I’ve been studying English since I was five. I’ve taken tests in English, written essays in English, and used English in school. I can say that I am fluent and I feel comfortable using the language. Despite my extensive training in English, I’d never used it exclusively for longer periods of time. When I came to the US, that changed. I am now completely immersed in an English speaking environment and I have to use English all the time. In general, due to my language background, it isn’t as hard for me to get by. However, there are some instances, where, despite all the years of learning, I still stumble.
Naturally, as a non-native speaker, I have a slight accent. My mother tongue, Bulgarian, is a Slavic language, which is harder than English in terms of word pronunciation, mostly because Bulgarian words have specific consonant combinations, which are not abundant in English. In particular, I have noticed that Slavic-speaking people say “v”, “t”, and “r”, a lot harder than English speakers. Sometimes, especially after I have spoken for a long period of time, I get tired of talking and my accent starts to show. Although this isn’t very significant, for some reason it bothered me quite a lot because during those instances people could clearly tell English was not my first language. I found out, however, that the more I speak and hear people around me speak the better I get at pronouncing words.
Another language barrier emerges when it comes to references. Every culture has its unique history, cuisine, media, art, which people sometimes reference in everyday speech. I know some of the subjects that my friends refer to, but I don’t know every single one of them, because I am not familiar with the event to which they are alluding. Since I’ve come to the States, it’s often happened that I asked my friends for clarification of references, because I couldn’t understand where the conversation was going if I didn’t ask. At first it can seem uncomfortable, because somebody’s talking and you are thinking “wait, what?”, but understanding and knowing more references is an enriching experience, which also enhances a person’s speaking abilities. So, to all the readers who are in such a situation, don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t know something, because people know that you are not from here and they are often happy to elaborate. To all the native speakers who have international acquaintances, take the time to explain a reference that your friend doesn’t get.
The greatest challenge that I have deal with when it comes to being a non-native speaker is when I participate in class. This semester most of the classes that I take are discussion based, so I am required to share my opinions about the materials I study. On a few occasions, it has happened that I would start talking and then I would mess up a word. The first couple of times I did this, I got so nervous that I said the wrong thing that I would just speak very quickly afterwards just to get it over with. Now I realize how wrong this approach is. A person who speaks an entirely new language should not feel ashamed when he or she makes mistakes. Learning and using a new language requires a lot of hard work, so people who are able to communicate freely in another tongue should be proud of their achievement. If you find yourself in such a situation, my advice is to calm down, and proceed irritating your point slowly.
Learning a new language is an ongoing process, which goes beyond knowing grammar and vocab. As with all other subject areas, there is always room for improvement. Of course, there are struggles associated with being in a foreign land and speaking a foreign language all the time. But at the end of the day this experience boosts the knowledge of a language significantly.