I Will Always Be ESL

I Will Always Be ESL

A few months ago, I attended a professional development course at NAIT called “Clear and Concise Writing”. I wanted to attend this course because I am aware that conciseness is something I had to improve on at work. Perhaps it doesn’t help that in creative writing, making your sentences long and flowy is encouraged. Also, in my younger years, writing essays was a common activity in school – both in our English writing and Filipino classes. The longer the piece, the better.

After the class, my supervisor asked me how it went. I said that it reminded me of elementary and high school in the Philippines. The class provided refreshers on components of grammar and how they are misused, and these were the daily exercises we had in school. Prepositional phrases, adverbs and adjectives that don’t look like one, gerunds, missing verbs in a sentence, the list goes on.

Afterwards, she asked me if this would be a good class for my other co-worker to take. She came to Canada a bit more recently than I did, and at a more mature age. During this conversation, my supervisor asked me if I describe myself as “ESL”. This is quite an interesting question and I took a moment to ponder it before responding. I told her yes, yes absolutely. While it is true that I am fairly competent in the language, and that I get compliments for having a ‘minimal accent’ or ‘advanced vocabulary’, communicating in English just takes a bit of extra effort.

A few common feelings that had not gone away are:
• Bracing myself for when the other person asks ‘say that again?’
• The moment of uncertainty for a split second, when the listener pauses before saying ‘oooooh, I see what you’re saying’.
• Not quite knowing the right word to use in a statement or story. Similar to Tagalog, there are a dozen ways to express emotions, and some descriptors have subtle differences. There are different degrees that are more appropriate in certain contexts. For example, I can say that both a baby and a puppy look adorable, but it would be a bit weird to use that word when describing a piece of art. On the other hand, depending on the cause, one can say that they may feel attacked, threatened, violated, or annoyed.
• Being flustered in choosing the right prepositions and conjunctions.

A colleague asked me to help out on a project, which required us to translate an inspirational biographical story from English to Tagalog. For immigrants who contributed their stories, the goal of the project is to have their stories both in English and the national language of the country they came from. Translating was not easy, because I wanted it to make sense, for the story to flow, and for it to be easily understood by Filipino readers. Otherwise, the translation would be pointless in my opinion.

Since the Spelling and Grammar Check tool on Microsoft Word was useless in this case, I printed the draft translation, recorded myself reading it, and listened to my own recording afterwards. That’s when I realized something as I read the document and listened to the translation: The ease in my chest while reading very formal and very advanced Filipino vocabulary. The even pacing of my voice, not even stumbling upon unfamiliar words that I haven’t used for years was in contrast to speaking in English, where I even struggle with pronouncing the word ‘liaison’, or get confused on whether I should use the word ‘preventive’ or ‘preventative’.

To give myself a bit of comfort, I re-watched YouTube video by Mikey Bustos called ‘Filipino Accent Tutorial’ for about the hundredth time. Since he grew up in Canada, I found it quite relatable. I’ve lived here for more than ten years, and I can’t help but wonder how I would feel in 20 or 50 years when it comes to fluency, accent, and ease in communicating in English.

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