Being a native English speaker makes life easy. It is the international language. It is the language of business. Hollywood produces the world’s most famous films almost exclusively in English. Ditto the music industry. It is the “other” language that the rest of the world must learn out of necessity. If you don’t want to deal with another language as a native English speaker, you don’t have to.
Being a native English speaker also makes you lazy.
Growing up in the English speaking part of Canada, you are forced to take French classes. What you are not forced to do is learn French. The curriculum is bad. The teachers are bad. The students don’t care and there’s really no effort made to ensure that they try to care. Even as immature adolescents we could pick-up on an education system simply going through the motions.
The biggest problem that results from this is an attitude that English is the only language that matters. This is, of course, a gross generalization. But, it’s one that I’ve developed looking back on my time in French classes as well as my experiences with languages since moving away from Canada.
Trapped in my English bubble I didn’t appreciate the value of speaking more than one language. Growing up in Toronto, I had many friends who were bilingual, trilingual, or better. Many of them didn’t speak English as their first language, but they spoke it fluently. Having to communicate in a language that wasn’t English was never an issue for me.
Almost three and a half years later my experience abroad has flipped my ignorance on end. Though certainly not speaking Spanish fluently, I feel that I speak it very well. While I have trouble with some words or certain conjugations from time to time I can’t remember the last time I failed to communicate something or there was a “lost in translation” moment. To me, that is successful.
This is why it’s so surprising to encounter people, outside of their home bubble, with the opposite attitudes. That is, people who have lived abroad, still live abroad, and, in many cases, have done so for much longer than I have. I meet people all the time that have been in Costa Rica for many years and still can’t speak Spanish past an extremely basic level.
I understand that language isn’t everyone’s thing; from my experience as an ESL teacher I have seen example upon example of this. Every ESL trainer textbook will tell you the generic and overly optimistic line that anyone and everyone is capable of learning a new language. This is only partly true. Learning languages, I’m convinced, is a skill. Just like some are good at math or science, some are good at language. I am not good at math – never have been and never will be. But ability isn’t the point, either.
Language entitlement is not about ability but rather about attitude.
I am happy to be able to call myself something today that the high school version of me would never have thought possible: bilingual. While I’ve never taken a Spanish class in my life, I also didn’t learn just by sitting around and listening to people talk. In my first months in Costa Rica I locked myself in my room, read grammar books, searched the internet, and made myself write out conjugations and basic sentences by hand. It was boring. Brutally boring at times. But it was worth it.
Couple this with amazing – and amazingly patient – friends and the base I developed grew into a skill set. Still today I ask questions about the language to the point that people don’t want to talk to me anymore. I know my Spanish isn’t perfect. I also know it never will be. But fitting in with a different culture also involves their language. Just because they speak English doesn’t mean you should. The secret is that locals honestly care more about your effort than they do your ability. Effort represents respect.
Now that I’m leaving people have started asking me what I would tell someone moving abroad for the first time. An important start is to not let your native language make you complacent. You get out of the experience what you put into it.