Fiorella Riccobono started her job as a reading clerk for the Florida Senate in February 2019.

A Student’s Struggle to Speak English Leads to a Career as a Communicator

Fiorella Riccobono first contributed to Knowledge@Wharton High School back in 2015, when she was interviewed for her high school social entrepreneurship project helping coffee bean farmers in Northwest Haiti. She has stayed in touch ever since, sharing insights from her college and social-awareness experiences at Florida State University. You can check out Riccobono’s KWHS contributions in the Related KWHS Stories tab accompanying this article.

As always, we appreciated hearing from Riccobono this week, when she reached out to tell us about her new job (she graduated in December) and share her perspective on a very personal topic: how her journey learning to speak English has influenced her life and career decisions.

In this personal essay, she expresses why she hopes that “more people in our society, especially in today’s political climate, analyze their perceptions of disadvantage and accept that qualities like language “barriers” can in fact be personal strengths.”

I vividly remember the moment when I became a shy girl and developed a profound fear of public speaking. I was in my pre-k classroom sitting in a big circle of 4-year-olds, when our teacher asked us to share what we had eaten for breakfast. My parents had immigrated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S. from Venezuela shortly before my brother and I were born, and we only spoke Spanish at home. However, this was my second year enrolled in school in Davie, Florida, so I had picked up enough English to understand the question. But I was still learning. I raised my hand and responded “cereal con leche.” My visibly angry teacher asked me again and again to repeat my answer, and I couldn’t understand why.

Falling Silent

Eighteen years later, I still recall the shame of being scolded for my inability to communicate in the appropriate way – in this case, fully in English. Luckily, my teacher’s aide spoke Spanish and translated that I was saying “cereal with milk.” But at that point, the damage had been done. I was wounded and crying. I remember thinking to myself that I wouldn’t speak in class unless I absolutely had to. It was an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy; something a four-year-old girl should never experience.

That feeling stayed with me. In high school, I would choose to be absent on days when I knew I had to present projects to the class. My eyes would water when I had to speak in front of my classmates, my voice would shake, and so would my legs.

This story marks the start of my improbable triumph.

My favorite author, Malcom Gladwell, poses an interesting question: “Why do we automatically assume that someone who is smaller or poorer or less skilled is necessarily at a disadvantage?” I believe that we have a very limited definition of what constitutes an advantage.

Now, at the age of 22, a recent graduate of Florida State University and a new employee of the Florida Senate, I am very clear on my own advantages. Being the daughter of two Venezuelan immigrants made me the professional woman I am today, and that identity has been a driving factor in my success.

Much of the credit goes to my so-called language “barrier” and struggle with “broken” English. During my years of learning English, my mom and I would sit down together to do my homework. When I was tired of studying, and I didn’t want to practice spelling out any more words, my mom would softly and persuasively say, “Dale Fiore, otro treinta minutos, porque cuando tu aprendes, yo aprendo tambien,” which translates to: “Let’s study another half hour, Fiore, because when you learn, I learn too.”

That phrase kept me going. We would sit there at the table laughing hysterically as we butchered the words we were spelling aloud to each other. When test day came, I would remember the mistakes we made, because they were so funny to me, and that helped me memorize the correct spelling. The way we had to study turned spelling and vocabulary tests into a fun game. I began to appreciate a certain joy and fulfillment of studying for the sake of knowledge, not to overcome an inadequacy, and I also had the deep satisfaction of watching my mom learn English.

Conventional thought suggests that if you live in the U.S. you should learn English, and we eventually did. But the truth of the matter is that not knowing English made me a better student. It meant that I had to work harder and couldn’t lose focus in class. I paid close attention to how people spoke and pronounced words. When I was tired and wanted to stop, I had to keep studying. Many would argue that my inability to fluently speak English in my childhood was a weakness, when in fact it turned out to be one of my greatest strengths.

