Standing in front of the mirror, I placed my index finger on my top lip. Holding it in place, I repeated after the audio recording: “squirrel.” Then again, slowly, “Squr-uhl,” and again, and again.
I focused on the movement of my mouth, visualizing every twitch of my muscles and observing how my pronunciation changed when I adjusted my tongue. I patiently repeated the exercise until I felt satisfied—only 170,000 more words to go.
Despite the painstaking efforts, my accent reduction was stalling. Every setback raised a question as to whether my journey to becoming
a US resident was worth the trouble. Back in Poland, I was a master communicator, a highly awarded orator, and a finalist in numerous national grammar competitions. But ever since coming here at age 14, I was the timid outsider with a speech impediment whom no one could understand.
My accent is the first thing anyone hears and often overshadows the importance and urgency of the ideas I am trying to share. For many, it is a motive to humiliate me. My middle school classmates insisted on correcting even the most insignificant mistakes in my speech, such as the apparently erroneous way in which I connected the “r” and the “l” in “squirrel.”
My insecurities grew exponentially. I feared participating in class, let alone trying to make new friends. I felt misunderstood,
detached, and inferior to all those around me who could effortlessly speak in the American standard. I took a vow of silence until I sounded like them. I wished there was a universal language that knew no accent.
It was in my AP chemistry class—of all courses—where this negative notion seemed to dissipate. Chemistry, the study of matter, is impartial to accent. As my teacher was discussing allotropes of chemical elements—different forms in which an element can exist in nature I began to reflect more broadly on the idea of communication itself. Elements, like humans, communicate in unconventional ways, yet no one judges their differences. On the contrary, these variations are desired and admired.
My accent was just an allotrope of American English, not a shameful trait that needed to be eliminated. It existed naturally and it made me unique. My speech was as proficient as any American’s, only articulated in a different font, a different allotrope.
I began to ask comprehensive questions in class and share elaborate ideas with the many friends I made. I learned to look at myself with
more compassion and not to take any belittling remarks on my accent personally; my self-worth was not defined by others’ misguided perceptions of me. Even if my peers saw me as an insignificant bit of carbon, I was a different allotrope—the dazzling diamond.
Maja Siemieniewska ’23 is a freshman at California Institute of Technology planning to major in chemical engineering, with the goal of becoming “either a big-time engineer in Silicon Valley or the next Marie Curie.”
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