Retaining My Own Language
Home for me is a house that overlooks a ravine, and from whose window you can see the morning sun illuminating the icy top of the Cotopaxi Volcano. Ecuador is a country as bio-diverse as it is culturally diverse. Within the borders of a country with half the surface area of Texas, there are 14 distinct ethnic identities, four different climate regions and over a dozen different accents. With accents come social stratification, and a less noticeable accent becomes a “better” accent.
Growing up in a dual-citizenship household with an Ecuadorian father and a Colombian mother, a potpourri of accents filled my house. My middle sister and I used to stand proudly as middle schoolers when someone asked us “Where are you from? Your accents are not from here [Ecuador], are they?”
Growing up in Ecuador, my childhood revolved around watching series and movies on Disney Channel, trips to Florida, and jamming to the Jonas Brothers. Both of my older sisters went to college before I did; consequently, I made studying in the United States a goal. I learned my SAT vocab list by heart, attended an international institution in which the only class I had in Spanish was my Spanish course, read more in English than I did in my native language, leading to me feeling more comfortable doing so; I listened to chart topping English music—I did not seek to listen to Ecuadorian artists until a few years ago. I believed my transition to freshman year of college would be smooth.
Amidst political chaos—the first presidential change after a decade of a totalitarian government that precluded journalistic freedom and a devastating earthquake that exacerbated the ongoing economic recession—my last two years of high school were the years I took the most pride in my roots. Not only did I vote and protest a corrupt election process for the first time, but I also had two Spanish teachers who made me fall in love with the verses of Latin American poets and magical realism literature written in a romance language. I had music teachers who were committed to un-Westernize the youth’s music taste through exploring national genres. Being Ecuadorian became a badge I wore with pride, and something I made sure I highlighted in my college essays.
I remember watching an episode of “Modern Family” in which Sofia Vergara, a Colombian actress who plays a Latin woman married to a White man from California, exclaims: “Do you even know how smart I am in Spanish?” I laughed. Absorbing it as a stereotypical exclamation that had the sole purpose of entertaining the audience, I thought, that would be the last thing that would ever happen to me. I was ready to go to college.
Little did I know that not even eight hours of classes in English and high SAT and AP English scores would not prepare me for what I was about to experience during my first semester away from home.
In September, I arrived at Tufts with replicas of Guayasamin—an Ecuadorian artist—paintings to hang in my college dorm, indigenous patterns in my clothing, and an Ecuadorian flag bracelet around my wrist. When President Monaco mentioned my country during his matriculation speech —to highlight the diversity within the Class of 2021— pride accelerated my heart.
The first time someone asked me “Where is your accent from?” I proudly responded: “Ecuador.”
During the first few weeks of September I found myself answering this question very often. It shocked me. Six years of English immersion and I still had an accent, how could that be?
I expressed my concern to my sisters, seeking reassuring words, but they replied: “Yes, your accent has gotten worse since you arrived.”
From that moment on, I focused on my pronunciation, on which moments my mind was in Spanish or in English, and on the words I struggled to find.
The latter one was emphasized when, every Monday, I sat in my poetry class next to people who wrote poems with words that flowed perfectly and which I did not understand. Contrastingly, mine were filled with words that got my ideas through, but never felt right. No matter how many spelling bee competitions I had been in during middle school, my vocabulary was never going to be good enough.
One early October afternoon, when I discussed one of my pieces with the professor, she examined my word choice and remarked that they were not “right”. At that moment, all I wanted to say was “you have no idea how smart, how poetic, how real I am in Spanish!” Since that afternoon, I feel insecure every time I have to speak up in the class and pause, trying to find the words to express my emotions while her eyes scrutinize me.
As I shared my experience with other international students, I realized that what one has to say is more about the content than it is about the accent. Yet, having an accent often becomes an obstacle when attempting to communicate the content itself. Preference towards some accents exists, and Hispanic accents are not favored.
Studying at an institution where English is the language of instruction is exhausting for a person whose native language is not English. There is a constant battle between the endeavor to pronounce words correctly, to write and read in another language that leads to assimilating into the United States culture (no, not American culture, because America is a continent, not a country), and conserving one’s roots. One language will always overpower the other, and sadly, it is not always an option to conserve one’s own.
For now, I will continue to grow fonder of my accent and try not to cringe when someone pronounces my name with a United States one.