Op-ed piece: Don’t Say Sorry for Your “Bad English”


My family moved to Burnaby last month in the hopes of providing more opportunities and a better lifestyle for my little brother. As a newcomer to Canada, my brother is required to take an English level test in order for him to be placed in the appropriate curriculum at school. As I waited for my brother to be assessed at the welcome center, I overheard a conversation between a teenager and the receptionist that caught my attention. The teen was trying to provide the receptionist with more information about his move to Canada but the lady was having trouble understanding him. The kid, distressed and embarrassed, immediately began to apologize for his “bad English”.

My family’s big move from Hong Kong to Burnaby has had me thinking a lot about language, accents and culture. I am sure we have all heard of this phrase before, whether in an online forum or in a real life conversation, but what exactly is the mentality behind this whole sorry-about-my-bad-English attitude?

A few weeks ago, I asked my brother what his biggest fear about moving to Canada was and he told me that he was most worried about not being able to make friends or being teased relentlessly because of his poor English. Accent is such a funny thing. It gives variety and adds diversity to a language, a society and a culture, yet I have seen the most articulate people stutter and lose confidence in front of a crowd due to their accent. We often hear about the concept of privilege, relating to gender, race, social status. What we don’t hear about as often in the media is linguistic privilege, which is an inherent advantage you get for growing up speaking a powerful language. As speaker of the global lingua franca, native English speakers are definitely the most linguistically privileged of all.

I grew up studying the international program in Hong Kong so I would say my proficiency in English and Cantonese is fairly equal. I wouldn’t consider myself a native speaker of English since my family and the majority of my friends speak Cantonese, but I never had to worry about my English standing in the way of me communicating or landing an interview in my home country or overseas. More often than not, a person’s language level is judged by their pronounced accent. Linguistically speaking, all languages and accents are considered equal. Certain accents, for example, European accents are perceived to be more prestigious and intelligible than others, mainly due to their association with different parts of the society. These perceptions and stereotypes can be both positive and negative. In this article, I am going to mainly focus on Asian accent, which is something that I am more familiar with. Native English speakers are privileged in a sense that they don’t have to deal with unreasonable expectations of being fluent and speaking without accents in a second language. They don’t have to deal with the fear of being judged unfairly based on their speech. In societies where English is commonly spoken as the first language, speakers of other languages are expected to have perfectly fluent English while English speakers are free to take words from whatever language and pronounce them as they see fit.

It is common for English speakers to naturally expect people to speak in their language as theirs is the global lingua franca and everyone else has gone to the effort of learning their language. It is difficult enough to master one language, let alone two. No matter how many languages a person speaks, however, if they mispronounce words in English or speak with a non-native accent, they can easily be perceived as less intelligent and be subjected to ridicule due to their “lack of communication skills”. I know foreign students who drop their ethnic middle names and strive to lose their accent only so that they can prove that they are just as capable as native speakers of English. While English speakers have the privilege of learning for the sake of fun and improvement, speakers of other languages suffer from the pressure of knowing that their career prospects will be affected if they do not know the language well enough. Imagine how damaging that is to immigrants and exchange students.

Even in societies where English does not dominate, accommodations for English speakers are still rather prevalent. There is a joke about the working in Hong Kong that I heard when I was still studying there. If you know Mandarin, Cantonese and English, you will get around; if you speak Cantonese and English, you will be pretty well paid; if you can only speak English, then you have nothing to worry about. This may sound absurd, but it’s the sad truth. Even in Hong Kong, where the majority of people are Cantonese speakers, you are more likely to be excused for having poor Cantonese than for having bad English. I had numerous friends from international schools who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak Cantonese properly. In fact, some of them even pride themselves for having English, instead of Cantonese, as their first language. They are often deemed as being “more competent” or “better educated” because of their proficiency in English; whereas students with poor English often get ridiculed and do not have as much of an advantage in terms of job prospects and opportunities.

I personally do not think anyone should be apologizing for their bad “English”, or for their poor performance in any other languages. Not only does it create a power disequilibrium, but speakers are also gradually beginning to believe the statement is true. We should avoid judging one based on their speech and accent, and prevent the belittling of those who are struggling to learn the lingua franca just to receive an equal shot at landing internships and jobs. To all the English second learners out there: it is normal to have insecurities about how you sound in the ears of native speakers, but at the same time it is also absolutely normal to not be fluent in it. Lastly, to all the English native speakers: be considerate to other learners of English as privilege isn’t something you can choose, otherwise it would cease to exist.





Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s