I Will Always Be “ESL”


A few months ago, I found a professional development course in the NAIT catalogue called “Clear and Concise Writing”. I wanted to attend this course because I am aware that conciseness is something I really need to work on for my job. Perhaps it doesn’t help that in creative writing, making your sentences long and flowy is encouraged.

Also, in my younger years, writing essays is a common activity in school – both in our English writing and Filipino classes. The longer, the better.

After the class, my supervisor asked me how it went. I said that it reminded me of elementary and high school in the Philippines. The class provided refreshers on some key components of grammar and how they are misused, and these were the daily exercises we worked on in school. Prepositional phrases, adverbs and adjectives that don’t look like one, gerunds, missing verbs in a sentence, the list goes on.

Afterwards, she asked me if this would be a good class for my other co-worker to take. She came to Canada a bit more recently that I did, and at a more mature age. Turns out, this other co-worker wanted an opportunity to brush up on some grammar and spelling rules.

During this conversation, my supervisor asked me if I describe myself as “ESL”. This is quite an interesting question and I took a moment before responding. I told her yes, yes absolutely. While it is true that I am fairly competent in the language, and that I get compliments for having ‘minimal accent’ or ‘advance vocabulary’, communicating in English just takes a bit of extra effort.

A few common feelings that had not gone away are:

  • Bracing myself for when the other person asks ‘say that again?’
  • The moment of uncertainty for a split second, when the listener pauses before saying ‘oooooh, I see what you’re saying’.
  • Not quite knowing the right word to use in a statement or story. Similar to Tagalog, there are a dozen ways to express emotions, and some descriptors have subtle differences. There are different degrees that are more appropriate in certain contexts. For example, I can say that both a baby and a puppy look adorable, but it would be a bit weird to use that word when describing a piece of art. Depending on the cause, one can say that they are either attacked, threatened, violated, or annoyed.
  • Being flustered in choosing the right preposition and conjunctions.

A few weeks ago, I went to a gathering of Filipino members of the community here in Edmonton. Since I have to speak English at home a lot of the time, this time, I didn’t feel the pressure to do that. And it was a pleasant feeling that I cherished during that time.

A colleague asked me to help out on a project, which is to translate an inspirational biographical story from English to Tagalog. For immigrants who contributed their stories, the goal for the project is to have their stories both in English and the national language of the country they came from. Translating was not easy, because I wanted it to make sense, for the story to flow, and for it to be easily understood by Filipino readers. Otherwise, the translation would be pointless in my opinion.

Since the Spelling and Grammar Check on Microsoft Word is useless in this case, what I did was I printed the draft translation, recorded myself reading it, and listened to my own recording afterwards. That’s where I realize something both when reading the document and listening to the translation. There it is. The ease in my chest while reading very formal and very advanced Filipino vocabulary. The even pacing of my voice, not even stumbling upon unfamiliar words that I haven’t used for years. This is in contrast to speaking in English, where I even struggle with pronouncing the word ‘liaison’, or get confused on whether I should use the word ‘preventive’ or ‘preventative.

It reminder me of the other part of my response to my supervisor on whether I describe myself as ESL. I said yes, because even if I speak primarily in English , speaking in Tagalog feels more ‘at home’.

To give myself a bit of comfort, I re-watched for about the 100th time this youtube video by Mikey Bustos called ‘Filipino Accent Tutorial’. Since he grew up in Canada, I found it quite relatable. I’ve lived here for more than 10 years, and I can’t help but wonder how I would feel in 20 or 50 years when it comes to fluency, accent, and ease in communicating in English.





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