has a positive effect on brain function and helps improve memory and occasionally allows people to curse in public without getting disapproving looks.

But being bilingual has its downsides. 

When speaking English, my second language, I have felt frustrated, underestimated, undervalued and less intelligent.

My harsh Slavic accent, which sounds Russian to many, reveals my immigration status within my first sentence. I have not been able to Americanize my pronunciation during the last five years since I moved to the United States, no matter how hard I’ve tried. 

Once, someone asked if I could stop speaking with my accent for a little bit so she could understand me better. 

I’m sorry to disappoint, but according to Medical Daily, people with accents lose the ability to make certain sounds with age. So no, I can’t stop.

And the hardship of being bilingual goes beyond the accent. 

Immigrants usually speak in simple sentences. When expressing myself in English, I often have to simplify my thoughts. And occasionally during this process, I strip my sentences of their intended meaning. 

Based on my experience, having trouble speaking a second language is often mistaken as a sign of low intelligence. 

To put it simply, we sound dumb to Americans.

During times when I’ve admitted to not understanding something, I’ve been dismissed as being incapable of comprehension, which was wrong. I just couldn’t match a certain word or phrase with any translation in my native vocabulary. 

When I first came to the United States from the Czech Republic, my English was so basic I could hardly put a sentence together. 

Luckily, I was working as an au pair, or a foreign live-in nanny, taking care of children, who were the most patient English teachers I could have possibly asked for. The only downside was that I used to walk around asking for the “potty” in restaurants and bars.

Having very different political views from the host family I used to live with, I worked up the confidence after a few months to speak out and explain the refugee situation in Europe. My host parents kept mixing up facts. 

Once I finished, my host dad plainly said, “You are actually pretty smart.”

My only thought at that moment was of Sofia Vergara as the bilingual character Gloria in the show “Modern Family,” when she said, “Do you even know how smart I am in Spanish? Of course, you don’t.”

At a meeting with an academic adviser at my previous college, I was told I might want to rethink studying journalism because English isn’t my native language. Thankfully, my stubbornness is greater than my fear of failure, so I went against this advice, changed my major and eventually became junior editor of the college’s newspaper. 

I disagree with the common opinion that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn, but it is hard. There are exceptions to rules and expressions that make very little sense. 

For example, in English, you can “shed a tear” and “tear a letter open,” and it seems like the same word, but you don’t pronounce it the same. That is so confusing. 

Maybe it just makes sense to you, but it doesn’t really make sense to me.

And why is “eatable” not a word, when it makes more sense than “edible?” 

Before learning the cultural norms, I sounded rude. I would rarely ask in my language, “Can I have some coffee, please?” 

In my homeland, it is perfectly normal to say, “Bring me coffee,” without sounding arrogant like it would in English. 

Although I can speak English pretty fluently now, I will probably never sound like a native speaker. But that doesn’t mean I’m incapable of speaking and understanding. 

Immigrants are not less intelligent. We might take longer to finish tasks, read and ask questions, but we are smart and we learn fast. All it takes is a little bit of patience. Be patient with us, please.

This is a land of immigrants after all.

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