Speaking English Doesn’t Make You Special

Speaking English Doesn't Make You Special
Cinque Terre, Italy

Today, I want to talk about native English speakers travelling in non-English speaking countries. There's something about speaking English that leads to a weird kind of arrogance from (some) Australian, American and British travellers where they believe everyone in the world should be able to understand them. And it's embarrassing. You're embarrassing the rest of us.

I once told a story about the time I was shamed in Belgium by a tiny French girl who seemed to think I shouldn’t be allowed to travel in a country where I didn’t fluently speak the language. Lots of people reached out to me after I shared that story, shocked that someone would talk to me that way and expect that I'd be able to understand them. But you know what, yes that girl was arrogant as hell, but how many English speaking tourists have you encountered that act the exact same way?

Like the Americans I was on a tour with in Rome who yelled at the tour guide because she couldn't understand the word "elevate". Like the Australian who stormed out of a chocolate store in Belgium because they weren't served the correct truffle. Like the Brit who got confused when everywhere in Japan doesn't have the English translation on the street signs.

I’m going to say this slow and loud for the people in the back. I don’t care what language you speak. It. Doesn’t. Make. You. Special. You aren't smarter than anyone else. No one thinks you're clever by making someone else feel stupid.

But lets talk about native English speakers. Somewhere between 300 to 360 million people in the world speak English as a their first languageOn the flip side, somewhere between 470 million and 1 billion people worldwide speak English as their second language. English is widely considered to be the universal language; it is the chosen language by global agreement for nautical terms and it is the official language of the UN.

So yes, most people in the world speak English in some capacity, whether it's fluently or not. But next time you're in a country that aren't native English speakers, and you get annoyed they don't understand everything you say, I want you to stop and think about that. I want you to think about what it means to speak English (or any language) as a second language - or even a third, as is the case in a lot of European countries with multiple national languages.

You, as a native English speaker and (since I’m having to explain this to you), probably only monolingual, have only one set of words in your head. One language, a couple hundred words you know well enough to bring them to your tongue without thinking and without having to double check your brain, to confirm you’re using it correctly.

Sometimes those words look the same as each other but mean different things or maybe even sound different. Take a look at “read” (pronounced: reed) and “read” (pronounced: red).What about words that don’t look the same but are pronounced the same way? Like “there”, “their” and “they’re” or “your” and “you’re”. Instinctively, you might know which one it should be because you were raised to know. Odds are though, you still get it wrong sometimes. I used to be one of those people who correct people’s grammar and spelling when they mixed those words around but I’ve since matured and realised there’s nothing to gain by ridiculing someone for their education. I knew what they meant, so I can move on without making them feel stupid. It's the same damn thing. If you've ever felt stupid because someone corrected your grammar or spelling, then this is what I'm talking about.

Even speaking English since you were two (?? I don’t know, is that when babies start to talk?) you still get it wrong. You still forget words, or you pause as you try to remember how it’s pronounced or you just straight up don’t know what the word is. How often do you quickly open Google to double check a word’s meaning? I do it at least weekly, and I’m good at English (not to big note myself or anything). I write in English for a living, and I still have to check spelling and grammar rules all the time. English is a hard language.

So let’s imagine for argument’s sake, half the amount of English words and rules in your head, and then all the natively learnt words and rules of another language in front of that - like a wall, or a glass barrier. Any time someone has to reply to you (a fluent English speaker) in English (which isn’t their first language), they’re translating twice in their head.First they have to translate what you've said, and then translate what they want to say, before they can reply to you. This isn't a sign they aren't understanding you, or they aren't as smart as you. It's just a sign that they have more words in their head they have to sift through.

As Gloria from Modern Family explained, “Do you know how frustrating it is to have to translate everything in my head before I say it? To have people laugh in my face because I’m struggling to find the words? […] Do you know how smart I am in Spanish? Of course you don’t.”

You don’t get to be mad or make that person feel dumb because they don’t perfectly understand what you want right away. You aren’t special because you can speak English, but they’re not not special, because they don’t or don’t do so well. No one is more intelligent than anyone else because of the way they communicate or the language in which they do so.

So you know, next time you get uppity that someone doesn't understand what you're saying, consider for a moment this: if you were in Australia or England or Hicktown, America, and a Spanish woman walked into your cafe, ordered in Spanish and expected you to perfectly understand what she wanted, you'd be fucking pissed. If she got mad at you, or treated you like an idiot, you'd think about it constantly. Even if you know you aren't stupid, you'd think maybe you are. Even if you knew Spanish, you'd learnt it in high school and taken a class at College, but she spoke too quickly and you didn't catch it the first time through - or even the second, or the third - you're not dumb for not understanding her.

Just like they're not dumb for not understanding you. 

Cut each other some slack. Be patient. Be understanding. Be the citizen of the world you bloody claim to be.

Do you have any weird or crazy encounters involving the language barrier? Tell me about it in the comments...

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2 Comments

  1. thenorthleftblog
    November 15, 2017 / 9:27 am

    Totally agree. I’m the total opposite and feel that, whenever I go somewhere where English isn’t the national language, I get such guilt that I don’t speak the given language fluently. I think it’s incredibly rude to not even try and pick up a few words before you go – even if you just learn the phrase “Hi, do you speak English?”

    Mind you, I was once in Paris just flexing my GCSE French and the person to whom I was speaking started babbling away in French and I’m like woahh slow down. Apparently, she thought I was French so, that backfired.

    Also, I’ve found most times if you make the effort to speak the language, it’s quite obvious that you’re English and the person will help you out and speak English back to you. Not something I’ve ever witnessed with tourists speaking to Brits here….

    • November 15, 2017 / 1:13 pm

      oh yah there’s always that risk of being babbled at haha! I find looking terrified usually helps them figure it out.
      But yeah, just learn a few basic phrases and at least try – out of politeness. Between the two of you, they can usually figure out what it is you need!

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