We hear often about white privilege or male privilege or rich privilege but can we just take a moment to talk about another kind of privilege which I feel pretty strongly about – having English as your first language.
I am language oriented as opposed to having a mathematics and science oriented brain – it’s probably why I blog instead of spending my time coming up with life changing scientific breakthroughs. I also enjoy travelling overseas. This is, I think, why I am so aware of the level of English As A First Language Privilege in the world and why I think it’s time we did something about it.
We all know someone (probably ourselves) who has been going on holiday somewhere and said something along the lines of “it won’t matter if we don’t speak Spanish because they all speak English there anyway.” A lot of us are guilty of it and while it’s not necessarily okay, it’s understandable. Many don’t even realise the level of privilege being handed to them just because of where they were born and raised – if they do it tends to be because of race, religion or politics and not because of tongue.
If you still think I’m talking nonsense think about road signs and tourist attractions in the UK compared to elsewhere. Most UK road signs only have English (unless in Gaelic or Welsh parts) but signs abroad often have the native name and the English language name. Most UK tourist attractions, apart from some of the major ones in the big cities like London, only offer information in English. Pop over seas and the information is available in at least two languages if not more.
The reality is that, as an English language speaker, we get off with being lazy. I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere that English has not been understood to some level. We don’t bother learning the language because we don’t have to – anything we do learn we will use proudly to make sure you know exactly how much effort we put in to learning that 1 word or phrase while you effortlessly converse in 5 languages.
Since I’m no good with food, I feel that language is one of the best cultural experiences of travelling. One of the great things about it is that you don’t have to wait until you are in a new country – you can start right now with a book or an app or a quick Google search. Learning a new language can open up a whole new world. Through my knowledge of French I was able to decipher food items on menus in Italy (Italian) and Mexico (Spanish). So while knowing every language would be ideal, it’s not always practical.
People speak of English being the “universal language” but with around 6500 languages being spoken today it’s clearly not. (a quick Google search also shows Mandarin to be the world’s most common language!)
In an ever changing world full of fear, I think that taking a little time to diversify our knowledge instead of depending on others to learn for us is the key to better understanding and potentially a step closer to world peace.