Perception and Pronunciation

My reflections on language bias.

Mahader Asfaw, Staff Writer

Language is a double-edged sword. It creates diversity and beautiful differences in our society, but it can be interpreted completely differently by people. The power it holds is just unlimited. It plays a huge factor in my life. I was born, raised, and lived around a very diverse society my whole life.  I speak 5 languages and each comes with different pitches and mean something completely different when translated to the other.

My mother, on the other hand, grew up in a country where she mostly spoke her native language Amharic. She spoke English during her professional interactions at school and work. Moving to Kenya put her in the middle of this explosion of so many cultures and languages.

It took her awhile to adjust, to be exact… 15 years. One of my most memorable funny moments is when she was arrested and she didn’t know how to tell the police officer she needs to get home to her child who is sleeping, so he didn’t understand and she didn’t  wave her hands enough so he put her in the front seat and drove around until someone recognized her and bridged the misunderstanding.

One of the much less funny moments and more actually sad or maddening, however you would interpret it, was when she came to one of my parent teacher conferences in middle school and she wanted to speak in the meeting. She took time to interpret her Amharic words in her head to English therefore her speech was much slower than other parents. The deputy headmaster cut her off and said they didn’t have more time and she would have to wrap up her sentence.

Moving to the US hasn’t been easier on her. She has had several employers and co-workers who try to take advantage of her. Employers assume she won’t know her hours; therefore, she can cash out any check they give her. My mother, on the other hand, was keeping a record of her hours on a small notebook. At the end of the month, I neatly printed out her hours with a small note added at the bottom of the paper in the most perfect English consisting of vocabularies that makes my immigrant mother “look smart.” After the notes, employers have a routine “look of surprise” , “give me a moment”, pretending to look through their screen then promising her new check will be delivered to her as soon as possible. Most of her co-workers aren’t any different; they would assume she won’t be able to complain to employers when they demand she does several tasks of their own. After my constant nagging and insisting she talks to her employers, I had to steal her employer’s number from her phone and directly talk to them and explain what was happening in the shadows of their working environment.

To conclude, I would like to make a note that my mother was an accountant and a straight A student. Her intelligence is definitely not average. Her work ethic and self-discipline is unmatched, but she is judged by people in our society by how she mispronounces certain words and her accent as she tries to find her tongue during her translation of her words.