The Privilege of my Native Tongue

Linguistic Privilege

Privilege. /ˈpɹɪ.v.ədʒ/ n. An advantage, often life-changing, available to certain groups and not to others.

These past few months in the cosmopolitan city of Barcelona have caused me to reflect more deeply on what I’ve come to see as my greatest privilege abroad.

The fact that I speak English. 

We frequently point to social class, skin color, gender, and nationality as markers of privilege. But we often overlook our native language.

Linguistic Privilege

Before living abroad, I never gave any thought to the repercussions of native language. I never worried that I wouldn’t get hired for a job based on my English level. I rarely thought about limitations of travel; most places I want to go in the world, at least some people will speak English. I never even considered it was a privilege that I could watch all my favorite TV shows in my native language, and understand the jokes.

In most places in the world, I can read some version of a restaurant menu. I can probably find a fellow native English speaker if I need a chat. Hell, I could even assist a U.N. meeting without relying on a translator.

And I can travel to most corners of the world, and get paid to do so, under the guise of teaching English. 

I don’t fully buy into the great American ideology that if you work hard enough, you can achieve your wildest dreams. Call me pessimistic, but I believe there are social, educational and economic obstacles that, however invisible they may seem, are all too real. Affirmative action can’t undo the past. Lawsuits haven’t yet abolished gender discrimination in the workplace.

But I do know this: It will never be my English level that will hold me back. 

English Facts

Although it’s nearly impossible to come up with a very accurate count of native and second-language English speakers worldwide (for example, do we count creoles as English?), a rough estimate puts the numbers at approximately 335 million native speakers, and 505 million second-language speakers (Source: Ethnologue). And nearly a quarter of the world’s population—1.5 to 2 billion people—can understand English and use it to some extent (written or orally).

English is the third most widely-spoken language in the world, after Mandarin and Spanish. It is also the lingua franca in fields of science, math, technology, aviation, business, computing, entertainment, politics, education, and tourism (Source).

english speakers by country

English speakers by country. Source.

English Obsession Abroad

Learning English is very much an obsession born out of necessity in many parts of the world. Spain has one of the worst English levels in Europe. (This is partly because Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the world, so it’s pretty useful on its own; also partly because Spain has a massive film and television dubbing industry, so people don’t have much access to original English versions.) In recent years, the country has begun to scramble, and learning English is all the rage. Hence why I’m allowed to be here.

In the mid 2000’s, the government formed the Auxiliares de Conversación program, just to get native English speakers talking and practicing conversation with Spaniards. This is the program I worked with during my time in Bilbao, and to be hired for the position, there were startlingly few requirements. I didn’t need to know anything about pedagogical styles, grammar rules, or classroom management. I barely needed to know Spanish. I needed a college degree and a passport from an English-speaking country.

I landed a visa, worked 12 hours a week and pocketed 700 untaxed euros a month, just for being a native English speaker.  

That’s linguistic privilege.

What I See in Spain

In my day-to-day life, I see this obsession with English. Everywhere I go, people want to learn.

The daycare I work at is private, and one of the ways they market to new families is with bilingual teaching. It’s hugely appealing to parents to send their kids somewhere with a native English speaker, even if it costs an arm and a leg compared to public daycare.

All classrooms in my daycare are decorated with English signs: “Body parts,” “Colors,” “Weather,” “Lunch Menu.” This doesn’t just go for my specific English classroom—it’s all the classrooms, even though we also teach in Catalan.

The parents of my students buy their children Dora the Explorer tapes and download English songs on iPads so their children can “soak up” any trace of English.

Some weeks, I attend a language exchange through Meetup.com. Nearly 100 people show up every time—mid-workweek, mind you—and almost all of them are there to practice English, even though it’s not specifically an English/Spanish exchange. (I go to make friends, of course.)

I can charge 25 euros an hour for a private lesson in which I play with two girls, age 4 and 2, in English. I toss around stuffed animals and comb princesses’ hair and charge for it, because of my linguistic privilege.

The train stops in Barcelona are announced first in Catalan, then in Spanish, then in English. (Makes for a sleepless ride, actually. . . . )

Almost every restaurant in the city center of Barcelona will have an English menu, and English-speaking waiters.

