Do I speak English now?

Wilson Kubwayo as a child with headphones and thumbs up

In 2008, when my family migrated from a Tanzania refugee camp to America, no one spoke English in my family.

However, I thought my dad spoke English because as a man of the family, surely he had to speak English now – for all of us!

It was around midnight when we finally arrived in the city of Tucson, Arizona. It was early February and I remember seeing clearly at night as we drove through the city. I grew up in an environment where the nights are very dark and you are not able to recognize anything in front of you. It was midnight, and I could see people playing soccer outside and other people working!

The concept of having light gave me hope.

I wanted to express my feelings, but I could not communicate with anyone. I literally did not speak any English! We arrived at our new home. In my thick accent, I said “Fanks” as I reflected on how fast Americans spoke English. I never imagined to ever speak the English language.

Today I still ask myself, “Do I speak English now?”

Within two months of arriving, I was enrolled in 7th grade. I remember my first day of school in America. It was not uplifting. Luckily, there was a student named Egide who spoke my native tongue, Kirundi. He helped me a lot.

My middle school was a big campus. We had to wear uniforms and I felt like I was finally like other students. I wanted to look like the other students I have seen in music videos. I wore a backpack for my first time. Words cannot express the smile I had on my face.

My first conversation in English

My first class was a cooking class. This class was fun and easy. I was placed in a group with four other students. I just stood there and watched the rest of my team follow a recipe to make food. I was shocked by what I saw. I was asked to hold a tablespoon as another student poured salt into it to measure how much salt we were going to use. This was a new experience. I had a lot of questions in mind but I did not know how to ask them in English.

I wanted to join the conversation that seemed fun but I did not know how to begin. Finally, a student asked me something in English. It was something simple and obvious such as “Are you a new student?” I responded: “No English.” I knew how to respond to every question. At least I thought.

People who wanted to be friends with me tried to talk to me.

I always said the same thing to anyone who tried to converse with me: “No English.” Now that I think of it, it is somewhat embarrassing. But it meant a lot to me because I felt happy to have that little conversation with others. I felt good to speak some English! It was an amazing experience to utter those words.

Within a month in school, I faced a lot of bullying. Most of them were students making fun of me because of my inability to speak the English language.

But one was different. It was after school when two students approached me. I had never seen them and I do not know what I might have done to them. One of them pushed me as they said something stupid like, “You must be in sixth grade.” They tried to say something to find a reason to fight me. They both pushed me around again and again.

At this point, I wished to have spoken the English language. I longed to know the right words to use to explain to them that I was just a new kid in the school. I wished to have friends nearby who could speak for me. I became very frustrated.

It was not because they pushed me around, but because I could not even talk.

I felt very stupid and ignorant. It just did not feel right. These students used my inability to speak English as an advantage to belittle me. However, I was determined to fight back. Immediately, I came to the realization that no matter what circumstance, fighting especially at school would not represent me well as a new refugee kid in America.

I had faced more difficulties in my past than two middle schoolers who did not have better things to do. In fact, I had to catch my school bus as soon as possible. I ignored everything and ran to catch my bus. I never saw those students again and I was glad.

From moments where I wanted to speak out for myself when I faced challenges or moments where I wanted to join a friendly conversation, I longed for the power to speak English. I craved the ability to speak English. In addition, I am a social and outgoing person. Not speaking the English language was like being put in a box that seemed to be too small for me.

It is always about how bad you want that which you long for in life. It is the same thing when chasing one’s dreams or goals. I did not know how to read English, but I read anyway. I never read a book growing up in the refugee camp. But due to how bad I wanted to speak English after arriving in America, I read an English dictionary and tried to learn as many words as possible. As a bilingual learner, I kept asking myself “Do I speak English now?” 

I watched a lot of funny movies and repeated certain words that were easier to say.

A movie that taught me the introduction of my English was the movie Rush Hour. I thought Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker were easier to understand. In addition, the movie is entertaining itself and I could follow everything that was going on without having to understand the words.

Attending school made me uncomfortable because I hated to be picked on to read in class when I did not know how to read. I hated school very much. I learned well at home by reading, listening to songs and watching movies. 

It is quite difficult to learn English when you already speak another language. The experience is different for everyone. I find out that everything that makes sense in my native tongue will not make sense in English. Sometimes I translated words in my language and tried to say them in English and my teachers would not understand me at all.

Thankfully, the teachers who taught us were patient. They got angry with us sometime, but I applaud their patients and their skills to teach different students from different countries with different backgrounds.

It is through difficulties and challenges that I learned the English language so fast.

I dared to speak up even when no one understood me. I started a conversation when it means I had to do the uncomfortable. As I progressed, I challenged myself to volunteer to read out loud in my classes. I did whatever it took to improve my ability to speak and understand English.

As a bilingual learner, I still feel like I do not speak the English language. There are certain words that I know in my language that I could not tell you what they are in English. On the other hand, I feel like no one can finally master to speak a language, especially English. English speakers still use words such as “like” “you know what I mean” to get their point across. Do they not speak English?

I have been in America for nine years and people say my English is great. But deep inside, I do not feel like I can call myself an English speaker. Today when people ask me, “How long did it take you to learn English?”

I sometimes carefully respond, “Do I speak English now?”

Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.