I’ve always known that speaking English as a first language was a considerable advantage in the increasingly globalizing world. English, for a variety of reasons, is quickly becoming the default language of business, academics, and cross-cultural communication. Without delving into the problems with this trend, I will say that my experience with being a native speaker surrounded by non-native speakers has been eye opening. While I had considered the respectability politics involved in speaking English and the aptitude with which various groups are able to speak it “correctly,” I had not considered the more technical aspects of speaking English as a second (or in some cases third or fourth) language. This practical aspect has become much more clear to me now that I have been placed in an academic setting with many people from various countries who are doing all their course work in a secondary language.
There is no denying that academic texts can be challenging. The language is dense, the vocabulary is esoteric, and the speed with which one must read them for a variety of classes throughout the week makes the sheer volume of pages overwhelming sometimes. But I cannot imagine reading complex academic texts in French (my closest to second language). I am taking a class on Political Economies of Transition along with one of my roommates who is French. The class has been very difficult for her because the professor talks fairly quickly and while she has taken classes in economics before, they have all been in French. The vocabulary of economics (I take it) does not transfer particularly well between the two and isn’t the type of thing she was taught in her conversational English classes either. Another one of my friends is struggling with his Latin classes because while he has been studying Latin for over five years, he studied it in Germany and has never had to translate to English before, so the particularities of English grammar are constantly frustrating to him. All of this is to say nothing of the people from abroad who are taking Russian or Estonian language courses in taught English, so they have to translate every word twice to understand and answer so they can mediate the two languages that are not their native one with the one that is.
I have always known that my mastery of English would give me a hand up in first impressions the world over. But this trip has made me recognize many more aspects of the ways the hegemony of language affects people every day. I have considerably more perspective now and while I am extremely grateful for the mother tongue I was born into, I think it is important to recognize as well that the struggle many non-native speakers go through to communicate in this dominant language should earn them respect not derision.