Dear English Non-Native Speaker,

When I started to write English I entered writing competitions. The specific topic and deadline pushed me to write and taught me discipline.

I thought I should do the same – once in a while – with my blog.

So this post is in response to WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge.

Dear English Non-Native Speaker,

I was born in Portugal. Lisbon is my hometown. Everything was easy until I met Tom. Tom is an American man. We are in love. Tom doesn’t speak Portuguese. He couldn’t find a job in Lisbon. So I said yes, let’s move to the USA. It didn’t matter that I don’t speak English.

Tom said, “It’s okay. Many people speak Spanish in California.”

“Portuguese is not Spanish,” I said. Tom said it’s okay.

It is not okay. I feel lonely. I feel different. I feel stupid. I see how people look at me when I speak. They try to not laugh. I was smart before. I like to laugh. I know jokes. But I don’t know any American jokes. I worked before. Now I can’t.

“You’ll get your Green Card soon,” Tom said.

Yes, but will people take me seriously?

Tom works a lot. I try to meet people. But they work too. I try to read. But it is hard.

Maybe, I think, you can help me.


Thank you very much.

Andréa, lost in translation


Dear Andréa, lost in translation,

First of all I want to welcome you in the USA.

The United States of America is a land of immigrants, so you have your place in this big country, too.

Second of all I want to compliment you. You wrote a letter, for English Non-Native Speaker’s sake. That’s an accomplishment.

Third of all I want to reassure you. You are not alone.

You saw my column and you are right to ask me for help.

You found someone who can relate to you.

I am also from another country. As a matter of fact, I am from Europe, like you. I was born in a small French country town, and like you I followed my husband to the US.

Like you I felt lost in California where we moved and still live.

I only spoke French when I came and I felt lonely, different and stupid, too.

I didn’t like it when people spoke to me very slowly and loudly. I wasn’t dumb. I was just a foreigner.

So, yes, Andréa, I understand how you feel.

But I can promise you two things: you will speak English and you will find a home.

I know, it’s hard to believe me right now, because everything is new to you, but it is the truth.

One day you will remember your first days in America with an equal mix of pride, embarrassment and affection.

I promise you.

But before you can celebrate this great moment you’ve got to have a plan.

The only way to find your home, you are right, is to learn how to speak English.

Since you live in the San Francisco Bay area, you are lucky.

You will easily find free or inexpensive classes open to non-native speakers, often in neighborhood schools. This type of class is taught by volunteers, local teachers and sometimes by people who used to be just like you. And your classmates will be people like you, men and women from abroad who want to find their place in the States.

Then I encourage you to do the five following things:

Read every day. When I moved to the Bay Area there was no Internet but plenty of free local newspapers. I read them all. Every day. With my dictionary and a notebook where I copied words I didn’t know (they were many when I started!) and also sentences I found useful and also just pretty.

Watch TV. Pick a show that sounds fun or interesting to you. I watched tons of shows when I arrived. I didn’t understand a lot, but thanks to the visuals, little bit by little bit, I learned more and more words. You won’t get the meaning of every single word either, but based on the context you will understand the general meaning. This is how everyone learns how to speak a foreign language.

Listen to the radio and songs. A much harder exercise than TV because you don’t have the support of the images it is an essential tool in order to get the music of the language. I bet you know many American songs. Pick your favorites and get the lyrics online if you don’t have them with the CD. Sing aloud with the CD in the background. People think you are crazy? You are only learning their language.

Meet people. Go toward them. Nobody will do it for you. Yes, it is hard work but it will pay off. We make friends when we go toward people. Not the other way around. Unlike the people who live here you have to move on with your life. You are the one who’s got to make the move. Smile. Be you. They will love to know about your native country. When you will have a few friends you will feel much better. Invite them over and cook a Portuguese meal. American people love to experiment with cuisine from abroad.

Write down the five following inspirational nuggets. I wish I had thought of them when I was so new I felt like an alien (I was one, according to my papers). Read them. Repeat them. Again. And again. And again.

1-    You are smart. Don’t feel stupid: I realized when I spoke a better English that people weren’t making fun of me. I was so ashamed of my inability to speak proper English that I truly believed they were laughing at me. In fact they were intrigued and curious.

2-    You are confident. Don’t be self-conscious: have you noticed how most American people are confident? That’s their education. Their parents and teachers have told them so many times “good job!” that they believe in their potential. You weren’t raised the same way but now that you live in the States, think positive. Don’t be embarrassed to speak: it is the only way to progress.

3-    You are proud of yourself. Don’t underestimate your skills and expertise: although millions of people speak English, there are millions who speak another language, too. You can be proud of your ability to speak Portuguese.

4-    You can do it. Don’t fell discouraged: as I wrote earlier you have to master the English language in order to fit in. It will take time and perseverance. But it is doable; otherwise very few people would speak English in the US.

5-    You are unique. Chance is that you won’t exactly speak like a native speaker. But between you and me: Americans are suckers for foreign accents. You will hate the way you speak and they will find it unique and charming.

You have a terrific asset, Andréa:  Tom is American, so when he’s home, talk with him in English and ask him to correct you. He loves you and owes you some help since you left your familiar life behind to be with him. Tom is right, you will find a job. But you are right to think that speaking English will be a plus. I missed my job very much when I arrived, but I eventually worked again. Don’t lose your focus and you will get back to work.

Dear Andréa, I feel so thankful for your letter. You remind me of myself when I thought that I would never make it in America.

But you are now asking me for advice. Me, a foreign-born woman, so much like you.

From the bottom of my heart I wish you the very best.


English Non-Native Speaker


P.S. Also, since I am almost an American, I did a very American thing. I googled your first name.

Did you know that your Portuguese first name means strong and courageous?

So, Andréa, I am 100% positive that you can only succeed.

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