By Suzannah Young
Learning a new language is no easy feat. But facing judgement for speaking that language is much more difficult.
On Sep. 1., Tatala – a 24-year-old Chinese Harvard student – posted a 7-minute video on the Chinese social media platform, Bilibi/Weibo, titled “I Decided not to Learn English Anymore.” The video received more than 100 million views and went viral almost immediately.
In the seemingly innocent yet debatably controversial clip, Tatala recounts her 20-year journey of learning to speak English, beginning with the first English class she took as a young child all the way up to her time at a university in Australia.
Dr. Laura Alonso-Gallo, professor of American Literature and department chair of English and Foreign Languages says that there are three components of language that non-native speakers encounter when engaging with natives.
One component of the language interaction, explains Alonso-Gallo, is cultural. An unintended form of judgement, this occurs when native speakers correct or try to help non-native speakers. They might finish or add on to another’s sentence or re-pronounce a word that the non-native speaker has mispronounced.
“The issue is that sometimes, the correction comes across as an act of superiority,” said Alonso-Gallo. “The result is that the person who is trying to communicate in a second language, in this case English, feels humiliated and insecure when they speak.”
Throughout the video, Tatala gives examples of times that she was corrected on her English by westerners, and how it affected her confidence both socially and academically.
“If the audience seems hostile or superior, the person who is speaking English as a second language tends to withdraw, speak the minimum, and hide their character - there is the fear of not belonging, of not being enough,” Alonso-Gallo said.
In her first English class, Tatala was shamed by her American teacher when she could not pronounce the ‘W’ sound that is not present in her northern Chinese dialect. Later, on a trip to England during middle school, she was mocked by her friends for not knowing the difference between ‘ham’ and ‘turkey.’
All of these experiences repeatedly diminished Tatala’s confidence in her English-speaking abilities. According to Alonso-Gallo, this feeling is an emotional component of native/non-native language interactions.
“When you are an adult and learn a language out of necessity (work, attending college, immigration, etc.), you feel clumsy and not “smart” enough,” she said. “It is as if you have lost credibility in front of others because you mispronounce or make grammatical mistakes.”
Despite years of studying the language, Tatala had always struggled both academically and socially with English until she realized that the language alone was not the problem.
“Native speakers found their lives easier not because their English was better than mine, [but] because they had the good fortune to be raised in environments where their native language acquisition coincides with the dominant linguistic group,” Tatala said in her video.
In other words, Tatala learned that her lack of confidence was not because she was less smart than her classmates, but because she was in an English-speaking environment and English was not her first language.
According to the 2016 Census, in Australia, 75 percent of the population speaks only English, and the second largest group is Mandarin speakers who make up a mere 2 percent.
In the United States, however, while English speakers make up around 78 percent of the population, the second largest group are Spanish speakers who account for around 14 percent of the population.
The relatively large Spanish-speaking population in Miami may be why Andrea Zambrano, a senior majoring in graphic design, did not face the same prejudices as Tatala.
“When I speak in English, the majority of people are very nice to me,” Zambrano said, who immigrated from Venezuela. “Even though my pronunciation isn’t the best, they always try to understand and help.”
She admitted that since most of the people in Miami speak Spanish, she is not forced to express herself in English all the time.
Further in the video, Tatala explained how language carries so much weight and emotional effect because of the way it is a part of our personal identities and cultural conceptions.
This, says, Alonso-Gallo, is another part of the emotional tie to language interactions.
“Obviously, in your native language you may be a well-educated and sophisticated person. However, speaking poor (or imperfect) English makes you feel diminished, infantilized somehow,” she said.
For Tatala, she thought that the problems she was facing were because of the language, when, the issue was that she “wasn’t brave enough…wasn’t good at communication in general…and [her] classmates were xenophobic.”
“It’s not language that is guilty, it is the people who use it as power that are guilty,” Tatala said.
Alonso-Gallo explains that stereotyping and stigmatization such as that experienced by Tatala is a common issue in language interactions amongst native and non-native speakers.
"No matter how correctly you may speak, how hard you try to communicate correctly and with the appropriate tone, jargon, etc., people tend to judge by the cover,” she said.
Thus, it is understood that native English speakers have a long way to go when it comes to their preconceived ideas surrounding language.
Rather than judging or looking down on others, Alonso-Gallo believes that “the right thing to do is to look at the person speaking a second language with admiration.”
Hopefully, this change toward a more positive perception and accepting attitude will lead to fewer experiences like Tatala’s, and more that resemble that of Zambrano.
“Like everyone learning another language, I was really shy at first,” Zambrano said. “But then I realized that I should be proud of myself for being able to speak more than one language. It’s a process that helps me grow.”