“At PhD level…” has been my supervisor’s soundtrack in my life. I have never felt as dumb as I do now as a PhD student. English can show you flames and shame you in ways you have never imagined. Coming from a school where we joked about our English teacher teaching us English content/stories in IsiXhosa and not being able to pronounce words and names in our short story book, I have come a long way with my English. I have spent a lot of time reading and listening to things in order to learn this language and so that I never embarrass myself when speaking in public. It sucks though, because after all the online English classes, the novels, the debate team, the ‘English time at home’, your PhD supervisor can still say, “At PhD level, I expect your writing to be…”
After my struggle of writing an honours thesis and driving myself crazy in the process, I realised that I did not need not to stress myself so much with English and that it was okay that I did not write like a first language speaker or sounded like one. I made a commitment to never even try to sound or write like one. I did it to free myself from all the anxiety that came with presenting at conferences, speaking in seminars, tutoring, and lecturing, writing essays and so on. The anxiety from comments in your papers that read ‘what do you mean’ and you are just not sure if it is content related or if it is because your language makes no sense. So when you read ‘at PhD level, I expect your writing to be…’ you panic because you do not know if it is grammar, content or style that you need to work on. It turned out my supervisor meant I need to own my statements and ideas more, to have some authority in my writing. But hey, how do you own ideas you’re not sure if you’re even articulating properly in English.
There is the anxiety that comes when you finally convince yourself to speak in a seminar and after a few ‘uhms’ and ‘like’, you finally finish talking and the lecturer says ‘okay’ without acknowledging your ideas. Then a white male who is a first language speaker pretty much talks about the same ideas but uses big English words and ‘academic’ language and so the lecturer comments on how great his ideas are. You forgive the lecturer and convince yourself that they are not sexist or racist and that they are just probably not trained to listen and to hear people who speak or sound like you. They genuinely just could not listen or hear you. There is the anxiety that comes when someone asks you to repeat yourself and you immediately think “oh no, there goes my credibility, I must have mispronounced something or used the word in the wrong context, that’s why this person did not hear me”. Then you quickly translate what you said to IsiXhosa to check if you used the word in the right context and just nje, to check if it makes sense. You watch your student’s faces for confusion and you are so scared when your students who are first language English speakers raise their hand because you are thinking, “I hope she does not speak too fast, I hope she doesn’t use a word I am not familiar with, of my goodness these kids will never respect me if I mess this response up, there goes my credibility as a tutor/lecturer”. Then you quickly prepare the dictionary in your head.
That was not healthy, I needed to stop it for my own sanity and be okay with the fact that English was not my first language and that did not make me stupid or an unworthy teacher. I also needed to stop for all the other kids/students who do not have English as a first language and who struggle with English; so that they know that it is possible to write academic work using simple language and that you can have intellectual/academic conversations as a second language speaker because academia and intellect are not English. When I am giving a lecture in my accent and code switch for fun, to feel like me and also because I genuinely do not know which English word to use, I want my students who have English as a second/third language to feel that they have a lecturer they can relate to, lecture slides they understand and also to remind them that that English is not a measure of intelligence. When I use IsiXhosa words or statements or proverbs in class and I ask the IsiXhosa speaking students to help me translate because I can’t think of a translation, I intentionally want to engage those students who would otherwise not speak because forgetting English words in class is awkward and not speaking ‘proper’ English in the right accent makes you dumb. I want to draw in those students who feel that if they cannot speak and think in English, then that is enough reason to silence themselves and all their great ideas and contributions to the classroom. The students who feel that in order to avoid the shame that comes with not being able to articulate themselves in English, it is best to shut up. I have had my share of that, and it pops back every now and then, but it is my duty to work against it, because it is just not right for students to feel that their thoughts and contributions can be left unsaid if they can’t be said in English.