“nobody speaks English in Spain”

I am originally from Spain, and I speak English with an accent. During my PhD in philosophy, I had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant at a Canadian university. I was very excited about that. As I was going to the first class, I kept remembering a recent episode with someone I met at my arrival to Canada. This person told me how disappointed she was during her trip to Spain when she realized that nobody there spoke English, so she had a hard time getting around. At the time of the event I didn’t take it seriously (who would take that silly comment seriously? Who would let that silly person, surprised to discover that people in Spain speak Spanish instead of English, stay in their minds for more than the few seconds the episode lasted?). But on my way to the classroom, her “nobody speaks English in Spain” kept resonating and I started panicking, anticipating that students wouldn’t be able to understand my accented English. Maybe the notion of stereotype threat could help describe what happened to me. It is perhaps an old trauma of many spaniards of my generation that we don’t speak English, or we do so with strong accent; that day I felt my confidence, and my English proficiency, were dropping with each step I took towards the classroom.

However, far from being the uncomfortable, disastrous experience I thought it would be, leading those discussions was great. I was relieved when I noticed that I was neither the only foreigner nor the only one speaking with accent. Many of them were new to Canada and to a university setting, so they were as scared as I was. I forgot about my (perhaps clumsy) English and let philosophy and smiles do the work, and we ended up having great discussions, likely with tons of grammatical and pronunciation mistakes, but rich and full of insights and passion.

I look back at that experience and there are two things I learned. First, that casual comments, even silly ones, related to my English-language skills trigger negative emotions (they still do so). And second, that good philosophy can be done with and without accent (and even with grammatical errors).

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