My roommates are having difficult times finding jobs because English is essential for almost any position, even entry-level sales clerks.

coffee happens

My favorite mistranslation I’ve seen in Spain.

As I say, all this is a bit manic. Simply allowing your child to watch an hour of Dora the Explorer won’t make them fluent. I’m not even convinced that my presence in the daycare every day makes a ton of difference. It’s true that babies soak up languages like a sponge, but only if they’re exposed to a constant, continual stream—which comes from their parents or a full-time babysitter, not me. (But shhh, don’t tell my boss this.)

Me giving a private English lesson one hour a week to two little girls may help to contact sounds of English, but it won’t do much for speaking. The Spanish government installing a plan for “conversational assistants” to talk for 12 hours a week in Spanish schools certainly won’t have too great an effect on language levels. I can vouch for this from my own experience last year, where, by the end of my 9-month contract, half the students were still saying “I have 12 years” instead of “I am 12 years old.” I’ve also talked to countless other Auxiliars who feel that they, too, have made little headway in their schools.

But this is all a moot point. Regardless of real, tangible benefits, people will do whatever they can to learn English, even if it’s largely futile. That’s how important my native language is.

The Burden of Linguistic Privilege

As a native English speaker abroad, it’s almost like I have instant celebrity status. And I love it. I also realize how lucky I am.

At the same time, I feel a weight.

Is it enough to simply recognize a privilege, or do I have the responsibility to share it?

Is it fair to charge upwards of 20 euros an hour for a private lesson, where I’m essentially reciting colors and animals in English?

I’m in Spain, so do I have the right to try to speak only in Spanish? Or do I have the obligation to switch to English if others—roommates, acquaintances, coworkers—express a desire to learn English?

This one time, I said no to English. 

I was at a large language exchange in a bar, where I often go to practice Catalan, since I’m taking beginner’s classes here. I was speaking to a Catalan man, half the time in English, half the time in Catalan/Spanish. When he asked me if I’d like to meet once a week for a private one-on-one language exchange, I had to be honest. I told him no.

For me, Catalan is not much more than a frivolous hobby. I’m interested in learning, but apart from classes and living daily Barcelona life (where I hear Catalan all the time), I don’t feel like investing that much time in it. It’s not a useful language outside of Catalonia. So I didn’t want to schedule in an hour a week for something where I didn’t see the mutual benefit, am not earning money from, and mainly, something I don’t enjoy. (I may be an “English teacher,” but I don’t really enjoy it. I do it for the many other perks: namely, being able to live abroad.)

Oh god. Do you see how horrible that sounds? 

I am so linguistically privileged. I am glad that I didn’t bend over for an obligation that I would later dread (or cancel). But at the same time, I felt immensely guilty. I have the upper hand, the ability to say no, precisely because that “no” comes out in a native American accent.

What to do with Linguistic Privilege

planeedited

See the world.

At times, I may feel guilty. At times, confused. But mostly, I feel lucky. I hit the linguistic lottery, and because of this, so many of life’s doors are opened to me. I have a job in a country that’s currently experiencing 50% youth unemployment, essentially because I learned “dog” and “cat” instead of “perro” and “gato” during infancy. Linguistic privilege is hard to reason with, and impossible to justify as fair, so the best thing I can do is be grateful, and take advantage of the ensuing opportunities. In my case, that’s the chance to move abroad and experience a slice of life somewhere new.

What does linguistic privilege mean to you? If you’re a native English speaker, have you ever reflected on the opportunities that brings about?

  • I think about this a lot, especially having grown up in Quebec. Many of my friends, who had the same upbringing as me save the bilingualism, would never be able to travel with as much ease, and can’t even dream of relocating somewhere and essentially getting paid to speak to people in my native tongue. Definitely a privilege! And some people get really inconsiderate about it, berating people for not perfectly understanding their English when they won’t make the slightest effort to learn any other languages… Anyways. Interesting read!

    • Yes I can’t understand the berating at all, coming from anyone but ESPECIALLY those that think English is so important that why would you ever need to learn anything else? Thanks for the comment!

