When English Is Not Your Native Language

You had better avoid using certain words!

Focus written on hand
Photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash

The tricky problem of pronouncing vowels just right

There are at least three words every native Spanish speaker should avoid saying in English: focus, sheet and beach.

Focus (f*ck us)

I know several high-school teachers whose native language is Spanish. They don’t ask their students to “f*ck us”. No, teenagers should never engage in sexual activity in school. Rather, in class, students need to “pay attention.”

Sheet (sh%t)

When Luisa does laundry, she never washes the “sh%ts”. There’s no excrement to wash, fortunately. She does, however, wash all the “bed linen” on a weekly basis.

Many native Spanish speakers will not make use of a cheat “sh%t”. They prefer a “flashcard.”

Teachers should never ask their students to take out a “sh%t” of paper. A “piece” of paper will do.

Beach (b#tch)

The “coast and the “sea are places my friend Raquel loves and often goes on vacation. The “b#tch” though, she doesn’t seem to like or visit much.

All kidding aside, why do we need to go through all this trouble?

Spanish is what’s called an orthographically shallow language. English, by contrast, is orthographically deep. I’m not referring at all to either language’s ability to express thoughts and ideas of any given depth.

Alphabetic orthography simply refers to the degree of correspondence between a letter and a sound. One-to-one correspondence is the case for most letters of the alphabet in Spanish. This makes Spanish shallow. In English, a deep language, many letters say multiple sounds.

Here’s the problem with vowels: Spanish and English both have five vowels, a-e-i-o-u. In Spanish, they make five sounds. What you see in writing is what you say and what you say is what you write. Always. In English, these very same vowels make 14 to 20 vowel sounds! Go figure.

As we in the Spanish-speaking world learn to talk, and as we keep talking over the years, our mouths get used to saying five vowel sounds only. No wonder English pronunciation (and spelling for that matter) is so damn confusing!

Thus, next time you hear us mispronounce, remember: it’s not that we’re shallow. It’s just that someone decided to make English tricky, non-sensical, and “deep”.

The dilemmas of writing in non-native English

I began to learn English at school when I was 4 years old, in Caracas, Venezuela. My school had a strong English language curriculum that emphasized, above all else, grammar and spelling.

Still, my life took place in Spanish and I didn’t have to write anything longer than a couple of paragraphs in English until I went away to college in the US.

Oh, except for my college admissions essay, which my father, who’d lived in the US through his high school and college years, helped me with.

I soon discovered how utterly unprepared I was for all the writing college required. The first essay I wrote was for a first-year seminar called War, and I procrastinated (out of fear?) until the night before it was due.

That night, I learned the term all-nighter.

I actually wrote the essay longhand, if you can believe it. The year being 1987, it was probably one of the last times any professor at my college had a student turn in a handwritten essay.

A guy who lived down the hallway in my dorm, and whom I would date two years later, helped me out. I could tell he thought it was both stupid and hilarious that I’d put off starting my first real essay until the night before it was due.

Yet, here I am, 33 years later, writing out of choice — in English.

The truth is my K-12 school didn’t emphasize essay writing at all — in any language. Thus, the only language I have practice writing in is English. However good or bad my writing may be, it would be far inferior in Spanish, which is not only my native language but also my most fluent “natural” language.

There are times when I’m keenly aware that I write in non-native English.

The most obvious instance is when I deal with prepositions. Grammar correction tools are great, but, sometimes, not even Grammarly is of any help.

Do I work in North School, at North School, or for North School?

Did I put on my pajamas backward or inside out?

Then there’s the impersonal Spanish “se”, which I so often wish existed in English.

When I write in English, I’m not translating ideas from Spanish to English. Sometimes, though, as I write a sentence, the thought “This would sound so perfect with se” comes to mind.

For example, in Spanish, we need not call you or anyone out when suggesting or requiring. “Hay que cubrirse la boca” is directed at the universe, while “You must cover your mouth” is directed at you.

“Se habla inglés” sounds friendlier than “English spoken here.”

And, doesn’t “Se añaden 2 tazas de azúcar” in a recipe sound more optional than “Add 2 cups of sugar”?

How about the dilemma of when to use contractions? I imagine native speakers of English just know when to use can’t instead of cannot, and they’ll and not they will.

Since I was taught not to use contractions in writing, I always end up adding them during revision. Habits acquired in childhood are mighty hard to break!

