"Hometowns" is a (remote) quarter-long project by NBN Opinion in which individual writers explore the different issues that pertain to or tie them to their hometowns.

If you’d asked me if I had an accent before I got to Northwestern, I would have said no. It didn’t take more than a day on campus for me to be told differently.  

I’m from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. My first language is Spanish, but I started learning English when I was four. I went to an international school where the language of instruction was English, so it was the only language allowed in the classroom. Because of this, I rapidly began to mix up my English and Spanish into what many call Spanglish.

In class, I got used to associating English with an academic setting. But once classes were over, halls would be flooded with talk of how “Tengo que ask mami for permission, pero I’ll let you know” or “Sorry no puedo ir, voy a Romana this weekend.” It’s very easy to adopt words from English when you can’t find the right word in Spanish and vice versa. Because I’ve been speaking Spanglish ever since I can remember, it’s gotten to the point where sometimes I don’t even notice that I’m using both languages. This made me cocky enough to think that speaking English 24/7 once I moved to the U.S. for school would be a piece of cake. I was so wrong.

I didn’t consider how mentally exhausting it would be to get used to speaking English at all times. The number of times my words would get stuck in my throat or I would feel too tired to add to a conversation because I had spent too much of my day speaking in English was suddenly unnerving. College was supposed to be the time I “found myself,” but how could I do that when I was having such a hard time maintaining conversations with others?

If speaking English wasn’t difficult enough, I also dealt with suddenly not being understood by fellow Spanish speakers because of my Dominican accent. Spanish accents are completely different depending on what country and even regions of the said country you are from. It’s comparable to how accents in the U.S. differ. Someone from New York won’t have the same slang as someone from Georgia. For example, my roommate at Northwestern is from Mexico. But for the first few months at Northwestern, we didn’t even speak in Spanish together because trying to understand each other’s slang only made it more difficult for us to communicate. Once we were comfortable enough, she even made a list of terms she heard me use and wanted to learn. If adapting to English wasn’t already hard enough, I suddenly had to learn how to tone down my Dominican accent for other Spanish speakers to understand me.

Nothing got to me like the comments I got from other Northwestern students. I understand that some people were well-intentioned, but one thing I noticed was how some people were insistent on pointing out my mistakes while talking. If I mentioned I didn’t understand something (usually because I couldn’t hear from being in public), I got comments like “Oh, right. You might not know about this, but…” followed by the oversimplification of something I could perfectly understand. Sometimes I got comments like “Oh yay! You learned a new word!” when I used “big” words. The ones that hurt the most and made me feel the most patronized were “Well Maria, we didn’t expect you to know anyway. You know, because you don’t know English.” And yes, I actually had someone say that to my face. But no, they did not realize how hurtful their words were. Just because English isn’t my first language, it doesn’t mean people get a free pass at insulting me. It made me question whether I was even fit to keep going to school in the U.S.

Caamaño flies back to Santo Domingo. Photo courtesy of Maria Caamaño.

But what I hated the most was how much I actually let all those comments affect the way I perceive my own language and accent. When we were sent back home because of coronavirus unexpectedly, my mom tried to help me adjust to suddenly being back in DR.  To make my already chaotic transition back smoother, she tried to talk in English as much as possible. But, because of all the comments on my English, I found myself more aware of her accent. I started to involuntarily correct her English and even make fun of how she pronounced some words. Suddenly, I realized that I was the biggest hypocrite. I had already felt so discouraged by the comments others had made about my English, but I was doing the exact same. I realized that those comments had gotten to me even when far away from campus.

My mom knew all about my struggles with balancing English and Spanish while in the U.S. We have a very close relationship, so she started noticing that something kept bothering me. Once I told her, she gave me the classic pep talk and made me realize that I shouldn’t let those comments bother me.

In the time I’ve been back home, I have come to realize that accents are a beautiful thing. I thought of my friends from back home who have had similar experiences to mine studying in the United States. I thought of the times I’ve been far away from home and people realize I’m Dominican because of my accent. I thought of how grateful I am to be able to speak another language. But mostly, I thought of the students I’ve met at Northwestern who relate to my experience. I’ve bonded multiple times with international students who have also struggled to adjust to speaking English at all times.

An accent is an indicator of a person’s story and experience, where they come from, and where they’ve been. Everyone speaks distinctively and it’s part of what makes them who they are. If you are a native English speaker at Northwestern, please think about the impact your comments can make. Instead of pointing out the differences in someone’s way of speaking, ask them where they’re from. Bother to get to know them and their story, rather than singling them out. Celebrate those differences and the unique story that comes with each accent.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my first quarters at Northwestern, it’s to embrace my accent rather than trying to fit the mold of what others expect my English to sound like. After all, my accent is a way to carry home with me everywhere I go and, for that, I couldn’t be prouder.