Sunday, November 12, 2006

Part XX. Dude, you have an accent

Being a foreigner, it was automatically that I’ll have some kind of heavy accent. You could tell who is an arab and who is an Indian or from any other parts of the world. That causes some kind of fear of being in front of an audience, even if that was in the supermarket. Hence, every student was faced with this fear, and every student was faced with a situation where he or she had to speak to an audience, in English.

The first time I had to speak to an audience, I made a mess. It was in my social science class, where my teacher asked me to stand up and talk about my paper. Well, I knew I was in trouble when I said “yes sir” and she quickly laughed with the class and told me “you mean yes ma’am”. Boy, this was not going to be a good day. I started talking, and I could tell that many people didn’t understand what the heck I was talking about. I could see the looks on their faces trying hard to make sense of what I’m saying. I slowed down a little, and I now sound like one of those arabs on CNN trying to express their opinion about an issue.

I was shy and tried as much as possible to avoid my public interaction in class. One day, my history teacher told me to work hard on my speech abilities for my English not only sucked in writing, but also in oral presentation. I was saddened by those coments for I thought all those teenage years listening to zeppelin and Michael Jackson should have helped me mastering the English language. Well, they didn’t. Class after class, I started to understand my difficulties in the language.

Then came my time where I had to present my graduation project to representative of 2 companies and an audience of students. Oh my God, what a bad experience that was. I kept my voice down, a natural reaction to the lack of self confidence in my ability to speak the language. I relied on the slides to express my views, but my advisor kept alerting me to use the face to face communication and stop relying on reading directly from slides.

In my masters thesis defense, I had other types of problems, but somehow related to the language. The teachers were grilling me harshly on my findings, and they were not happy with my conclusions. My advisor was an Iranian who was anything but supportive. I felt strong about my conclusions, but they were hammering me on them. The fact that the findings don’t fall in the current chemical industry environment of management, gave them a tool to ask harsh questions. 3 hours later, most were convinced that it could work in the chemical industry. You see, I was proposing using a japaneese manufacturing management technique, to be used in the chemical industry. It’s related the use of kanbans and kaizens, a batch type process operational techniques, in a chemical environment that relies heavily on continuous processes. The representative of the company that I was working on as the model of experiment was happy and seemed to be very excited about the idea. The teachers were not. Eventually, I got out of it with the least damages.

During my work years, I started to write technical papers and present them in front of scientific audience. The audience is different this time. They are people from the industry and they know exactly what you are talking about. They came to hear your ideas, because they know so much about them, and they will ask you every detail question, to squeeze as much information as possible. I had to do something about my lack of self confidence in my English language. Well, I heard one time on a show that the best way to escape such fear, is by pretending that the audience is full of naked people. Crazy? Strange? I know. I tried it, and it had two different effect on me, depending on who was asking me the questions. So I needed something else.

I spoke to my manager at work about my fears. He told me that I should feel better than anyone in the audience, because I’m able to speak two different languages, English and Arabic. That helped me a lot. I felt that I was indeed better than them. I’m trying to express my ideas in a language that is not my mother language. Let’s see if they could do that in a language that is not English. So yes, I finally was able to overcome such fear, and today, I speak in front of audience on monthly basis.

The one thing I could not overcome, is spelling. It got me in trouble many times. One day, my wife was traveling to Jordan. It’s been 6 weeks then since I saw her. I wrote a report, and sent it to so many people in the company. The report goes like “Sex phenomena’s were recorded…”. It was supposed to be “six” instead of sex. So, few minutes later, emails started hitting me back with mockery and fun. They were teasing me, but was funny too. Some replies were like ‘seems your wife’s departure is affecting you” with a nice smile in the end. Until today, I owe so much to Microsoft spell checker, and without Bill gates, I would’ve probably landed a job cleaning bathrooms in a train station.

So yes, all students, and foreigners, do face such dilemma when it comes to expressing their views in English. I see many Indians, and many eastern Europeans struggling with the language. It’s difficult on us foreigners, because we fear that we make a mistake, in front of everyone. But I think if we look at it’s positive, it will be easier cookie to handle.


Jameel said...

You know what could help in such situations? You must’ve heard some non Arabs speaking Arabic on TV, almost all struggle with grammar and pronunciation. Nevertheless, as long as it is comprehendible, we don’t think it is embarrassing or think they are fools. I, for one, actually admire their efforts and if their language is other than English, I say to myself their command of Arabic is much better than my command of their language.

Islamic ChoCoHoLic said...

inta min iyam ma kont aroo7 mahjood ur spelling THArib :P ehe bas ya3ni SIX ma bta3raf tuktubha? yal 3aaaaad hathi magsooodah!!! he3 he3

diddeh ya nau6y !! <-- naughty bil gorduni :P

No_Angel said...

lol the only problem i had was using british words and accent which a few korean TA's didnt understand

but i do agree i felt compassionate with those TA's but for goods sake it became so bad to the extent that they had to institute english profeciency test for them :D

anyways on a side note i think the accent is more of a background hint, as u mentioned before even those born in the US still got that arabenglish accent (tho its weird to describe), never mind the indians when it comes to that they can be 3rd generation and still have an accent

Anonymous said...

Seems that many non-native speakers have trouble with English. You should make a suggestion to your company to offer training to help. Mine offers many internal traning classes catering to the very bright scientists it hires in which English is a second language. Courses titled: English Conversation, English Language Functional Grammar, English Language Presentation Workshop, English Language Skills Workshop, English Language Writing Workshop, English Pronunciation for Speaking and Fluency are offered.

Samir said...

That was an interesting read.. I suffer from a similar problem, and i'm starting to get over the fear of public speaking..

I read somewhere that public speaking is the number one greatest fear by people, even more than spidrs and snakes!


Summer said...

do not worry about perfecting the English language while living in the should worry about learning Spanish soon!! even Americans would have to do that too since the Spanish speaking population will one day surpass other minorities!