Privilege. /ˈpɹɪ.vl̩.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.
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.
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 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.
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
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?