On Languages And Accents
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Politics and Activism

On Languages And Accents

How my accent made me realize a big tragedy of my life.

On Languages And Accents

A couple of days ago, I was talking to a friend at an event. We had met each other a couple of times earlier, but that day we actually got the chance to sit down and truly learn about each other. At a moment, she paused and asked something about whether or not I had lived in England for a while. I laughed and said no, but was curious as to why she had thought that maybe I had.

"You have a slight accent. It sounds English. I really like it," she said. I smiled at that. I mean, who doesn't like English accents?! Despite that, her question left me intrigued. I know I have an accent when I speak, it's very slight. But if I'm nervous or stumped, it comes out more than usual, which is pretty annoying. It bothered me that I, a girl who had spent 95 percent of her life in America, had an accent. I spent all my life speaking American English, so why was it that I still spoke in that accent?

Although I had already known of my accent, over the few days after, others also randomly pointed it out. So, I became extra-conscious of the words I said. When you think of not doing something, I guess you end up doing it just because of how hard you're trying not to do it. Maybe that's what was happening with me. As I started being really picky about how I talked and avoided words that had an "R" (because those are the words that I usually mess up) I found it hard to even talk to people. I'm probably still in that phase at the very moment, but I'm trying to overcome it. I promise.

Anyway, this lack of talking and overthinking my accent made me realize something that hurt on levels only sad, mostly unchangeable, realities did. I am multilingual. I can speak English, Urdu, Arabic, Spanish, and Punjabi. I can understand more than those too. But in each of those languages, I had an accent.

What bothered me the most was that amongst those languages I am most proficient in English and Urdu. Over the past few months, I had been working on my Urdu to improve my writing of it for a script. So I spoke in Urdu a lot and as I did, I couldn't help but feel ashamed that I did not know it enough. As I spoke it, I pronounced a few words incorrectly. It was my mother language and that should not have been true. It was a similar case with English.

Language is the basis of so many things, besides a speaking value. Languages help shape our way of thinking and allow us to better understand others as well as best connect with them. Although I am very proud of a number of languages I know, I couldn't help but feel so upset over the fact that I had trouble speaking both English and Urdu.

America and Pakistan are both countries that I love with all of my heart. They are apparently the two countries that define me, but I cannot help that lately, I do not belong to either.

When I came to America, I was around three or four years old. I spent around two years at home because my parents didn't want to send me into a public school in our neighborhood. They had heard bad things about it. During that time, I learned Urdu and spoke it all day. My mom taught me numbers and letters, and some basic words in English that were commonly used in Pakistan as well. I was exposed to a library where I mostly brought picture books because I didn't understand the English sentences that were written within them.

My parents were new in the country so they didn't have too many friends and of them, only a couple had kids my age, so the only people I spoke to were my parents and baby brother. English, although, spoken by the cartoons on the television, wasn't a language I understood. My mother did not know English so she couldn't translate, and my dad was usually at work during the time I watched the TV. So when I finally started school, I did not know English.

The first day of school was scary. I had enrolled in school around the middle of the year and the students were already friends. I was the new girl who was too shy, too scared and who didn't understand a thing anyone was saying -- every bit of an outsider as you would imagine. In fact, I got punched and bullied that very day and got my money stolen as well. I was only six years old and it traumatized me. Being different was not a good thing.

I used to think maybe that had happened because I could not speak English and so as a six-year-old, the insecurity settled in. I worked as hard as I could to better my English. Now that I was learning things in school, I started to understand the cartoons and slowly with the help of television, improved my pronunciation. But I mostly learned English by reading and understanding the words with a big dictionary for kids my mom had bought for me. Because of that, there were times when I didn't pronounce some words correctly. It was similar to my situation with Urdu. I may know the words and phrases, but the way they come out has an obvious accent that people love pointing out and laughing at. This makes me think that I am slowly losing grip on that as well.

With no strong connection to English and Urdu, I realized that I didn't belong to America or Pakistan because each of the countries looked at me as the outsider. I couldn't speak either language perfectly. I realized something big about where I had brought myself subconsciously.

For the longest time, to figure out who I was in America, I tried to perfect myself to appear American. In my struggle of trying to become a native in a country in which I was a foreigner, I became a foreigner in the country where I was a native.

In an attempt to open the foreign door, I got locked out of my previous home. And today, as I'm being pushed out of this unwelcoming home, I find myself in between two locked doors. I belong neither to America nor Pakistan, and though I love each country dearly, neither accepts me as its own.

I have no solid identity and perhaps because of that, I am finding my identity as a member of humanity. A woman of all languages, all cultures, all religions, none perfectly embodied, but still 100 percent human.

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