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