“If you ignore my accent you will hear my story”

This piece was originally to be published in the York University community newspaper – Excalibur. However, the editor decided to scrap this piece at the penultimate stage. It disappointed me a lot, since I spent a lot of time doing research on this. But no regrets. I found a good friend in my interviewee – Trinity. Now with the internet, I hope this article finds its way and reaches out to ESL students across the web.

Amidst a number of internationally acclaimed movies, a Bollywood movie ‘English Vinglish’ premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.  Struggling with her poor English language skills, an Indian woman joins an English learning class in the United States of America. Here, she befriends people from diverse nationalities and backgrounds, with similar linguistic inabilities. The movie depicts her journey of self-discovery through learning the English language.

The scenario seems familiar.  However, this is not a Bollywood musical drama.  Welcome to the ESL Open Learning Centre (ESL-OLC) at York University. Meet 29-year-old Wei Ting, a.k.a Trinity who is an exchange student from China. Currently in her 3rd year of undergraduate study, she is studying Economics at York University.  Despite her limited knowledge of the English language, she is determined to excel in her studies here.  She shares, “Reading and writing in English is fairly easy. But conversing in English is most challenging.  I find it difficult to memorize the English vocabulary and jargons. Grammar too is an area of concern for me.” Trinity is among the vast number of ESL (English as a Second Language) students at York University.

ESL students are foreign students learning English while living in an English-speaking country. ESL students are mainly international students, immigrants, exchange students or visiting scholars. They belong to different fields of study and come from various parts of the world such as Russia, France, Turkey, China, Latin America and South Asia among others.

The ESL-OLC offers free support to these students who are registered in credit courses at York University and is open to all York students, registered in degree programs. At the ESL-OLC, students can get help in any aspect of English: listening, reading, writing, and speaking. Their services include 50-minute group conversation sessions, individual tutoring sessions on specific language needs as well as weekly English movie nights with conversation after.

Recounting her initial troubles with the English language, Trinity says, “ I was afraid to communicate in English, as I felt that I would make mistakes and that people won’t be able to understand me.  So I would approach only Chinese – looking people for help.  Even at a restaurant, I would order food by looking at the pictures.”

University, too, can be very challenging for an ESL student at the beginning.  Trinity explains, “Sometimes, it’s difficult to understand professors and classmates as they may have a strong accent and speak too fast. But, once they realize that you are an ESL student, they lower their speed and use simpler words to accommodate your needs. I like and appreciate their gesture, but inside it motivates me to push myself into learning more. Thus, I have to do a lot of work before and after class to keep up with my studies. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t get much time to relax and unwind and do things that I’d like to, such as exploring Toronto or making new friends. ”

Riding the wave of globalization and technology, English has become the most globally recognized language today. According to a report published in The Times of India, in 2010 the number of Indian English speakers was double the United Kingdom’s population.  Neighbouring country and competitor China is also making advances. A 2011 ‘English Proficiency Index’ Report from EF (Education First) – a company offering language training in over 50 countries states, “that China is poised to surpass India in the number of English speakers in the coming years.”

Like Trinity, many international and exchange students go to English-speaking countries to learn English, in order to better job prospects in an increasingly globalized world.  “Learning English may not help me significantly in China, but it definitely opens up more employment opportunities for me around the globe. I want to work in either Japan or Canada in the future. So good English communication skills are an indispensable asset for me. I know of many Chinese immigrants in Toronto who can’t communicate in English. For them, they might have not got the opportunity to learn the language. But I do and I will make the best out of this opportunity. ” English Vinglish Director, Gauri Shinde, shares her thoughts, “It is quite important to know the language since most of the professional environment demands it but it can’t be an indicator of who you are as a person and to maintain the pride of your own birth language is also important.”

The reach of the English language is far and wide, across all the continents.  The elastic nature of the language allows sub-variants such as Hinglish (Hindi + English), Spanglish (Spanish + English), Chinglish (Chinese + English), which have further increased its reach.  With a vocabulary of 1500 words, Globish, a new form of simplified English invented by Frenchman Jean Paul Nerriere, wants to make it easier for non – native speakers of English to communicate with one another in a global business environment.

Language facilitator and PhD candidate, Christine Wiseman, York University notes, “People continue to debate as to which English is correct, British or American? But, considering the global reach that the language has today, there is no unanimous answer. It depends on which English people want to speak.”  Trinity adds, “It is very difficult for Chinese to change their accent, even if they want to.” However, she feels that language is a tool to connect people with one another. As long as she is able to express herself through the language, her Chinese accent is not a worry. “If you ignore my accent, you’ll hear my story”.

Communicating through the English language is similar to a bridge that connects diverse people with one another. However, climbing that bridge can be a difficult task for students like Trinity. She remarks, “ Sometimes it gets lonely here. People are friendly, but it’s quite difficult to make good friends in a culturally different environment.  It’s not easy for an English speaker to understand my problem. Most of my friends in Toronto are ESL speakers from different countries. We are brought together by our inability to communicate in English.”

As a newcomer, speaking good English helps in acclimatizing yourself to the culture. Initially, even simple tasks like setting up a bank account or ordering food at a restaurant can be daunting. Trinity remarks, “Once I had to ask the server to repeat himself several times before I finally realized that he was asking me, for here or to go?”

But you can see the tinker of hope in her eyes. “ I feel like I am making steady progress. My listening skills have improved but I need to work a lot on my speaking skills. In the beginning, if I understood only 50 % of my lectures then now I can understand about 90 %. Hopefully, once I know the language well enough, I shall travel all over the country on my own.”

Trinity has set her eyes firmly on her goal and is seeking help from the ESL – OLC at York University. But as Wiseman points out, “ Only a few ESL students avail of these facilities at York. More ESL students should be encouraged to come forward and develop their English language skills.” If you are an ESL student or have friends who are ESL students, encourage them to take the leap.  As Trinity concludes, “ The journey may seem long and stressful at times, but if you are consistent, then you will reap the benefits. Speaking good English will give me loads of confidence and help in becoming a better global citizen. ”


2 thoughts on ““If you ignore my accent you will hear my story”

  1. Thank you for linking this to our site. It is important for teachers to be aware of the challenges faced by ESL students; I’m sure many of our readers will find it useful!

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