Sarah Feng

United States

I'm a 17-year-old student from Northern California! My favorite books include Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" and Toni Morrison's "Beloved." I was a past WtW peer review ambassador in 2017, and I love all genres of writing.

Message to Readers

Any feedback is appreciated!

english not good

February 12, 2017

PROMPT: This I Believe

3
If you read that title in a mocking accent, then you're guilty of this.

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When I first came to America, I didn't speak English. 
  The few words I knew--"hello", "goodbye", "sorry"--came out in chopped bits, the words lurching on my tongue clumsily. I flushed red with embarrassment when the teacher asked me to read a passage. My kindergarten classmates stared and whispered. Their English was perfect: smooth r's, quick l's. Even at five, I could feel the scathing judgement. She can't speak English? She doesn't belong in a private school. She's not smart.
  I borrowed novels about time travelers and fairies from the library and took them home. In my free time, I'd thumb through them until they were so full of dog-ears that the librarian told me to just keep them. I'd whisper the words to myself until they felt like smooth pebbles. At home, my Mandarin came rapid-fire. I read everything I could get my hands on: books about clans of cats, about wizarding academies. And still, when my accent persisted, people laughed. 
   By second grade, my English smoothed out, and finally, people began to take me seriously. I was delighted. 
   By the end of elementary school, I had won awards for my English writing. I had published books and won awards for a language that I didn't speak until I was six. And people began to acknowledge that yes, she's worthy of this school. By the end of middle school, I had the best English in the grade, out of all my white classmates who were born and raised with it. It took years for me to perfect my English and earn my respect. 
   Now I'm a freshman, and a boy came to our school this year. Just arrived from China. And when he introduced himself, I saw the words like heavy rocks on his tongue, lurching into each other. People snickered behind their hands. In literature class, our teacher asked him to read a passage from The Odyssey, and I saw his face turn red. I saw myself. 
   "If he can't speak English, he should just leave," I've heard people say. 
   But why--why, exactly--is speaking English a requirement for being intelligent, passionate human beings? 
   I've seen it everywhere. People with accents ridiculed as husks of humans. People with different cultures and different tongues, caricatured into lazy and uncultured. Why is that? Who put that institutional bias into our minds that speaking English is necessary in order to be smart? 
    I don't believe that that's the case. There's something fundamentally wrong with the fact that it took me years to earn acknowledgement from my classmates--all because I spoke a different language--and even now, as a Chinese girl who attends a white-majority school, it's still hard to command respect. 
    People are beautiful and determined and passionate, even if they don't speak the language that you're reading right now. It never gives anyone the right to mock them for it. English is a highly difficult language. Who is anybody to criticize? 
   The boy is a genius at math and physics, and yet all people can see is his crude English, coming out in chopped bits, the words lurching on his tongue clumsily. 

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I believe that English shouldn't be a landmark of culture and intelligence--and you should believe it, too. 

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1 Comment
  • glass_raindrops

    I shared this with my Korean friend who had a similar experience. We both love your writing, and she was comforted to know she's not alone. You are 100% right that just knowing English doesn't make you intelligent, and my quadra-lingual friend is another example of that.


    almost 4 years ago