Foreigner on foreign words

Sunday, September 30, 2018 - 5:03pm

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I have been learning the English language for 15 years now. I have improved from learning vowels to now writing in a second language. Fifteen years is long enough to have mastered a skill, yet there are still some words in English I can never pronounce.

Veggie patty, water, letter

Whenever I need to use these words in my daily conversations, my brain enters a panic mode because it will need to choose between sounding like an American or like who I am. I learned in Linguistics 210 the first semester of my freshman year that these are called flaps or taps. It refers to the way the tongue has to somehow touch the alveolar ridge, but not quite. Some days I can do the American flap or tap pronunciation, so ordering water at restaurants becomes less daunting. Most days I can never pronounce veggie patty even though it’s the same way of pronouncing water. Perhaps the flap comes with practice because I have certainly said the word water a lot more than the word veggie patty. Some days I just avoid the word and eventually, I become a master of synonyms — not because of spending hours with thesaurus, but because of avoiding words (so “mail” instead of “letter”).

Mitten, kitten, badminton

I can make myself learn flaps, but never these contractions. It goes against my natural instinct to just disregard the letter between ‘t’ and ‘n.’ In my first language, we never hide letters. They are there, and we vocalize them. What is it with these Americans and contractions? It gets so much more absurd in discussion sections of highly technical courses. “Moniring” instead of ‘monitoring’ or “wachh-a-say” instead of “what did you say.” When I come to the U.S., I struggle with how I tell people my name. To these Americans, my name is a foreign word. Some of my friends have names that can sound foreign. My name is not like that. Arabs will try to say my name the Arabic way but I am not Arab, even though my name is. It is complicated but I like to think my name and me are a cultural juxtaposition. I also struggle in discussion class because I need a few minutes to gather my thoughts and choose “affordable” words. This often takes way too long and by the time I have come up with my thoughts, the discussion has moved on to a new topic. It must be nice to have an American tongue. How seamless it is for them to speak in discussion class without the risk of sounding like a toad.

These pronunciations don’t bother me as much anymore because I am not much of a talker anyway. No one needs to hear me talking and then after a few minutes realize I have foreign tongue. Yet what bothers me is the way in which my tongue has been Americanized to some extent. I am American enough in my thoughts and how I dress, so I cannot afford to lose my accent as well. Then one day, after reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah,” I came across the video “We Should All be Feminists.” One African accent lead me to the movie “Queen of Katwe” to Filipino co-workers. There is something about their pronunciation of English words that makes me attracted to them. It is in the way they are sort of just boasting confidence with their version of the English language. In their own version of cultural juxtaposition, I have found I do not need to pass off as American to be in the U.S.

So I began becoming proud of saying my name, the way I know how. Not the American way or the Arabic way, but the Malaysian way, and every time during discussion class I can only wait for my American graduate student instructor to ask me the second time how to pronounce my name because it is so foreign to them.