After living in the United States for almost 19 years, I still find myself learning how to speak, communicate and think in English.
I find it amusing that there are times when I can switch between languages with ease, and other times I get stuck. I was born and raised in Venezuela, and for almost half of my life, I spoke only Spanish…until I moved to the United States, got married, and made this beautiful country my home. I had my share of struggles trying to speak a different language. Even though I had studied English in school, you can imagine my surprise when I could only understand half of what people were saying to me.
Back in 1995, I had a few negative experiences interacting with people and dealing with the language barrier. Some lost their patience trying to understand me, others were just plain rude to me, and others made fun of my accent and the way I spoke. I vividly remember one remark that hurt me deeply:
“These immigrants should learn how to speak before they come here.”
For nearly 3 months, I only spoke to my family and no one else. I did not want to get hurt again. I was very self-conscious of my accent, mispronunciations, and mistakes. Thankfully, times have changed and our culture has become more diverse with people from all over the world as our neighbors.
I was inspired to write this article because I know there are many people like me that once struggled to communicate and lost their voices in fear of being rejected or made fun of. What helped me overcome my fear of speaking and making mistakes was the fact that I can speak two languages—and no one can take that away from me.
Here are few things that I hope can help you find your voice with confidence and improve your communication skills:
- Ask others to correct you when you make mistakes…despite the fact that they think the way you pronounce or speak is cute. I will never forget when I was talking to my husband and I said f***us instead of focus. In my head, I was saying focus, but I was pronouncing it f***us. I am so glad he took the time to teach me how to pronounce that particular word.
Know that you will make mistakes and mispronounce things. That is okay. No one cares. Most people will be compassionate and will figure out what you are trying to say. If not, you don’t need those people around anyways. Claim your power and don’t let others make you feel small. Only when I was able to claim my power and own the fact that I was doing my best was I able to relax and embrace my accent; then, I saw a real shift in my communication skills.
Embrace your accent. Many people find it exotic, charming and cute. I never thought I would be teaching yoga to strangers in a language that is not my mother tongue, yet my students really enjoy how I speak. What changed? My attitude! I am proud of where I am, where I came from, and my accent. It is what makes me unique!
Give yourself the freedom to laugh at your mistakes. Sometimes it is really funny to hear what comes out of my mouth. Seriously, can you imagine me talking to someone and saying f***us instead of focus? Ha!
In today’s world, it is a must to speak more than one language to get better jobs, open new doors, and connect with other cultures. So embrace that you speak more than one language, because it is a gift!
When you hear others speak and they make mistakes or have a heavy accent, you are able to see a mirror image of yourself! This commonality will help you realize that you have a remarkable skill and you really sound better than you thought you did.
Realize that not everything can be translated and have the same meaning. If you are going to tell a joke from your home country, make sure you find the equivalent meaning so it makes sense and does not get lost in translation…been there, done that, and wow. Take my advice!
Practice, practice, practice! I don’t mean sit in front of a computer with a microphone and repeat what it says word for word. There is nothing wrong with that, but I learned the most from speaking to people than I ever did from books. I not only learned to speak more fluently, but I also learned lots of slang, so I wasn’t clueless when everyone else spoke with these less-than-proper phrases. Besides, Siri still does not understand me half of the time!
I noticed that the more I spoke Spanish, the more difficult it was to keep my English-speaking state of mind. So I really dove into speaking primarily English and reducing my Spanish-speaking time. I listened to music, watched TV and read lots of books only in English.
Trust that the best way to communicate is from your heart. Love does not know languages. Be yourself, be open, relax, and enjoy the conversation.
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Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons
Photo: elephant archives