Living with ESL


A few months ago I read this piece in the NYT about being married to a person from country that is not of your own. The writer highlights the differences in the way one communicates in different languages and how enriching this difference is  is for a marriage. This piece really resonated with me as I am also married to someone with whom I do not share a language as well. My husband learned Turkish after we met and I am fluent in English. Our daily miscommunications add distinct flavors to our interactions. We enjoy this difference. 

It is indeed a joy to explore how Turkish is different than English when talking to my husband. That does not mean that I no longer get frustrated about the way I communicate in English. During my daily and professional conversations (written and spoken), in a language (English) I learned after the age of 12,  somethings get lost. For instance, I am still inclined to call the act of turning on a TV “opening the television” and I also mix he/shes – as there are no gender designations to the third person in my native Turkish. These are just a few examples of the daily mishaps of how I use my language.


When I speak well, I am often mimicking a construction I heard somewhere else. I am like a parrot. I have many of the colloquialism of my husband’s and some of my friends’. I often try to remember something that sounds good to me in a conversation and hope to recall it to be able to use it someday to display my mastery of English language. For instance recently I was so happy when I used the word avuncular (acting like an uncle) in the right context. I heard the word from my husband a few years ago and have been waiting for the right opportunity to be a word smart person in the room, you know the type of person who knows the bigger words that has the capacity to communicate a fair deal and also comes across as a perfect response to a situation.  Understanding what these mishaps and the way I use English is of interest to me.  These instances or mistakes are a direct outcome of who I am and choices I made about my life (moving from one country to another, picking a profession where I communicate in spoken and written form frequently, etc.).

When operating in a new linguistic system on a daily basis, the identity of the communicator is not always at the core of the consideration for those who interact with the outcome (that is the spoken and the written language). Thus, the hybrid way many of us who adjust to a new everyday language communicate often come across as a mistake  as opposed to being assessed as a unique way of expressing oneself. So my question of the day is:

Are we, ESL people, speaking and writing in a way that is different than standard English? Shouldn’t the way we communicate be embraced as a variation of language (as opposed to a mistake)?

A different way?

I come across daily alterations of language (from the standard form) in two ways. In my own practice and in practices of evaluation as an educator.

In the first form, it is my own use of language. As someone for whom English became a second language later in life, I indeed struggle everyday even with daily interactions. I come across as fluent but intuitions that come from childhood for language mistakes are not there for me in English. I know that they are not – because they are there when I speak or write Turkish. I get irked by the very same small mistakes that I make in English and become alarmed in ways my counterparts do so for my speaking and writing in English, in Turkish. Thus, it is not that I am not equipped with this intuition. It is that I am in a different language.

The second form is when I interact with some of my students for whom English also is a second language. When I evaluate their work, I am cautious about the feedback. Those who have to operate in a foreign language are fragile and often feel exposed. They are trying to engage in two distinct tasks at the same time:  ensuring that they obey the rules of a foreign language whilst also trying to communicate an idea. Often one of these tasks (and sometimes both) falls short.

When I was as a student myself, the criticism I received from instructors that were not constructive indeed had a long lasting impact on me. I remember a college professor complimenting me on my ideas whilst wishing that I “knew how to write well in English”. This resulted in a perpetual fear of writing for many years to follow (almost for the entirety of my graduate school education), but a trust in my ideas nonetheless. The issue was that she told me what I did right but did not offer much guidance as to how to modify my language, or more specifically how I could do better. I also did not want to justify why I wrote the way I did to her – I did not want to tell her that I wrote a paper for the first time in English when I arrived to college just a year ago. This would have sounded defensive. I just wanted to fix the gap that bruised my ego almost daily. What we say to someone who is trying to navigate an unfamiliar field matters. It also takes time to learn a language and even when you are finally fluent it still takes work to think and act in a foreign language. 


And often, the judgement of those who make frequent (or infrequent) mistakes in the standard English, particularly in the US, can be annoying. This is in consideration of the fact that (according to a citation in this PEW report) only 25% of Americans actually speak a foreign language. Out of that, only 43 percent say that they speak that language well. Out of this 25 % of Americans who can speak a foreign language, 89% are heritage speakers (which means that they learn the language at home or from their community) and about 7% state that they learned the language just in school. That makes those of us who live in the US, operating proficiently in a foreign language which is English, a very large anomaly for the general US public (if my estimate is right less than 1 % of US population actually learned a language in school and can speak well according to the  statistic mentioned in the PEW report). That may be the reason for why our attempts at speaking or writing in English is under scrutiny. Many who offer the non-natives of English language commentary about the structural gaps they may have in communicating in this language otherwise have no experience of actually operating in a foreign language. That makes this situation further puzzling.

I believe that if there were to be more exposure and insight into the daily work it takes to exist in a foreign language perhaps there would be more imagination around the hybrid ways we say and write things – they are not mere mistakes but distinct marks of our identity.



Note: As my husband read the first iteration, ironically he fixed some of my language  – I am sure there are still mistakes of my own but with the spirit of this piece, I will let them be. Enjoy!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: