English is not my First Language

by Oliver Mbamara

(Of Language, Accent, Immigrants, and Integrity)

It is interesting to note that there is hardly any emphasis on grammatical accuracy when people converse in their native language. Such emphasis is hardly of any significant concern when two or more indigenes converse in their indigenous language. I may not be sure about others but I have noticed that I hardly ever worry about grammar when conversing in my native language – Igbo (which is my first language).

The point? Less emphasis on grammar allows one to concentrate on the substance of the discussion rather than the form it takes. This also allows for more understanding and less misconceptions when people converse. I cannot say the same for English language and would not really care except that sometimes, in the effort to be very grammatically correct in the English language, or to imitate the English/American accent, some of us who did not learn English as their first language deviate from the objectives of the conversation or the goal of communicating with the reader or listener.

It is my understanding that one’s accent or intonation is mostly based on the habits and manner of speech (or speaking) that one imbibed from parents, siblings, relatives, society, and environment while learning to speak. Using Africans for reference in this discourse, I must say that children of African origin, born and raised in western environments, learn to speak like the people of the western society they have been raised. Unlike their parents, these new generation Africans are rarely accused of having an accent. The reason is simple. These children learned to speak from childhood in the western environment and not Africa, thus eliminating the chance to imbibe the African accent as they learned to speak.

To some readers, I may simply be making an already obvious point, but the concern is that some of us who did not have English language as their first language have joined in the conclusion that a person’s integrity may be less if one’s accent is different from the majority or if one’s English contains some grammatical errors. This piece does not seek to condone mediocrity in communication skills, but unless one claims to be an expert in the English language (or any other language for that matter), he ought to be given a break if he is less than perfect in the same language. Besides, speaking (or writing English) like many other things in life, is an art and our level of efficiency will always differ from one individual to another.

Many of us who learned English as a second, third, or fourth language, are grateful for the gains obtainable through the use of English in today’s world, such as the ability to communicate with more people than our native language would allow. A writer would be glad to know that he is able to communicate with his readers in a language that is not originally his. However, such writer ought not to be expected to be perfect in the English language. This piece does not condone grammatical mistakes that could be avoided by a little more devotion to the study of English. It is the view of this piece that a sincere good effort to learn English language should be encouraged for any success made, rather than criticized for mistakes.

Many individuals strive to keep their focus when writing or speaking in a foreign language, rather than be distracted by the desire to be perfect. We must bear in mind that in most cases, one is only compelled by circumstance to speak, read or write such other language. It has been observed that many people who usually used an immigrant’s difficulties with a language, as a basis for rating the immigrant’s integrity and mentality have been humbled by simple things such as not being able to pronounce the names of these same foreigners or immigrants that they have ridiculed. It is a forgone conclusion that these critics may not be able to communicate in the native language of the criticized immigrant.

Immigrants usually seek to make a living in their new domicile or the foreign country they find themselves to be residing, and that is a good motivation for most of them to study and understand the lingua franca or predominant language of the new domicile in question. It is the opinion of this piece that the integrity of such immigrants ought not to be considered inferior just because such immigrants fail to display the same level of understanding of the domicile language as the indigene that was born or raised in the same domicile/territory in question.

An American, British, European, or other non-African citizen does not have a reduced integrity simply because he cannot communicate in any of the thousands of African languages available in Africa. He is not expected to have an African accent either. The same logic ought to apply to the African immigrant in America, Britain, Europe, or any other part of the world. In fact, the same logic ought to apply to immigrants from any part of the world. Such understanding would improve our tolerance and understanding of the immigrant in our midst.

Perhaps, this piece should be concluded on the note that language, race, tribe, and gender are mere earthly qualifications and camouflages of the true identity of the individual – Soul. The language of Soul is love, and love is a universal language. This is only my understanding.


Why should a man be poorly judged,
If he knows his thought so very well,
And remains indeed so wise in his reason,
But lacks in expression the speech needed,
To articulate his wisdom in spoken words?

If a man is short of the gift of language,
And lacks the knowledge to speak in it,
Shall he be less of the man that he is,
If he can in excellence express himself,
In the language of birth that he has imbibed?

And to those who may answer ‘yes,’
I shall a simple question hereby pose.
Where then shall you in rating place
The integrity of the deaf and the dumb
Who still but wisdom greatly know?

It has been said, again and again,
That from the abundance of the heart,
Does the true man resolutely speak,
Making the lips and the language of man,
Only the channel of the substance within.

Methinks that language, race, or tribe,
Only a qualification and camouflage is,
Of the true identity of the individual-Soul,
For the language of Soul is simply love,
And love indeed is the language of all.

You may also like

1 comment

Anonymous July 18, 2005 - 9:32 am

my rating is based on the idea suggested by the writer that even though we may strive to speak the english language correctly our inability to do so to perfection shouldn't make us lacking in integrity–afterallwe could still pride ourselves of speaking a language americans themselves can neither speak nor understand.—MURNA TAM GILBERT


Leave a Comment