English-Speaking Privilege

Hannah Vose
January 21, 2014

I won’t say that I’ve always known that I was lucky to grow up as an English speaker, but I will say that I have been aware for a long time that being a native English speakers is an incredible boon in the international community of modern times. I’ve, for a long time, been aware of the fact that being an English speaker means that I can go to pretty much any country in the world and be reasonably sure that I will be able to find maps or signs with my native language on them, or that a large enough part of the people of that country will know enough of my language that it might be unnecessary for me to go about even attempting to learn theirs (not that I’d ever willingly do that, the very idea drives me nuts, but it’s an option). It’s always seemed to me that there’s this perception in America that immigrants not speaking English well means that they’re lazy, but hey: at least they’re trying! English is an incredibly hard language and those people have to learn it to survive, whereas I have been reliably informed that I could probably go to Sweden and live/work there without speaking a blind bit of Swedish.

So I’ve considered myself fairly well versed on what it means to have English-speaking privilege, but coming to Ireland I learned a lot, lot more. A lot that surprised me.

“But,” you say, “surely Ireland is an English speaking country?” Well, yes, it is (in addition to Gaelic [Irish]) but Trinity has a very diverse international student body and the vast majority of my friends are not native English speakers. I’m a massive nerd for languages, and in between my trying to pry interesting bits of foreign linguistics trivia out of my very patient friends, I’ve ended up asking them equally fascinated questions about their relationships with English. Here are the top ten interesting things I can currently remember from those conversations:

Caveat: Obviously, these are things that people I know have told me, from their experience, or that I have experienced interacting with them. I don’t pretend to be an expert, and there are always exceptions to any generalization.

1) Most of them have been taught English as a mandatory part of their schooling from around 5th/6th grade on. Sometimes earlier.

2) Just as happens in America with ‘compulsory’ optional languages like Spanish and French, in many countries people pretty much forget it after high school since they don’t plan on doing anything they’ll need it in. I always got the impression in America that people think just because most people are taught English, everyone should speak perfect English. They don’t. Not such a shock, really.

3) In most countries, students are either required or allowed to take a language in addition to English, not instead of it.

4) You can go to pretty much any major city in Europe and speak English to someone in a service capacity and expect them to be able to answer you more-or-less coherently. (France appears to be a case-by-case exception: I’ve heard both that they’ll refuse to speak English with you, and that they’ll get ticked off if you try to speak French and reply to you in English regardless [not solid fact either way, obviously]).

5) English is hard. Yes, just in case you didn’t know. English is one of the most difficult languages in the world. I was walking with a couple of friends the other day when family with a toddling boy passed by. One of my friends commented that seeing little kids speak English is one of the most adorable things she’s ever seen since it seems impossible that someone that young can speak it that well (I feel the same way about Japanese and German and Russian and Swedish and French, etc ., but still.)

6) Despite the fact that it’s hard, most of the non-native speakers I know are extremely proficient to absolutely fluent (bearing in mind that their skills had to be base-level good enough to study in Ireland to begin with, my sample is admittedly biased). A couple of them say that they think and dream in English as well as in their native language. Some of them have barely traceable accents (the English-language accents seem to skew American rather than British.) I have grown used to embarrassing myself by telling people I want to be like them when I grow up because I only wish I spoke Spanish or French or Japanese that well.

7) There is a TON of English-language (mostly American) television on in EU countries. In Sweden, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Chicago Fire” apparently take the 8PM and 9PM prime time, weekday spots. They’re in English with Swedish subtitles. By the age of eight, or so, children in Sweden (at least from my generation onward) are expected to be able to read subtitles efficiently. Other shows that my Swedish and German friends have mentioned to me as enjoying on local television: “Cold Case,” “One Tree Hill,” “Downtown Abbey,” “Law and Order,” and “Medium.”  Most movies that come into European theatres are Hollywood movies (so, what you get in America, basically) with either English dubs (widely reviled, as well they should be in my opinion) or subs. Most musicals major are originally English — “Phantom of the Opera”, for example — but are translated/adapted to fit the language of the country they’re played in.

