Something I had never considered before moving to Germany for my ESC year, is how having English as a first language is a privilege. It may sound strange or a little presumptuous, but hear me out. Moving to another country is scary. It’s something that so many people are passionate about, seeing the world, meeting new people, trying new things, but when you arrive in a foreign country and you don’t know the language, it can be tough. I found this to be a big contribution to the anxiety I have when I think about travelling, is not being able to communicate with people and therefore putting myself into a vulnerable situation. This is thankfully something that has not occurred in my life and I am hoping this will be continues but the experiences I have had in a country in Asia and a few countries in Europe, is that so many people can speak English. Even if it is a few words or that they are fluent, it makes the difference and it helps you to feel more comfortable and safe when you know what is happening, even if you don’t understand everything. So is this considered a privilege? Upon researching, I have found out that English is the third most commonly spoken language in the world, following Mandarin and Spanish (2 weforum.org). In my personal opinion, from this evidence alone, having English as your first language is indeed a privilege. I cannot speak on behalf of people who do not speak English and so they may have an opposing opinion however an example I have linked to this is to do with my life in Germany. In the city I live in, there is a big University which attracts people from all over Europe as part of the Erasmus+ programme. This allows students to study a semester in another country, whilst travelling and meeting like minded people. Due to this being a big thing in the community, there is an organisation that helps to network these individuals so they can explore the city and meet other people in the same situation. Due to being from England, myself and the other volunteers on my ESC programme have been invited along to some of these events. The first event we attended where we met a large amount of people from Spain, Finland, India and so many other countries, I was able to communicate with everyone, in English. Every person I spoke to could speak English and this allowed me to make new friends and meet new people because luckily for me, the only language I could speak at that time, was English.
When I was volunteering in Nepal, I found myself again in a position that did not stunt me because I was unable to speak the native language. A lot of the people I met even in the rural areas, particularly children and young people, spoke English and this allowed me to feel welcome in their community and build positive relationships with the young people I was working with. I recall chatting to a teacher in the school I was working in and he was explaining to me that the children were all strongly encouraged to learn English as it would mean that they could be successful in networking with other people and getting a good job in the future. This is something I had not thought about before and because I was born and raised in England, learning another language has never been something I needed to do.
I believe a further point this could raise is whether having English as your native language can then make you lazy when it comes to learning new languages. From my personal experience I feel as though this is the case as I have never felt the need to speak another language until I moved to Germany. Since moving here my German has improved a lot which is great but is it something that should be celebrated because I have done this willingly or should this be a given because I was planning on moving to Germany for 10 months? I think this is a whole other kettle of fish that can be explored further but for now, let’s draw our attention back.
I could travel to Australia, Fiji, Zambia or South Africa (to name a few) and be able to communicate because all these countries speak English as a first language, not to mention an even larger percentage of people who speak it as a second or third language. This was explored by K, Breene (3 weforum.org) and he explored this further as to which countries speak English more as their second language. To me this is a privilege. A passport to a whole host of places around that world and a feeling of calm because I know when I arrive, I will be understood. This isn’t the case for other people, for example refugees who arrive in a country because their home country is no longer safe. I cannot even begin to imagine how terrifying that would be and then to not be able to communicate, that just adds a whole other level.
Next time you are travelling, consider how lucky you are to speak English. It is a privilege yes, but used in the right way, it can make a huge difference. I believe this comes from a passion to help and support people. Whether that’s through informal teaching with a friend or volunteering a year of your life in a country you don’t speak the native language of, challenging yourself but also supporting people to learn English should that be something they want to do. There are so many benefits of volunteering as whole including growth and learning a new language is definitely part of it (1 helpguide.org) In my setting in Germany, the children I work with ask me every day for new words in English which is a great feeling to be able to teach them something new and that they are genuinely interested in. It has also been super beneficial to me as I have been able to then learn those words and more in German. It’s crazy to me how possible it is to build relationships and communicate with people when you only speak a few words of each-others language, but it is enough and it makes a heap of a difference.
The knowledge and opportunity that comes from speaking another language is indescribable and if that language is spoken all over the world, it opens so many doors for new experiences, friendships and learning, which is of course, never a bad thing.