There is often a misconception about people who speak English as their second language. If they have strong accents, they are often perceived as having a reduced ability to communicate or their level of intelligence is questioned. Let’s consider instead that if a person speaks with an accent or does not fully command English, that means he or she may actually possess richer experiences. In our most recent podcast with Marcos Villar, Executive Director of ALIANZA, he explains it this way: “It means I speak two languages, or three, or four. That means that you can speak to and relate to more people than a person who only speaks one language. It means that I don’t have to force people to come to me in my language. I can share my thoughts, and my ideas, and my knowledge to you in either language.” In the podcast, Marcos shares the story of Johanna Lopez, District 2 School Board Member in Orange County Florida, who doesn’t see an accent as a deficit. She declares, “My accent is my asset.”
This declaration has resonated with many, like Johanna, who are non-native English speakers trying to navigate their lives in an English-dominant environment. A native of Puerto Rico, Johanna has a Bachelor of Arts in Hispanic Studies from the University of Puerto Rico and holds a Master of Arts in Higher Education from Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico. Despite her academic accomplishments and career as a teacher, when she moved to Central Florida after a difficult divorce, she could not practice as a teacher at the time due to the language barrier. As a single mother supporting her children, she took a job in the restaurant industry until such time that her English proficiency improved and she was able to obtain her certification as a teacher. Since then, Johanna has served as an Advanced Placement Spanish Teacher for over 19 years and earned the distinction of Orange County Public Schools’ 2017 Teacher of the Year.
While Johanna’s teaching career, leadership opportunities, and language proficiency have evolved, her Puerto Rican accent has prevailed. Her accent is not something that holds her back or anything to be embarrassed about. It is a signal to others that, while she may come from a different place, she has cultural and linguistic competencies that are becoming a necessity in the U.S., and she can accomplish great things. The accent is not a deterrent but rather a motivator for her as she serves her community and leads various regional initiatives. According to Marcos Villar, the “accent is just a byproduct of being able to speak two languages and reach a bigger audience.”
As society becomes more diverse and other languages, such as Spanish, become more mainstream, the benefits of being proficient in speaking, reading, writing, and listening comprehension in more than one language become more valuable. The stereotypical assumptions associated with having an accent are shifting such that what once may have been perceived as a deficit is now considered an asset. In a recent conversation with Marco Villar, Lisa March, Host of the Language is Your Superpower podcast stated, “Having an accent doesn’t necessarily preclude you from having some of the most important jobs in your company, in your community, in the world. You can be someone that makes a huge difference.”
So, if you have an accent, celebrate it, and own it. Be like Johanna Lopez and proclaim, “My accent is my asset.”
Tune into our podcast with Marcos Villar to learn more.
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