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

Purpose

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.

From our Partners

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.

Get stories like this daily in your inbox -30-
LEAVE A COMMENT

From our Partners

Report: Race, housing insecurity, and COVID-19 are connected

Opinion: We could have ended family detention in PA in 2016. Why is it allowed to continue?

How Black cartographers put racism on the map of America

SPONSORED

Generocity Philly

Inscripción Doble en Congreso: Lo que trae el futuro

Philadelphia and Bala Cynwyd

JFCS of Greater Philadelphia

Youth Engagement Program Coordinator

Apply Now
Philadelphia, PA

United Way of Greater Philadelphia & Southern New Jersey

Chief Knowledge Officer

Apply Now
Philadelphia, PA

Campus Philly

President

Apply Now

If accessibility seems an unsolvable riddle, the Penn Museum offers an answer

This Philly symposium was born from the rich intellectual tradition — and the erasure — of Afro-Latinxs

What did ‘A Better Chicago’ do for poverty that could work in Philadelphia?

SPONSORED

Generocity Philly

Dual Enrollment at Congreso: Where does it go from here?

Philadelphia, PA

The Pew Charitable Trusts

Senior Officer Pew Fund

Apply Now
Philadelphia

Neighborhood Gardens Trust

Development and Communications Manager

Apply Now
Philadelphia, PA

Friends of the Rail Park

Public Programs Manager

Apply Now

Sign-up for daily news updates from Generocity