Our Travel Editor, Emily, shares her thoughts on the privileges and problems of being a native English speaker in an increasingly globally conscious world.
I don’t really feel fortunate that I am a native English speaker unless I am travelling. No matter where I am in the world, the default second language of signs or announcements is normally English, and in the case of announcements, normally really fast and even I have trouble understanding them. This means that I rarely have to worry when abroad because I can normally read and understand something to point me in the right direction.
However, travellers with other first languages do not have that freedom, and have to worry about having relatively good English skills to get around. Not having to translate from English to another language is something I take for granted. It is embarrassing when hostel roommates apologise for their normally, pretty good, English skills when languages were my worst subject in school and non-compulsory. I lazily tend to only learn basic phrases (hello, thank you, sorry, may I order, and where is) as I know I can get by in English because other people will speak it. I get embarrassed at my pronunciation when other people have no choice but to speak in another language (English) to get by while travelling. While I have yet to be proved wrong, this unconscious arrogance that other people will speak my language so I don’t need to bother with theirs, however much I do try (and often fail) to learn, is not a good attitude when travelling. What good is respecting someone’s culture, dress, and religion if I am not respecting his or her language? When I am in another country it is wrong of me to assume they can and expect them to speak English.
Yet I do it all the time. I have walked into a coffee shop, normally a pretty secure spot for me to order an Americano, and been shocked when people don’t recognise the term when their menu has it in English too. Yet if that isn’t the native term why should they? Similarly, when I attempt to speak to someone in basic English and it fails and I am stuck with hand gestures and when this still fails, I am left in an awkward position and tend just to leave the shop or restaurant. Even if both parties have tried, at the end of the day, I am trying to communicate a language they don’t need to speak and it is therefore not the other person’s fault that the communication fell through.
State schools in England have been known not to take other languages seriously. I started learning one at 11, even though research suggests starting younger is far better and that as you age learning languages becomes harder. This has put me at a serious disadvantage and also contributes to the embarrassment I feel when hostel mates apologise for poor English when they started learning at 5, speak English pretty much fluently, and speak a third language on top of that. It is also one of the reasons why when Brexit talks even changing the diplomatic language back to French again (which it was before we switched to English) people panicked. Ironically, it is often in France I am most aware of my lack of language skills. Firstly I took German in school instead of French, but also every other country accepts my slight butchering of their language or people speak English to me. In France, I find that my attempts are met with amusement and I just have to keep trying. Although I have heard many people complain about this I don’t think here is anything wrong with it, especially after writing this article. Why should they offer to speak English when I should at least try and speak French?
At the end of the day, I am lucky that I speak English fluently and we live in an age where English is accepted as a global means of communication. If it wasn’t, I assume I would have put far more effort into my language studies (if not been forced to) and this isn’t something I can change. What I can do is carry a phrase book, attempt to use a different language, get hostel staff to write out phrases I am not sure of, and just keep trying. To anyone who meets me on my travels, I apologise for my pronunciation in advance, but do let me at least try so I can feel a small sense of accomplishment if I am understood.