by Jess Ferguson
May 27th, 2021

English is, without a doubt, a difficult language to learn. I’ve seen countless native speakers use improper grammar or misuse “their/there,” and there are so many different rules and exceptions to rules, it’s nearly impossible to keep track of them all.

However, when non-native speakers make mistakes, they are held to a higher standard and even openly made fun of for any mistakes they make or accents they have. And this needs to stop.

Only about 20 percent of U.S. citizens can fluently speak another language, compared to an estimated 56 percent of Europeans. It’s also said that about half of the world can speak at least two languages, according to experts. Many of the same people mocking others’ accents or giving them a hard time for misspeaking do not speak any other languages, and likely do not know the difficulties and nuances of navigating an alternative language, especially one as complex as English. Even if they may not speak perfectly (which no one does!), that is no reason to invalidate their words.

Something all too common on social media is when a user comments something on a post or thread, especially when sharing an opinion on a topic, and someone will reply simply by correcting their typo or mocking their lack of fluency. We see this with native and non-native speakers alike. This promotes the idea that someone’s words are meaningless unless articulated perfectly, an incredibly unrealistic standard to hold someone to. Even if a commenter brings up an important, interesting point about current events, if they dare to misspell “to,” then their statement is automatically invalidated, which is a harmful message to spread.

Learning grammar and spelling is important, especially in fields like journalism, writing/publishing, education, public relations, and politics. However, we are all human, and mistakes are pretty much second nature for all of us. Speaking multiple languages is an incredibly difficult and impressive feat, and one that should be met with respect, rather than invalidation and hateful jokes.

Another common insult is telling someone to speak “properly” or to “learn English” (even when they already have). English comes in countless forms, with different accents, dialects, and other nuances—there is no singular, correct way to speak it, and even if there were, that doesn’t make ESL speakers less valid.

For years, accents have been used as a comedic device to mock others and promote untrue stereotypes. Professional comedians and everyday people alike have made jokes of others’ languages, cultures, and accents, such as in the film Sixteen Candles and the show The Simpsons. Many believe there is something inherently humorous about someone speaking differently from them, and paint an inaccurate picture of them based on none other than often inaccurate stereotypes, without bothering to do any research on a certain group or identity. Cultural appropriation and mocking is unfortunately all too common both in daily life and media, and this needs to change.

Whether you’re thinking less of an ESL speaker for misspeaking, mocking others’ accents, or invalidating people’s ideas because of typos, you’re contributing to hurtful ideas that non-native English speakers are somehow lesser than because they did not grow up speaking it, or come from a different country or region. While these jokes and comments may not be intentionally insulting, they still carry significant weight and may potentially discourage others from learning new languages or speaking in English from fear of being judged. If you hear anyone speaking a second (or more) language, remind yourself that’s something to applaud, not tear down. Our words have weight.