While I still hold onto some of the feelings I had all those years ago in my pre-k classroom, I have grown to embrace my Venezuelan heritage and language as motivations for my achievements in the U.S. The fact that I am not a native English speaker has made me more empathetic. It has helped me truly understand why diversity of thought is such a strength in the workplace, and, ironically, has made me a far more effective communicator.

I majored in finance, economics, and social entrepreneurship at Florida State, and graduated a semester early in December 2018. I am now the reading clerk for the 2019 session of the Florida Senate. Our state constitution requires senators to read bills three times before voting on them. I stand at the podium and read these documents aloud for the 60 days that the Senate is in session, navigating the language that could ultimately become Florida law. That one-time shy, silent little girl actually pursued and landed a job that now requires me to regularly stand in front of 40 state senators and read proposed legislation – in English.

I also speak Spanish every day, with family and friends. My college roommate and best friend is from Mexico, so we speak to each other in Spanish. I am bilingual in my professional life, as well. Just this week, the Florida Senate phones were blowing up with citizens supporting or condoning a controversial bill that entered committee. This specific bill prompted lots of calls from Spanish speakers and I was the only person on staff who could speak Spanish. So I answered the phones and spoke with the Spanish citizens, communicating about their opinions on this piece of legislation. I helped the voices of non-English-speaking citizens be heard.

Shifting Perceptions

I see how speaking English as a second language actually adds to the richness of this country. As a Venezuelan immigrant, I grew up forcing myself into situations where I had no choice but to confront my fears, and I would do it again and again until that specific situation no longer made me uncomfortable. I have contributed deeply to my school and now my work communities because my “otherness” sparked my intellectual curiosity and my desire to work that much harder to achieve my personal goals.

My hope is that more people in our society, especially in today’s political climate, analyze their perceptions of disadvantage and accept that qualities like language “barriers” can in fact be personal strengths that open up entire worlds of opportunity and accomplishment.

To the students who relate to my experiences and who may be struggling with their inability or even lack of desire to learn English, I ask you to shift your perception and embrace the opportunity in your challenge. I ask you to consider how you can spin this perceived weakness and draw energy from it to become a stronger student, friend, and contributing member to society. Don’t accept the notion that you are disadvantaged. Learning English and being able to effectively communicate with your peers is rewarding. More importantly, how you speak, complete with your thick, beautiful accent, is an advantage and an asset, not an inadequacy you must overcome.

Conversation Starters

Fiorella Riccobono says, "My hope is that more people in our society, especially in today’s political climate, analyze their perceptions of disadvantage." What does she mean by this?

How would you describe Fiorella's "improbable triumph?"

Does Fiorella's story resonate with you? Can you relate to some of her struggles learning the English language and how that has helped to define her course? Why or why not?

4 thoughts on “A Student’s Struggle to Speak English Leads to a Career as a Communicator

  1. While scrolling through the articles listed on the webpage, this unique one caught my eye immediately. What it described is a complete mirror of my experience, my pain and my struggle. More importantly, when looking through it, I realized the way I should face myself, both strengths and weaknesses.
    Fiorella’s “improbable triumph” is truly “improbable”, at least that’s what I believed before finishing this article. She did undergo many challenging situations, difficulties that her first language Spanish but not English. And for me, a second language learner becomes a Florida Senate sounds totally incredible. Since my first language is also not English, I know how much struggles and courage it needs to be able to speak out in front of people, let alone standing in front of 40 state senators and read proposed legislation. But I believe that’s one of the main reason why she made to her position, it is because she already has a strong heart, enough self-confidence and a constant thirst for knowledge. These were all honed from her school years.
    I was always the top students back in my home country and English was one of my strongest subject. However, it was opposite when I came to Canada. The “barrier” of language discourages me from participating in school activities, being actively during class. During my first year, Every time I was in class, I was worried whether the teacher would ask me to answer questions or not. I always remember my first speech. I practiced it over and over again, but some students still didn’t understand what I was talking about and I couldn’t answer their questions. Same as Fiorella, my mom also played an important role. She practice my presentation’s script with me and she told me that there is no way to be ashamed by my accent or the fact that I am a second language learner. She told me that’s exactly the point I should be proud of myself because I am able to speak both two languages.
    I have always been grateful for my parents, without them I couldn’t be where I am today. I enrolled my school’s principle list every semester and honor roll on the Waterloo Math Contest. Now, I am preparing for my debate club as a leader with my friends. I always believe man grows in adversity, I don’t regret any of the attempts I’ve made, even if I fail and fall. Isn’t the realization of my shortcomings also a progress? Tribulation is accompanied by harvest. Just as Fiorella Riccobono says to “analyze perceptions of disadvantage.” I was contradict to communicate because my accent, lack of vocabulary, different culture, when I read the last paragraph of this article, I just found that all my worries and evasions were ridiculous and untenable.
    This article once again strengthens my heart and guides my future efforts, to become a stronger student, friend, and contributing member to society. Everything I have and experienced has made me who I am now, and it takes that to make me whole.