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  • Sue Lynn ‘Fleming’ Yurick

    As a native speaker, I have to ask whether you meant “mute” point or “moot” point. As a lover of all things Spanish, really envy you your life and youth. And wondering if there is a spot somewhere for an abuela in Barcelona…for just a month or so.

    • Ahhhh I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to look up “mute” or “moot” point hahha. Just went back and corrected it ;) There’s always room in Barcelona, it will welcome you with open arms!!

  • Great post Jenny! I didn’t realize how fortunate we are to be raised on a language that is used so much internationally until I was living in Korea and I had a Korean actually tell me that I was lucky to have English as my first language. I generally tend not to have any difficulties when traveling as so many things are translated into English, or people want to speak English to me. Sometimes it can be bad however when I want to practice a language but the person I am speaking to who’s native language is not English refuses to speak to me in their own language (I get that a lot when trying to speak Spanish here in NYC).

    • Yes, I see your point, sometimes people want to assimilate so much that they’re embarrassed or ashamed to use your native tongue. Such a shame!

  • I love this article! You have many excellent points, I have never thought about it like this before but it is definitely true! I have run into situations where someone has wanted to be my friend or go to coffee just because I’m a native English speaker, and to be the one to decide yes or no is such a privilege we take for granted! And to make our linguistic privilege even worse we demand impeccable English from other people and if they make any mistake or have too heavy an accent they are deemed unintelligent, lazy, or bad at English. Not only do we NOT have to work for another language, we are hard on those who attempt to learn ours! I shudder to think what would happen if Spaniards held us to the same standard!

    • Wow, you make such a good point about how we expect impeccable English from others. I often get bored/frustrated talking to people who struggle through it—and that’s an ABSOLUTE sign of linguistic privilege! Ugh I feel guilty even writing that.

  • This is such a great piece. I remember wondering when I was younger how people could travel to Europe and other countries without knowing the native language of that country. Now that this is my third time in Europe, I don’t even think twice about traveling to another country and not knowing the language. We’re incredibly lucky to have English as a native language.

    Also, as a fellow auxiliar, I would just like to say that this really brought things into perspective for me. I think I’m still having a little trouble adjusting to Spanish life and this article reminded me how much I have to be grateful for.

    • Thanks Sarah! So glad you could relate. The most important thing is to recognize our linguistic privilege, in my opinion.

  • Unfortunately many young Spaniards don’t have the privilege of English, which is why they want to learn. Given the economic climate they are learning to get out of Spain because they believe they don’t have opportunities here.

    In response to LinguistChameleon’s comment too, I was lucky to first live in Spain 9 years ago (pre crisis), but still found that people wanted to speak to me in English. I was strict with that and found people were happy to help me improve. I think after a certain age it is difficult to make friends wherever you go in the world. You find that once you are no longer at University people have formed their circles and it is harder to become a part of one. I don’t believe that this is due to language, but is a social phenomenon. I speak Spanish perfectly now and have many Sevillano friends but I am still not part of a circle, meeting up individually with each person or group.

    • I completely agree, that was a shock for me out of university and I think I blamed Spain for being harder socially, but in reality we are a long way from kindergarten days when it was a piece of cake to make friends. Can’t blame everything on language!

  • Beautifully written, especially when dealing with the difficult and conflicting topic. I’ve only been living and teaching English in Spain for 3 months now, but I am already struggling with my linguistic privilege. I’ve turned down private classes and language exchanges because I would rather spend my time learning Spanish. I’ve also told people that I prefer to speak in Spanish so that I can learn. I feel guilty doing this, but otherwise, many people will try to speak to me in very, very broken English even if they don’t have a huge interest in learning it. Once I explain this to them, they seem to understand. Although, for close friends who are Spanish, I have offered to help them and do language exchanges.

    • Thanks Mike!! Sounds like you’re experiencing the exact same dilemmas, especially since a major priority is learning Spanish.

  • Anna-Leigh Hunter

    That ‘coffee happens toast’ sign is in Granada, right? I remember seeing it and having a wee giggle!

  • LinguistChameleon

    While it would be naive of me to deny the inherent economic privileges that we all exploit from our native tongue though work and travel, I think that the social and intelectual disadvantages are also quite worth mentioning.

