When accent is on language

Print Print
Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tensions flared during testimony leading up to the final state Senate vote on Texas' sanctuary cities bill -- and not just over whether the new measures would have a chilling effect on commerce or open the door to racial profiling of Latinos. One incident in particular struck at the very heart of fears about immigrant assimilation and the preservation of an "American culture" that shares the English language.

Antolin Aguirre, a representative of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition who had his remarks translated from Spanish, began enumerating his concerns about the Arizona-like bill to members of the state Senate's Transportation and Homeland Security Committee. A few minutes into his testimony, he was stopped cold by Sen. Chris Harris.

"Am I understanding correctly that he has been here since 1988?" Harris asked Aguirre's translator.

Aguirre himself responded in nearly unaccented English, "Yes, sir, that's correct."

Harris then asked Aguirre: "Why aren't you speaking in English, then? You've been here for 23 years?"

According to the video of his testimony, Aguirre began to say, in very clear English, "Well, I speak English but ... ." Then he continued in his native tongue: "The reason is that I know the language but I prefer, because it is my first time (testifying), I prefer to do it in Spanish with a translator."

The translator, who had struggled with correctly translating Aguirre's deliberate speech, translated only this: "Spanish is his first language and ... he would rather do it in Spanish." Unfortunately, this gave the impression to those who hadn't understood Aguirre's original remarks in Spanish that he was unable to speak English.

At this point Harris let loose: "It's insulting to us. It is very insulting. And if he knows English, he needs to be speaking in English." This prompted a reaction from those in attendance.

But once everyone quieted down, Aguirre completed his prepared remarks through the translator and ended with "Thank you. God bless you," in nearly flawless English.

Why then didn't he conclude his remarks in, what sounded like, his near-perfect English? Why, by continuing in Spanish and letting an imperfect translator speak for him, did he leave the Texas legislators with the same, tired stereotype of the immigrant who comes to this country and can't be bothered to learn English?

I don't know because I was unable to track Aguirre down to ask about his thoughts during the ugly confrontation. But still, we can't judge him.

When someone speaks in their second language, the biggest risks aren't about syntax or pronunciation but about how he'll be heard. Speaking English is incredibly difficult and can be emotional, even risky, no matter how advanced the skill, because native English-speakers can have unpleasant thoughts when they hear their language spoken with an accent.

Numerous studies over the last two decades have found that people who speak English with a foreign accent are perceived to be less intelligent, in general, and less professional in a workplace. Even worse, in some instances listeners can even perceive an accent where there is none because of skin color or facial features. Most recently, a University of Chicago study found that a sample of Americans who were asked to listen to statements from native and non-native English-speakers thought that statements spoken with foreign accents were less truthful.

For someone who speaks English as a second language, that's a lot of baggage to carry, no matter how many years they've been here or how good their pronunciation is. After painstakingly overcoming shortages of newcomer English classes and numerous barriers to achieving fluency, every day brings the opportunity to be snickered at by someone amused by your diction. That's sad, since English that's working its way toward being fluent is the quintessential American voice.

I wish Aguirre had taken a chance on showing off his English skills, but anyone should be able to empathize with how nerve-racking it must have been testifying about a hotly debated issue in front of lawmakers who seemed to be gunning for you from the get-go.

Americans have a right to be angry at immigrants who don't try very hard, or at all, to learn English -- I'm not going to pretend they're not out there stuck to their native-language TV shows, and I'm not happy about it either. But we need to support to those who haven't yet gained mastery and encourage them, not attack them in public.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 5:37 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

Print Print