What I learned from speaking very little English as an immigrant

Minh Reigen
3 min readAug 21, 2023

Many of my friends who have met me recently would probably assume that I was born in America or came here at a very young age. You see, from a young age, I possessed a peculiar talent for mimicking accents. Vietnam, my country of birth, despite its relatively small size, boasts a plethora of dialects and accents. I found joy in practicing these various regional inflections while growing up. This came quite naturally to me because my parents’ families hailed from different parts of the country — the north and the central regions, although both were born in the south. Consequently, I was exposed to the major accents from all three regions.

When my family immigrated to America, my command of the English language was rather limited. I knew how to utter some basic sentences, but here’s the twist: I did so with a perfect California accent, one I had picked up from the movies I watched back in Vietnam.

Upon taking an assessment test at a community college, the instructor, after speaking with me, decided to place me in an English test rather than an E.S.L (English as a Second Language) class, assuming that I had grown up in the United States rather than being a recent immigrant. It was only later, while struggling in regular English classes alongside American-born students, that I discovered what E.S.L. classes were for.

During my college years, I endured numerous instances of teasing due to my limited command of the English language and the occasional strong accent that crept into my pronunciation of certain English words. I distinctly recall one instance in an English class when, after reading a paragraph aloud, a fellow student laughed then called me “chinaman” after class — while another asked me about my accent. I told him I was from Vietnam, to which he responded that I didn’t sound like a typical Vietnamese person, but more like an Australian. Personally, I didn’t agree with his observation but I was genuinely surprised by it.

During my first semester in college, I opted for architecture as my major and math as my minor. I excelled in drafting and designing, yet I struggled with public speaking skills — and my introversion didn’t help at all with that. There was a particular instance when our teacher assigned us to present our ideas in front of a class comprising roughly 40 to 50 students. As I stood there, facing the class, I suddenly froze. My presentation began with hesitant and fragmented English, exacerbated by my nervousness. I still remember the faces of my classmates being blank since they didn’t understand me at all.

I made the decision to change my major to Computer Science because I believed it would allow me to interact primarily with computers and servers through specialized computer languages, sparing me from extensive human interaction. Having already taken computer programming classes in Saigon, Vietnam, returning to Computer Science felt like a natural choice. However, I couldn’t help but miss the art of designing buildings and churches.

Fast forward 18 years, and I firmly believe I made the right decision. I adore my role as a software engineer now. Interestingly, after graduating, my English skills improved to the point where they are on par with anyone else’s! So, the reason I changed my major may not have been all that important after all.

The years of grappling with the challenges of transitioning to a new life in a foreign country where people didn’t speak my language (and with only $200 in my wallet) instilled in me a deep respect for the struggles faced by newly arrived immigrants and refugees. It also motivated me to be proactive in honing my English skills and expanding my language repertoire to include Japanese, French, and Spanish. This proactive mindset extends to my dedication to continuously enhance my proficiency in computer languages as well.