The privilege of being a native-English speaker

There is immense privilege embedded in the English language, and I want to recognize that right away. Many people, English-speaking or not, seem to hold the language on an international pedestal. As a lingua franca – a language that is used as a bridge and adopted as a way for people with different native languages to communicate – English has risen through the ranks to be one of the most spoken languages worldwide. As a result, many education systems across the globe stress English as a second language, often starting children in classes as early as age six.

Many voluntourism companies profit off of “teaching English abroad” programs which seem to advocate that English is in some way better than other languages. It does seem to hold some truth: not that English is in any way superior, but that it has become a lingua franca. It is imperative that native English speakers recognize and understand the privilege that comes with being brought up speaking a language that is given such strong international preference.

As native English speakers, we must recognize the historical roots that aided the spread of the language. I could go into the history of the dominance of Great Britain and then the United States as world powers – both of which predominantly speak English. It’s important to recognize and remember that spreading the English language was a common practice of colonialism. In addition to understanding the realities of how the English language spread and was used historically, we must acknowledge the privilege English gives us in today’s world.

As an American who really only speaks English, and maybe a bit of broken Spanish or French from high school courses, realizing this privilege came to a head when I traveled abroad. I learned that being a native English speaker was almost like a security blanket – no matter where I was or what I was doing, I could assume that someone around me would speak English. I could always rely on someone else’s hard work learning my language (and let’s be honest, English is a difficult language) to get me through. It was almost as if I just needed to learn how to say “Do you speak English?” in any language, and I could get by. I was using it as a crutch.

It made my life easier, and I swung through European countries with ease. But after a while, it started to weigh on me. I didn’t even try to learn from my surroundings, I didn’t try to communicate with people who didn’t speak English. I fear that my experience traveling as a native English speaker was not unique. Just because I was born where I was and grew up where I was, I was traveling – a real privilege in itself – and expecting the people I encountered to adapt to me. I expected someone to understand me. I expected to be understood. I never gave a thought about what it would be like to be fully disconnected, because I didn’t have to. That is the privilege that being a native English speaker gave me.

Since this epiphany, I have tried to boost my Spanish, I’ve tried to dabble in a little French. Still, it is hard to get away from often relying on my English. But I recognize the privilege that comes with this and try and use it to help me learn.

Learn other languages, interact with others in non-verbal ways and share the importance of realizing this privilege with fellow native-English speakers. To my fellow native-English speakers: I hope this resonates with you.

Photo by Henry Michaels

3 Replies to “The privilege of being a native-English speaker

  1. English is not difficult at all. It is probably one of the easiest languages in the world. Simple grammar, one article, verbs barely change when used in different times.
    Maybe that’s why children are able to pick it up at an early age. And just for convenience and practicality it will remain long from now on the preferred foreign language to learn for other nations with different native languages.

    1. George Leotta. That’s BS. How difficult a language is to learn depends on what your native language is.

      Children learn it because they have to and because it’s the dominant language everyone is marinated in English tv, movies etc. American cultural imperialism making the world more and more stupid, violent and broken every single day.

      If Finnish was the lingua franca because the Finns had colonized half the world the kids would learn Finnish and that would be considered easy because everyone would marinate in it trough pop culture etc and be forced to use it for academic papers, business, to communicate with other nationalities online etc.

      If English is going to remain the “universal language” English speakers will have to stop policing the language and mock others for their broken English.
      A lot of native speakers need to eat some humble pie.

    2. Lmao, it isn’t necessarily as hard as some people make it out to be, but it ain’t easy in the slightest. Just because the verb conjugation is simple doesn’t mean the language is as a whole. Chinese doesn’t even have an article. Chinese has fairly simple grammar. All Mandarin verbs have only a single tense. So if Mandarin Chinese is so simple by your standards why don’t you know it already?

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