Jul. 7, 2020 7:30 am

Masks are a barrier to contagion, but can also be a new barrier for immigrants

Masks are necessary for the safe reopening of the city, but they can add a layer of difficulty for those who speak English with an accent, says guest columnist Ben Goebel.

(Image created by Laura Makaltses. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives)

This guest column was written by Ben Goebel, program manager for the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians.
Speaking a language different than English is a strength and a blessing for the diversity of this country.

But it can also be a curse for those struggling with English as a second language.

And the pandemic makes it worse. A lot of immigrants do not speak English at home which means that, since the stay-at-home order, it has been extremely difficult for them to practice their English.

When I came to the U.S. almost five years ago, I could already speak English pretty well. However, many words are still very difficult to pronounce correctly. I used to travel a lot for work, and I dreaded questions like “How do you want it cooked?” I always ended up eating an overcooked burger because the server heard “medium well” when what I meant was “medium rare.”

Even though America is a country with millions of immigrants, Americans are not used to hearing accents, and are not especially interested in the hardship of having to speak a second language.

After three years of knowing my (American) father in law, he still has to bring his ear closer whenever I start speaking while he’s driving.

And my wife, who is used to my wonderful (😉 ) French accent, still has to correct me on words that I am certain I am saying correctly. When she repeats them, they sound exactly the way I pronounced them. (For the record, the same thing happens when she speaks French).

While the city is reopening, masks are a requirement everywhere we go, and this is an added barrier for immigrants.

The other day, I went to get a COVID- 19 test. I had to go to the counter, separated by a glass window and both the city employee and I were wearing masks. I was asked my name, my address and birth date. This usual information became an unusual hardship for being understood.

I had to repeat myself and spell things out a few times, until the information sheet looked like a rough draft with words scratched out.

When I sat to get the test, another employee read my birth date back to me. Despite all the extra effort to be understood, it was wrong.

This kind of interaction really hurts my confidence every time it occurs. This is why, most of the time, I ask my wife to do the speaking. I don’t want to face the failure of not being understood.

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Now imagine the situation for an immigrant who is not married to an American, and who might be discriminated against even if they had a perfect accent.

Through my work and my community involvement, I meet a lot of immigrants from different countries, and most are self-conscious about their accents — even when they are better than mine. Confidence is a hard thing to get and this pandemic is making it harder for immigrants to feel at home.

Masks are a necessary part of the safe reopening of the city, but we need to acknowledge that they can make things more difficult for members of the immigrant communities of Philadelphia.

So, please, any time you talk to an immigrant (with or without a mask)  and they are being self-deprecating about their accent, tell them it is good. Or, at least, acknowledge the effort they are making.

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