By Younas Chaudhary
“Ma’am, would you like to win a free trip to Hawaii?” I would knock on doors and ask this question to total strangers, using the limited English that I knew in the ’70s. Here I was, in Edmonton, Canada, cold calling, doing door-to-door sales of an expensive cookware, and brushing up on my skills in spoken English.
I had arrived from a small town in Pakistan where the medium of instruction at most local schools, including my own, was Urdu or Punjabi (the regional language). English was not important; it was merely one of the seven subjects we were required to study in school. In fact, if you actually did speak English those days in my small town, people would call you a “firangi,” or a foreigner—or more precisely, a British or a white person.
I knew quite well that I had to learn to speak English, and the urgency to do so increased after I received my Canadian visa while still in Pakistan. My stay in the Pakistan Military Academy gave me some confidence in speaking English, as it was mostly mandatory to speak English inside the Academy.
On arrival in Edmonton, I could speak English in a basic way. Fortunately, my first job at a welding shop didn’t require conversational English because it was straightforward manual work and was instruction-driven.
Later, while working as a security guard in a shopping mall, I deliberately improved my spoken English by prolonging conversations when giving directions to customers who asked information about a store in the mall. Little by little, I picked up my confidence, but when I saw another brown person nearby, I would avoid them. I was shy and embarrassed that they would look down on me due to my broken English.
But I had no problem talking to local Canadians, and I would deliberately ask them more questions to improve my conversational English skills. I also started selling used cars to college students, and there I had to speak English to explain the car model and details of the vehicles I was trying to sell.
The best place I learned to pick up my conversational skills in English was while cold calling and doing door-to-door direct sales of cookware. Initially, I was nervous, as I worried that my English was too poor, and my prospective customers would not want to talk to me. However, as I got into the job, I slowly built confidence, and local Canadians were gracious towards me despite my thick accent, allowing me to be myself while talking to them. They knew that I was new to Canada and I was working to pick up an alien language.
Later, when I moved to Kansas to start my oil and gas leasing business, I had a tough time for two reasons. First, I looked like an Iranian, and in 1979 the U.S. was in the middle of the Iran Hostage Crisis. And second, my accent was thick. Yet I continued to persevere, and in time I was able to learn and explain land leasing to the local farmers.
Interestingly, once a local farmer asked me, “Where are you from?” I replied, “Pakistan.” He had a strange look on his face and asked his wife, “Honey which state is that?” America in the ’70s was extremely insular, and rural Kansas farmers in particular knew very little of what was happening in the outside world.
In another incident, while pumping gas in my old Pinto car in Chanute, Kansas, a Mexican gentleman approached me and started talking to me in Spanish. I had no idea what he was saying and responded to him in English saying that I didn’t know Spanish. In the end, he stopped, stared at me, and said, “You don’t even want to speak your own native language.”
With time and practice, I learned to speak English fluently, and in doing so I used my own accent. I didn’t want to imitate anyone else. This genuineness has helped me in the long run because I sound like who I am and not like somebody else.
And this is the right practice. Speak English in your natural accent, rather than imitating a Western accent, because nobody owns English anymore. There are 400 million native English speakers, but there are 2 billion non-native English speakers around the world.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not represent the opinions of any entity with which I have been, am now, or will be affiliated. Further, I make no warranty regarding the accuracy or effectiveness of my recommendations, and readers are advised to consult other advisors as well as their own judgments in making business decisions.