Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Personal Essay about Assumptions and Being the Stupid Kid

I would like to post a personal essay I wrote for my Advanced Writing class at the University of Missouri. It was never published anywhere else, so I thought I would take the self-publishing route.

The essay is about what it is like to be a foreigner who doesn't speak the language, who everyone thinks is not as intelligent because he or she can't express his or herself. It's also about how easy it is to judge people as less intelligent because of their communication skills and the struggle I face in basing intellect on speech. Warning: It's a bit long.

You’re sitting there in a classroom. It might be warm outside, or maybe you just didn’t get enough sleep last night. Whatever the reason, you find yourself drifting off during the lecture. Suddenly the room is silent. You snap awake from whatever rainbow daydream you were having. The professor is glaring at you and waiting for the answer. Crap. You never heard the question.

You stare back like a deer in the headlights and know that no matter what you do, you are going to look like an inattentive idiot.

I’ve been there too. But I heard the question. I just couldn’t understand it.

Six years ago, my family moved to France for a semester. I had taken two years of French and learned a host of language-class words that were next to useless against the rapid-fire French I encountered during my first day of school in Poitiers, a city in Western France. My professor started with the typical first-day-of-class lecture on who knows what. Then, roll call. I prepared to listen for any mutilated variation of my name, but he wasn’t just calling names. He was asking questions too. Oh merde.

The daydream scenario started all over again, only this wasn’t any dream I wanted to have. Chills started up my back. My chest tightened. My forehead broke out in a cold sweat as I waited for the noose to tighten around my neck. After a million years but also much too soon, he called my name. I shakily raised my hand, hoping for a reprieve, an earthquake, the ground to swallow me up. No luck.

His unnecessarily rapid questions shot over my comprehension level like machine gun fire as I scrunched down in my desk and formed as small a target as possible. I stared up at him in terror. He stared back and started speaking a nanosecond slower. Still couldn’t catch it. “Professeur, je suis Americaine,” I choked out. “Je ne parle pas fran├žias.” I don’t speak French. That should do it.

Americaine?” Looking interested, he fired off more unintelligible French. This guy was not getting the message. I looked around helplessly, silently begging for help. The students started tittering. Small giggles broke the silence of my non-response. “Oui?” I ventured. Louder chuckles now. I winced.

The professor finally took pity on me and moved on to torment another victim. The students continued staring at me. I sighed in resignation. For the first time in my life, I was the stupid kid in class.

To my continuous embarrassment, I learned quality of speech is directly related to perceived intelligence. Being unable to communicate equals dumb or uneducated, even if such snap judgments are completely unconscious. Take my mother, for example. She volunteered as an administrative assistant while we were in France. Unfortunately, she spoke virtually no French (I was Victor Hugo by comparison) and struggled with the students. Once, my mom mentioned that in the U.S. she did the job of the head administrator. The student stared at her in surprise. “You know, I’m smart back in America,” my mom said.

That student isn’t the only one. Even after all my experience being the “other,” I still assume foreigners need extra help if they can’t speak my language well. I knew a Chinese woman in Texas. I over-explained details any adult should know and unknowingly patronized her because to me she spoke English like a child. I talked for her and shielded her from potential embarrassment, never mind that she was a 35 year old who knew much more than me.

But sometimes the child idea works. While speaking French, if I couldn’t understand something, I asked people to talk to me like a child, so they would use slow, simple words. But people not only adjust their words, they adjust their entire mindset to a lower standard of thinking. They tend to speak to those around the child instead of trying to communicate directly. Believe me, 17 year olds appreciate being addressed as a child even less than 35 year olds do.

Even people with accents can give an uneducated impression. I’m from Texas. I’ve listened to and winced at my share of “howdys,” “y’alls” and “fixin’ tas,” yet those words tend to slip out of my mouth after I’ve had one too many margaritas.

And how about those cheerleaders and that “valley-girl” talk? Girls, like, are labeled dumb blondes because of a speech habit they, like, picked up or whatever. Also consider the dialect of some African Americans. In the movie Bringing Down the House, Steve Martin is lamenting the way Queen Latifah speaks by saying she could sound smarter if she spoke “normally.” This is who I am, she replies.

These accents and dialects help people identify with social communities. People absorb speech habits easily; it becomes part of a group identity. So sometimes it’s not the accents but an unconscious opinion about a group of people that creates the uneducated impression.

I had my fun mocking Larry the Cable Guy for the redneck accent he uses in his comedy routine. Then I heard him speak without his accent, and he sounded exactly like me. Whoops. I realized Larry was not dumb; he was clever enough to capitalize on an accent that helped him connect with people but was over-the-top enough to be funny.

The ironic thing is that foreigners have to be pretty darn clever to survive in a foreign language as well. I had to keep my wits about me when performing the simplest task in France. Need a haircut? How do you say “layers” in French? And don’t even think about ordering a pizza. A person can only hear you say “pardon?” a few dozen times before the urge to sigh heavily and hang up kicks in.

At the end of my memorable class in France, the students completed information forms. Piece of cake, if you know French. After five minutes with my dictionary, I was only a quarter done. I panicked, because those show-off French students were done, and the professor was looking vaguely impatient about leaving the classroom.

Then suddenly I heard it. English. The most beautiful language in the world to me at that second. “You’re American, right? Do you need help?” “Yes,” I said frantically to my fellow student. I wanted to speak in English more than ever before, not only to quickly finish the forms, but to show just one person in my class I was not as stupid as I seemed.


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