    1. Hi Jasmine,

      Thank you for your fantastic comment!

      Also as an immigrant to Canada at an older age (14), I find your experience much more relatable than Fiorella’s. I believe that one of the reasons why I agreed to my parents’ idea of immigrating, is that I was confident in my “English” language, and that was partly because I was performing well during English class in my home country. However, it was really different being in an environment where you are forced to speak the language. My problem wasn’t during class and academics but in my social life. What a teenage girl needs the most perhaps is a social life, friends. At least for me. But it was extremely hard to make friends if I wasn’t willing to make a step out, to talk to people. Fortunately, with my mother’s little push, I was able to do so. Even though I stumbled through the beginning, attending lots of social events and making awkward conversations, I eventually made a couple of great friends and got to know many other people. Joining the debate club and filing applications to other councils was difficult because I wasn’t confident in my speaking and was afraid that I would make fun of myself. Which I did, modelling the motion “THW lift patents” supporting patents. But I gained a lot of valuable experience in the process, found my passion in debating, and ultimately improved my English speaking and confidence. However, I do believe that this struggle is just a part of the journey of fitting in the new language environment.

      This unique title also did catch my eyes, but I wasn’t feeling related while reading the article. I thought that at the age of four, it would be really easy to learn English and be amalgamated into the American society. It was hard to believe that a four-year-old memory could be carved so deeply in her mind, also how does over ten years of living in an English environment she is still not confident of her language? With doubt and suspicion, I finished the article.

      I agree with you and Fiorella that by analyzing and reconsidering our “perception of disadvantages”, we could learn how to embrace and turn our so-called disadvantages into motivation and strength. However, I do not believe that her “triumph” is “improbable”. In my opinion, her “triumph” is being confident of speaking English and eventually becoming an employee of the Florida state senate. Admittedly, she is quite successful in her confidence and career. But again, as a person living in the states, speaking English for so many years since childhood, her English will come as she grows. I believe that her “solving all the obstacles” is just a process of fitting into the new environment, what actually brought out her “triumph”, is her action of acknowledging and recognizing her former disadvantages, then turning it into her interest and continued pursuing it.
      
The society is biased, being a good English speaker is important for our success in the future or just to be more like a part of the society, but the process of learning is crucial as well, it teaches us life-long skills — persistence and motivation for learning.

  2. I think that perspective is one of the greatest traits that a person can have. It has the ability to bridge almost any gap of all sorts of disparity; economic, cultural, political, the list goes on and on. It’s this trait that is not found often enough in society that is key to understanding why others around you say what they say, do what they do, and believe what they believe. In the instance of Fiorella Riccobono, this was in regards to the perspective of a four year-old girl who had immigrated to the United States with her parents in search of a better life. Now 22, Fiorella boldly states “My hope is that more people in our society, especially in today’s political climate, analyze their perceptions of disadvantage”. Her saying is meant to imply that those of us who are at what we perceive as an adversity to our aspirations ought to gain more perspective to realize that it is often the greatest challenges that create the best people.