    Am I the only one who has had a difficult time finding “real” friends in non-English speaking countries? It took me a year to find a group of Spaniards who were interested in ME and not in my English. Most people feign interest in getting to know me in order to have a free English language partner (or at least that has been my experience). I find it exhausting and emotionally draining to meet new people now that I have lived abroad for so many years. It’s no fun to get burned over and over again once you try speaking the local tongue.

    In addition, due to the economic strength of English we are not only not forced to learn a foreign language but we have a harder time doing it (NOT because English is a somehow an “easy” language and thereby all other languages are more difficult for us. Just because of the fact that English is everyone and that fact makes it more difficult :/). Countless studies affirm that learning and using a foreign language heighten logic and reasoning skills in addition to possibly delaying the onset of some diseases such as Alzheimer’s. We “language lottery winners” cannot cash out on such benefits.

    So I guess what I am trying to say is, do we really come out ahead?

    • You make some really great points. I’ve also sometimes wondered if people partly want to hang out with me just to speak English, which is why I tend to almost insist on speaking Spanish with new people at the beginning. Once I know them better, I have no problem speaking English half the time, but you’re right, that’s something I didn’t reflect much upon. I also completely see your point about it being more difficult to learn other languages—and certainly the mindset that we can “get by” just about everywhere on our English doesn’t help.
      But I still believe the privileges of English outweigh the disadvantages, and I consider myself so grateful to have it as my native tongue.
      Thanks for your insights!

  • …This pretty much sums up how I feel about having “English-language priveleges”: Yes, it it awesome that I get to live in this fascinating country, working less-than-fulltime for a pretty decent salary and benefits, but why aren’t people who speak Hindi or Swahili afforded the same kind of chances???…

    Now, I think it’s awesome that we HAVE a global language like English (especially because I’m a native speaker), but we also need to have the world’s other languages–diversity is the spice of life!!…

    Btw, I think this TEDx Talk would really interest you… http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_ryan_ideas_in_all_languages_not_just_english

    • I completely agree with you that while it’s nice that English is more or less a global language, it’s so important to protect linguistic diversity. English is also a bully, and I really see the value in cultures (like Cataluña and Basque Country, for example!) preserving their languages.

  • lorriegoldin

    Such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post. So much in life is an accident of birth.

  • Jonathan Marshall

    Our privilege is also a bit of a curse. Because it’s so easy to get by in English, most Americans find it hard to get motivated to learn other languages. As a result, they miss out on many of the great experiences you have enjoyed as someone who is fluent in Spanish.

    • There are certainly two sides to the coin, as you say. And not just Americans, but Brits, Australians, Kiwis, etc…Canadians get a bit of French in there, but in general, people from primarily English-speaking countries have a harder time picking up second (and third and fourth…) languages.

  • Good post Jenny! I remember when I got to Spain last year being dumbfounded that I could charge so much just for speaking English. I can only imagine you saying no to the language exchange…i actually LOLed when I read that part because I wish I was there to witness it hahha. Anyways, miss you SOOOO much! Hope you’re killing it in Barca and it isn’t as rainy as Bilbao, but I don’t think anywhere in the whole world is as rainy as that city. <3

    • Lol one of the more awkward moments of the language exchange for sure….And I miss you too!! Barcelona is definitely giving me enough Vitamin D, something I just can’t say for good ol’ Bilbo…

  • Constance Chase

    Love, love, love this! Fantastic article. If I were to be honest I would say that 90% of the time I feel my job is completely futile when it comes to actually helping these children learn English. As an assistant I work with about twelve different groups which makes my short presence with each class pretty ineffective. Perhaps they will eventually make some changes to the program, but half of my classes are not even English classes and most of the teachers have no idea how to use me in the classroom. I’m certainly riding on my linguistic privilege here, sometimes guiltily and sometimes shamelessly.

    • I completely feel you. Last year my boss wanted me to be with every group of kids, so I saw each student for at most 25 minutes a week. I felt like I made NO impact, except giving them a fun 25-minute respite from boring textbook learning…

  • An Italian professor once told me that he thought all English speakers should pay a tax for speaking it as a first language….everyone else has to learn it! We are lucky!