Because of how I was taught to write English, I know my inclination is to write very formal, and that, perhaps, this makes me try too hard to sound the opposite. I also know I’ll never get the prepositions and contractions just right, and that word order may sound a bit off at times.

I like to think, though, that being a non-native English writer ultimately makes my work a bit more original. But that’s for readers to decide.

Share Article

Pursuit of Happiness: 3 Key Reasons Happiness Is Not the Right Goal

Ideas on how to reframe the concept of happiness and what to pursue instead

boy reaching up
Image by Siggy Nowak from Pixabay

Society has come up with a generally accepted recipe for happiness. The formula includes having money (the more the better), beauty, fame, popular kids who go to college (the more prestigious the better), nice places to go to, fun things to do, recognition, things to show off. The list is endless.

And because the list is endless, happiness is a moving target that keeps us busy, always busy. No matter how much money, degrees, assistants or gadgets people have, everyone’s favorite answer to “How you been?” seems to be “Oh, so busy,” doesn’t it? And “busy” is never uttered in a tone of voice that says “happy”.

We devote our precious lifetimes to chasing something that will always elude us, yet don’t spend enough time reflecting on the big picture, the fact that we humans are complex creatures and our physical needs are much easier to meet than our spiritual ones.

Our spirits crave far more than happiness. We long for meaning, purpose and coherence. Pursuing happiness will not fulfill this longing. Following are a few reasons why it’s important to frame happiness in light of the human need for purpose.

1. The pursuit of happiness is limiting.

I’ve come to regard the common parental remark “I just want my child to be happy” as meaningless. As a parent myself, I used to say it too.

But then our kids begin to deviate (and they always deviate) from the path we expected them to follow and we throw the conviction out the window. Whether they deviate out of choice (because they want to be sculptors, say) or out of necessity (like when they have special needs), we find ourselves doing everything possible to get them to course correct.

Not only do we try hard to limit our children’s lives to conform to the fixed recipe for happiness, we do this to ourselves as well.

Because the happiness destination is fixed in our minds, we don’t sufficiently ponder how we should react to what actually happens to us — a lot of which is beyond our control — or on ideals that are independent of achievement.

“The happiness of your life depends on the quality of your thoughts,” notes Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in Meditations.

Are your thoughts driven by a pursuit of a happiness formula that’s largely beyond your control? If so, you will be disappointed.

2. Pursuing our individual happiness can lead to selfishness.

As we overfocus on accumulating achievements, we often sacrifice our values — that is, if we’ve actually taken the time to pinpoint them.

We tend to become self-centered and selfish.

Selfishness is the antithesis of happiness. As the Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

How can we prioritize compassion, love and service when we’re consumed with the pursuit of a specific happiness formula?

Profound happiness and love have a price. In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the fox explains to the prince that, when you “tame” someone you “discover what it costs to be happy.”

In the book’s context, to “tame” means to form bonds of love with others. Such bonds, the fox explains, bring joy and happiness but also pain and sorrow. That’s the price of happiness, as anyone who ever loved someone that betrayed them or died surely knows.

3. A focus on happiness makes for a shallow life.

Focusing on happiness prevents us from finding — or at least from seriously seeking — some meaning or truth in our complex human existence and in human society.

Says John (aka the Savage) in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 masterpiece Brave New World, “I’d rather be unhappy than have the sort of false, lying happiness you were having here.” In Huxley’s dystopian world, all citizens were made artificially and superficially happy through, among other things, conditioning, drugs and entertainment.

John understands that unhappiness is just as important as happiness. In fact, you can’t have one without the other. “I am claiming the right to be unhappy,” he asserts.

We can also be manipulated into happiness and complacency, “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one… Better yet, give him none,” says fire chief Beatty to disillusioned firefighter (and protagonist) Montag in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another classic dystopian novel.

In Bradbury’s novel, control of knowledge prevents people from asking themselves questions while the mass media shortens their attention span and lulls them into a shallow sense of happiness.

The search for knowledge and truth, however painful it may be, should never be censured in the name of happiness. Humans have greater emotional potential than such shallow happiness.


It’s not that simple, is it, this journey of life. And it gets more complicated as we age and begin to constantly measure ourselves against others.

Anything measurable won’t bring lasting happiness. Ideals and the search for truth and meaning, on the other hand, are independent of outcome or achievement. The world would be a better place, and we’d likely be happier, if we spent more time thinking about and pursuing those.

Share Article