    My view on Fiorella’s “improbable triumph” revolves around the idea that her success was reliant on her individual positive mindset. She disregarded society’s notion that her not knowing English was an inherent disadvantage that she would be restrained by, and rather turns it into an opportunity to show growth and determination. She says herself that “Many would argue that my inability to fluently speak English in my childhood was a weakness, when in fact it turned out to be one of my greatest strengths”. This ideal mindset is exactly what in my opinion needs to be emphasized in society; the concept that people’s ability to move up the ladder is mostly in their own hands, and even if there are inevitable obstacles, it is the individual’s responsibility to face them head on. This is why stories such as Fiorella’s must be celebrated and showcased more often, to teach communities and especially youth to not accept that they are disadvantaged and that there is nothing that they can do about it. Mindsets that accept there is nothing left to change the status quo are the most dangerous; they not only remove any potential to make change, but pass down ideology to younger generations, creating a cycle of lost opportunity. That’s why Fiorella’s “improbable triumph” and stories like it must be highlighted in communities all across the world.

    In regards to Fiorella’s story, it resonates quite deep personally with my family and I. As the son of immigrants, it was easy to relate to the struggles she describes of getting past the initial language/cultural barrier that occurs when getting used to living in a new country. My parents came to the United States 17 years ago, knowing a few sentences they had learned from a Hindi-to-English pocketbook dictionary, a couple hundred dollars, and a 3 year old son, my older brother. I was born a year later, and then we eventually moved to Tampa, Florida as my dad had received a job offer. As I was born in the US and naturally learned the language, culture, and customs, I became more and more observant of the divide between what I saw as “normal” at school and what my parents did. They had been in the country for a number of years, but still were speaking that “broken English” that Fiorella references. Naturally as a kid, I met and hung out with my friends outside of school, often encountering their parents who had often either lived their whole life in America or had been living here for decades. They spoke perfect English, much better than that of a eight-year-old, and certainly better than that of a husband and wife that had only been in the country for a few years. As I came home from playing with my friends, I became frustrated at communicating in English with my parents as they were not as good as the moms and dads I met at my friends’ houses. Being naive, I did not understand why they were unable to speak that fluent English that I always listened to outside my home. I actually became embarrassed when friends came over to my home to hang out, only to be confused by how my parents tried to greet them using English that was often grammatically wrong and covered with a thick accent. I was ashamed of it for a long time, and looking back I even admit it made me angry that my family was different than others. I just wanted to be the acclaimed “normal” that every kid always desired. However, as I began to grow up, I had an experience that completely changed the lense that I was looking at my parents through. That year I had begun staying up later at night to complete homework and other commitments that started as high school began becoming more demanding. On a particular night that year, when I had finally finished my homework and whatever else I had to do that late night, I decided to get some water downstairs before I went to bed. When I came down, I saw that my father had left his computer on; so naturally, I went over to turn it off. When I was about to press the power button, the screen caught my eye: “Online Tutoring for English”. It had never occurred to me that my dad was taking lessons to improve his English – to say I was surprised would be quite the understatement. The realization had dawned upon me that specific moment how difficult life truly was for an immigrant – and in this case – my parents. Any notions to myself thinking that I had a lot of work and stress to deal with in high school quickly evaporated, as I really took a moment to reflect on my father’s journey all these years later. To leave his family and friends behind in India, travel thousands of miles to a foreign country, not knowing the language or anybody to help him, and having no other option than making it knowing he had a wife and young son counting on him finally hit me. I was humbled. I was washed over with a sense of regret and shame for always being mad all those years at my parents for not being fluent English speakers. That night was years ago. Today, as I write this, I have the upmost pride in knowing that those two immigrants who came to this country not knowing the language, are MY parents. I feel that this story is not exclusively mine, but rather one that millions of other immigrants who have come to this country have experienced as well, and it’s comforting know that all of us have made it against all odds. Just like Fiorella, I want to take this moment that showed a disadvantage that my family had gotten past and transform it into a showcase of how rewarding resilience can truly be. While I was privileged to learn the language as I grew up, I appreciate the perspective of someone who only had a pocketbook dictionary and a strong will to make it in a foreign country for their family, and that is something I will cherish for a lifetime.

