Are you planning to spend the summer learning English? Maybe you will attend graduate school, work in a business, or do some research in an English-speaking country. I want to prepare you for life in an English-language environment by telling you what will happen to you.
I am not a fortune-teller, but I can nonetheless tell you this is what is going to happen because Asians share a common experience with their spoken English in the US. (I will focus my discussion on the US because that is where I lived. But my observations can apply to other English-speaking countries.) Listeners will treat your spoken English like they treat the English spoken by all Asians, regardless of whether they are native or non-native English speakers. I will tell you that this treatment has little to do with the actual clarity of your English expressions. It has more to do with common attitudes and expectations towards Asians. As you prepare to live abroad, spend less time on improving your English language skills. Better English will not make others understand you better. Rather, you first need to expose your voice to the public and then educate your listeners to become better listeners.
As you interact with native-English speakers, you will become conscious of how they react to your speech. But what the native-English speakers will react to are not your actual expressions, but your “accent.” I put “accent” in quotation marks because its perception is not related to how different you sound from the speech of “standard” American English. This is a phenomenon called “accent hallucination.” When an Asian and a non-Asian see each other, the latter will sometimes “hear” a foreign accent where there is none. An experiment was done where the speech of a native-English speaking woman was recorded and played back to two groups of native-English speaking, American college students. In one group, the students listened to the audio recording while a screen showed the picture of a white woman. The other group of students listened to the same recording while the screen showed the picture of an East Asian woman. The students in the latter group evaluated the recorded voice as being hard to understand, while the students in the first group did not have much trouble understanding the recording. Americans thus tend to “see” non-native or non-standard English speech through the lens of race. This is the case with Asians and with other racial minorities in the US. President Barack Obama, for example, is multi-racial, but many people “hear” and comment on his African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), even though he speaks Standard American English.
How native English speakers react to your “accent,” real or imagined, follows a common pattern. With strangers, in the streets, at restaurants, or at supermarket counters, you will experience micro-aggressive behavior. The people you interact with will appear irritated, uneasy, untrusting, and condescending. For example, there was a fast food restaurant that I frequently visited and where I ordered the same food: “a grilled chicken wrap with no sauce, and a regular Diet Coke.” Most of the employees did not have trouble taking the order, but once I met someone who could not understand my speech. She said “what?” and I had to repeat my order twice more. It was clear from her facial expression, and from the way that she threw the change on the counter, that she was annoyed. You hear similar stories of hospital patients getting angry at Korean doctors for their bad English, and of college students asking to switch discussion sections because they could not understand their Asian teaching assistant. Not all people are rude in these ways. Still, accent is a fact of life that will define your relationship with non-Asians in the US.
Neurolinguistic research has shown that the human brain has a tremendous ability to process meaning out of a wide range of sound variation. This is called speech normalization. It only takes a few seconds of conditioning for an American English speaker to understand a speaker of New Zealand English, for example. Hence, it is not a matter of speech clarity, but a refusal to understand that comes from perceptions of otherness. For all Asians in the U.S., their perception is filtered through what researchers call the “perpetual foreigner syndrome.” Non-Asians view with suspicion an Asian’s presence on American soil. They will try to place you back in Asia. And a powerful way to do that is to make your English foreign to you. So I can predict with confidence that this kind of conversation will happen to you quite often:
*Where are you from?
*Where are you REALLY from? (If you say that you are from San Francisco.)
*But you speak English so well!
Non-Asians will judge your personality—such as your intelligence and friendliness—based on your race, and express that judgment through evaluations of your “accent.” In the time that you have in Korea, I suggest that you prepare for these reactions. The online social media is a great place to put your English for public scrutiny. Try to post a couple of YouTube videos of you talking about something and track any language-related comments that you may receive. Once you are in the US, you can ensure good speaking terms by setting up some ground rules. Be open with your boss or supervisor about the language issues and work out solutions together. If you are a teaching assistant, for example, you could let the students ask for clarification in a polite way, or you could write words and sentences on the board. Effective English communication requires an effort from both speakers and listeners to get over racial biases. A base of patience and open-mindedness can go a long way to make your English into something that you can live with.