“How Come Your English Is So Good?”
You are probably reading this because you have received a comment along the lines of the title of this piece. It is not uncommon, and if you have not, then expect it at any time and place. Here it goes:
I moved to Montreal, Canada from Kuwait when I was 18 years old. I did not experience your typical culture shock (many assumed I did) because:
- I have visited Montreal on numerous occasions and had most of my close family living here at some point.
- I was born in this city (I left when I was five) and have memories of me strutting in the snow.
- I speak English, and understand French (Montreal is bilingual).
- I lived in an environment in the Middle East that exposed me to so many amazing things, and had me ready to move to Montreal again.
Those are some of the reasons I did not experience a culture shock, as many naturally do.
Part of cultural integration is language, and here is my background:
The language I spoke when I was a kid was English, my Arabic was practically nonexistent, and so was my French (the minimal French I knew was gone, and I had to re-learn it as I grew up).
Through my 13 years of living in Kuwait, I became fluent in Arabic, and spoke both English and Arabic equally at home, and at school. I was always confused as to what my first language was, because I did not distinguish the fact that mother tongue and first language were different. My mother tongue is Arabic, because I am Palestinian, but I communicate and write better in English.
I read books in the English language a lot as a kid, and that passion stuck with me through my elementary and secondary years. I wrote a lot of short stories (even on Wattpad haha) and kept a diary for years. I liked grammar exercises. I was always excited to write an essay, or a journal entry. I wrote poems. I enjoyed rhetorical analysis and summaries, and I knew I had a passion for anything to do with English language, and literature.
Time passed, and forth come senior year. I decided to become an English teacher in literally an instant, and I was (and still am) super excited about it. I was admitted into Teaching English as a Second Language at an English-speaking university. Here is where some of the, I think, ridiculousness, starts.
The obscurity with labels that had to do with international students and locals was the problem
I was asked to take the TOEFL or IELTS! What??? I am admitted not only to a major that has to do with English, but to teach it too! In my head, I was all like: “You KNOW I speak English, and I’m Canadian!” I checked if people who lived in Canada had to take that test. Nope, they did not. Internally I felt less validated. I automatically thought: “Yeah, their English is probably better, makes sense.”
When I went deeper into my university career, I realized my assumption was wrong, and that everybody was the same. The obscurity with labels that had to do with international students and locals was the problem. I got somehow stuck in the middle: between a person born and raised in Canada and a student who did not live in Canada at all.
The comments I got though, were not shocking. The comments disappointed me; the lack of open-mindedness and knowledge toward people like me, who were from different backgrounds was appalling. It was not the lack of knowledge that bothered me so much, but it was the assumptions, and questions based on those assumptions that pushed my buttons:
- “Wait, they taught English at your high school?” Yes. Super common.
- “I’m so surprised I can understand you because Arabic speakers while speaking English have these weird sounds coming out of their mouths! Kinda like khkhqaqaaaa” You mean the natural effects of the Arabic language? Second, rude.
- “You speak great English, you should feel proud!” I literally think in English, what do you mean proud?
- “Your accent has a tint of Arabic though.” I am not supposed to sound like your version of an English speaker.
- Last but not least: “How come your English is so good?” Do I need to explain this one?
For most people I’ve met here, it seems like they tie language strongly with identity
Moving on, there is no denying that in some parts of the Middle East, if you spoke English, it put you on a pedestal. That mindset is wrong, but that is just because of the basic effects of colonialism and the internationalization of this colonial-era mindset in the Middle East.
For most people I’ve met here, it seems like they tie language strongly with identity. Most of the people who have said these things to me have been taught that dialects have nothing to do with proficiency, it is true, and so be it. They automatically assume that someone who is Arab would not speak English, and even if they did, they would not be proficient enough. I know Arabs whose only language is English (colonialism, again, hello?).
Who cares if I did not know English like anglophones here? I don’t want to be measured by colonial standards that impose false language implications on me
I still unconsciously try to sound anglophone when I speak to people born and raised here, but that stops now. Who cares if I did not know English like anglophones here? I don’t want to be measured by colonial standards that impose false language implications on me.
When I talk to people back in Kuwait like that on the phone, they think my accent is changing into a “Canadian” one. “Canadian” in this case covers every dialect, though. It doesn’t matter if I speak one word or have the dictionary memorized, I am still valid as a learner, and as a citizen here.
At the end of the day, I am going to sound like ME. Arabic tint or otherwise. I am also an Arabic speaker no matter how much English I teach and learn, and I always will be. So, yeah, my English IS good.