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.

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