  3. The ability to turn a disadvantage into an advantage is what paves the way for “improbable triumph”.

    In the words of Fiorella: “I believe that we have a very limited definition of what constitutes an advantage.” She could not be more correct.

    As the son of immigrants, this is an article that resonated with me. Like Fiorella, English was not the primary language spoken within our house. Like Fiorella, I struggled with feelings of inadequacy for not being able to speak English as well as my peers. Like Fiorella, these feelings created shyness and timidity that affected my participation in class. But most importantly, like Fiorella, this ‘disadvantage’ of mine turned out to be the driving cause of one of my greatest accomplishments.

    Fiorella says that not knowing English made her a better student. She cites the extra effort she had to put in to understand concepts as the root of her strong work ethic. My own childhood was characterized less by a struggle to learn English, but more by a persistent feeling of insecurity about cultural norms. In other words, while I was able to overcome the language barrier, the cultural barrier that existed created a constant pressure of inadequacy; it felt like everyone was part of an inside joke that I wasn’t allowed to know. But in the same way Fiorella responded to adversity by bouncing back with fervor, I responded to my perceived disadvantage by turning it into an advantage. I developed a passion for public speaking in middle school, determined to change my impression of “the quiet kid” into someone who was outspoken and confident. When I think back to what ignited that sudden change, I honestly think it was simply to spite those who underestimated me. It was a way for me to put myself out there and feel included despite the nagging feeling of cultural difference that made me feel separated.

    This passion for public speaking developed into a passion for argumentation. I joined the debate team in high school and won many awards. More importantly, I made friends and broadened my perspective. Last year I was even fortunate enough to be selected for the USA development debate team, representing the nation while competing against international teams across the globe. The experiences I had as a part of this team are what makes Fiorella’s statement ring so true for me. Meeting debaters from all over the world changed my perspective – what society considers an advantage is extremely limited in its scope.

    In the world of international debate, English is the lingua franca. You would think that the Western countries would then be at an advantage, being more comfortable with English and thus being better speakers. Yet, some of the best communicators I’ve met speak English as a second language. When we versed the national Bangladesh team, we were amazed by how skillfully they debated. Yes, they had an accent, and yes their grammar and word choice were awkward at times, but the meaning they conveyed was poignant. If the round felt difficult, the conversation I had with them in Bengali afterwards felt like they were running circles around me. I realized that they focused on meaning of the words not how they sound. They may not have been familiar with English, but their ideas were strong and they conveyed them directly and powerfully. Their articulation wasted no time, unlike them teams from Western countries, who used extravagant vocabulary and complicated metaphors. Team Bangladesh went on to do extremely well in the tournament despite their unfamiliarity with English, truly encapsulating the essence of “improbable triumph”.

    From the shy, timid student, to the debater representing the USA, I had an improbable triumph of my own. As I found my voice and people listened, I realized that the cultural barrier I thought was inhibiting me was empowering me. At first it was simply by giving myself an obstacle to overcome, but then I realized how my own cultural experiences gave me a diverse worldview that enhanced everything I did. It propelled me to my position on the national debate team which served to further my diverse worldview. Aaditya mentioned his personal story about his parents in an earlier comment, Jasmine and Eileen discussed their hardships in immigrating to Canada, and Fiorella mentions her own struggles in the article above. However, in the end, the disadvantages we all faced made us stronger and gave us character. In a way, I am grateful for the disadvantages I had to deal with.

    Throughout the article, and above in my own comment, the term improbable triumph has been used to describe success in the face of disadvantages. Yet, it seems that triumph becomes more probable in the face of disadvantages that must be overcome and learned from. We really should change our conception of advantage then, because disadvantages can be advantages in disguise and make improbable triumphs less improbable.

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