Unequivocally Ambiguous

Humorous Stories on Parenting, Culture and Life

English is Harder Than You Will Ever Know

by | Mar 28, 2024 | culture | 0 comments

What ESL speakers hear when you say ‘huh?’

“Your presentation skills are great, and you have deep product knowledge. But you have an accent.” My boss told me in his office.

I had invited my new sales manager to tag along on all my Sacramento visits. I was feeling good about them by the end of the day. A week later, when he started his performance review, he immediately hit me with the above nugget of wisdom.

“Huh, interesting… I have an accent? Me?!? It never occurred to me that I had an accent.”

Of course, I have an accent. Very likely, I will forever have an accent. If we are trying to get meta, we all have an accent.

But he was probably referring to my accent as an ‘English As a Second Language’ (ESL) speaker.

My position in social interactions is that often, people don’t know what they are really saying. So, I gave my boss a pass of compassion.

Then he told me, “At least it’s not as bad as this Irish man I met. Irish people talk like they have potatoes in their mouths.”

I stopped him, “Before you keep going, you should know my wife is half-Irish.”

Am I the only one who thinks that was offensive?

I’m not talking about the accent—that happens to people with accents all the time—I’m talking about his choice of tuber. Of all the tubers or root vegetables he could’ve chosen, he chose potatoes.

Isn’t that offensive?

Didn’t he know about the potato famine?

Plenty of Irish men wished they had actual potatoes in their mouths when they died in the famine.

I have learned to coach myself through these interactions with empowering thoughts like, “People are highlighting my accent because they like it,” or “I speak two languages, and while it would be nice not to have an accent, I still have a lot of Italian to learn,” or, “The True American National pastime is knowing only one language.”

What people don’t get is that English is maddeningly hard. Languages like Spanish, Italian, and Catalan are governed mainly by their rules. English is governed by its exceptions.

For example, take the word’ colonel.’

In Spanish, the word is spelled ‘c-o-R-o-n-e-l’ and pronounced ‘Coronel.’ If you were to pronounce the Spanish word ‘Coronel’ with a gringo accent, you would pronounce it in the way it is said in English.


That is not the way it is spelled in English.


The way it is spelled in ENGLISH is “c-o-L-o-n-e-l.”

If you were to phonetically pronounce the word’ colonel,’ the way it is spelled would sound a lot more like “Co-Lon-el.”

Which sounds less like an awe-inspiring military rank and more like the cream proctologists use to lubricate their fingers before they perform a Digital Rectal Exam — which is the official name for a prostate exam. Just so you are aware, digital does not refer to electronic technology but to the very much analog process of sticking a finger, or a digit, into a man’s existence.

“Good morning, Graham; come sit down on this butcher paper while I put the Colon-Elle on my finger.”

It is just maddening.

Every non-native speaker taking a stab at this highly complex language is courageous, but they still carry seeds of insecurity within them.

So, when you say to an ESL speaker, ‘Huh?’ or you ask them to repeat, it triggers insecurities of adequacy, of fitting in, of belonging. At the root of it, ‘Huh?’ triggers questions in them, “Am I being understood?” or, more poignantly, “Will I ever be understood here in the way I was understood back home?”

So when you tell an ESL speaker, “Huh?” they don’t think:

“This person is hard of hearing,”
“I mumbled,”
“This person was distracted,”
“My statement was outrageous.”

They think:

“This person is making fun of my accent!”

And not because that’s what they are doing, but that’s what their insecurities are making them think.

It happened to my poor mom.

My mom called me one afternoon while I was driving. She was remodeling her house and at a hardware store, where my stepdad had sent her to buy caulking. She told me she was confused by the many options and didn’t know what to do.

At that time, I was still a construction manager and wanted to help her.

I told her, “Mom, the guys in my crew swear by this brand called The Big Black Caulk.”

In my defense, I thought she would immediately tort back, “You are an idiot, Carlos. I’m your mother.” Click. Disconnect tone. End of conversation.

Instead, my mom proceeded to approach a store clerk to find out where this brand was. I should’ve stopped her, but then what fun is that?

“Excuse me, sir. Do you know where I can find The Big Black Caulk?”

I clearly heard the distinct “Huh?” of bewilderment the clerk made.

“Do you know where is ‘The Big Black Caulk?’”

Again, “Huh?”

My mom whispered into the phone in Spanish, “Este imbécil cree que porque tengo un acento, se va a hacer el que no me entiende.” (This imbecile is acting like he doesn’t understand what I’m asking him because of my accent.) This is not what the clerk was doing at all but what my mom, as an insecure ESL speaker, interpreted.

She didn’t wait for me to respond, which I wasn’t going to because, again, fun, right?

Then she proceeded to shout, “TAKE ME TO THE BIG BLACK CAULK!!”

My mom hung up the phone to focus on dealing with this man who so clearly was discriminating against her because of her accent — but he was not.

She called me 30 minutes later, “You fucking asshole!” She had finally figured out what I had done, and she wasn’t happy.

Sometimes, I wonder if that man thinks about my mom as often as I think about him. What did he make of this event? Does he wonder where my mom is now? Did he tell his family that night over dinner about the mild-mannered Hispanic old lady who demanded him to “TAKE HER TO THE BIG BLACK CAULK!”

I guess I will never know, and it is just maddening.

In the same way that English is maddening.

But just because it is maddening doesn’t mean that ESL speakers have to suffer in silence. We can make it maddening for native speakers, too.

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