8) If it’s a best-seller in English, it’s a best-seller in German, probably. All of my friends have read the Harry Potter series in their native language; many of them have read Twilight in translation as well. This doesn’t happen in the reverse. Only 3% of what gets published in the US each year is translated from another language. English readers have the most highly publicized books in the world at their fingertips from the start, and the publishing industry can pick and choose at its leisure what it wants to translate into English. (This is a major, irritating sticking point for me as I’m intending to go into publishing translations as a career. The ThreePercent blog, which I used to write reviews for, is a great resource for anyone looking for English-translated novels from the country they may be going to study in.)

9) European pop music is American and English pop music. I asked a selection of my friends representing Germany, Slovakia, Sweden and Demark who makes most of the famous music there and the answer was invariably a combination of some or all of: Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber, Miley Cyrus, One Direction, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Maroon 5, and Katy Perry. Asked if their countries had any locally famous popstars that they’d heard of, most of them shrugged (except Sweden, who has Robyn, who I know of but I’m not sure has any foothold in American music other than the indie charts on occasion, and Germany, who has Tokio Hotel [ditto on the indie charts thing].) Pretty much all the music on the radio is in English, regardless of the fact that it’s not the native language of most of the countries it plays in and many of the people have zero clue what the lyrics are (probably for the best, if we’re being honest; it’s less embarrassing for the state of pop as a whole). This also counts for acts from non-English speaking countries, eg. Daft Punk (French), Swedish House Mafia (duh), Robyn (see above).

10) Non-native speakers think egregiously bad English on t-shirts and signs is just as funny as native speakers do, generally speaking. Seeing someone proudly wearing a shirt proclaiming them to be, um, something they’d probably rather the public not know, with Google-translate quality grammar is funny to anyone who understands the mistakes. However, equally funny is watching English speakers wearing equally language!fail-ing t-shirts (or worse, tattoos). The other night I sat around with my flatmates as we were introduced to the many varieties of failure that come with people thinking wearing random strings of Chinese or Japanese characters is cool. One of my personal — safe for work — favourites was a man proudly wearing a giant tattoo on his arm that proclaimed: “Thumb.” Yeah, man. You go. Moral of the story here: don’t give  non-native speakers a hard time because your potential for failing in their language is equal to, if not greater than, their potential to fail in yours, since they probably know a bit of your language while you may have just poked something that looked nice in a book.

If you’re an IES student, you’re probably a native or bi-lingual English speaker. If you are, regardless of the language of your current or future host country, try to bring it back to your experience as an American, and realise how lucky you are that you were brought up with the communication privileges you have. Use it to your advantage, when you can, but also try to understand it better: you’ll be a better global communicator if you know what your language means to those you speak it with.

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Hannah Vose

<p><span style="color: rgb(29, 29, 29); font-family: Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: normal; background-color: rgb(237, 237, 237);">Hannah Vose is a University of Rochester junior, majoring in English with an interest in literary translation studies. When not burying her nose in whichever book has most recently been plucked from atop the dangerously tall pile on her desk, she can be found obsessively learning new languages, squinting through her (very stylish, thank you!) bifocals at someone else&#39;s writing in her job as a Writing Fellow, drinking stupid amounts of tea, squinting through her bifocals at her own writing in her job as a scathing self-critic, or dreaming of living somewhere which gets even less sun than Rochester. Born in England but having lived most of her life in Endicott, New York, she has traveled back to the Land of Her People twice and visited Dublin once on the way over. She considered applying to Trinity College as an international student, but was deterred by tuition costs (yikes!) so she&#39;s absolutely 100% thrilled to be living in Dublin and taking classes at Trinity for an entire year (and only about 34% of that is because she might get to take a class on Patrick McCabe -- will it happen? Stay tuned!)</span></p>

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