The Dangers of Being Anglophone

I have been an ESL teacher and tutor/editor/consultant to internationals for many years, and I always come away with a sense of gratitude for being a native speaker as I see students struggle with grammatical irregularities, odd pronunciations, bizarre idioms, and the myriad English accents. But my ESL/EFL students teach me as much as I teach them, not only about my own language but also about the dominant nature of English. While I do think it fortunate to be a native English speaker, I have also learned about the dangers of this, especially through my involvement in the polyglot community that really began deeply in the past year.

“Everybody in the world speaks English.” This is a mentality that many native Anglophones have, and it is all too easy to rely on this when we go abroad. With a couple rare exceptions, when I travel, I always make it a point to first ask, “Do you speak English?” as a courtesy to the other person, even when I am 99% sure that they do. I think this helps take the stigma away from English speakers being unwilling to learn other languages. Probably the most humbling experience of my life was the three weeks I spent in Salzburg, Austria at the Mozarteum Conservatory. Armed with two years of German study (plus the ability to speak other European languages), I figured I would do quite well. However, Austrian German is a different dialect from Hochdeutsch, there were very few Americans or native Anglophones, and even some of the internationals had opted to study German rather than English. Few people at the Conservatory spoke English. Master classes were largely conducted in German, but if the teacher could do so, s/he would speak English with those of us who were native speakers. It truly gave me an eye, even as a polyglot, into what it feels like to be a linguistic minority. Never had I been so relieved as when I landed in Finland to visit friends in Tampere who speak like natives, talk to a population that excels in English, and where there are tons of American TV shows that are not dubbed.

We have very particular sounds that are difficult to pronounce. These include the different ’th’ sounds, the English ‘a’ (as in cat), the frontal l, the z, and especially the peculiar English letter r. These subtleties are often things that non-native speakers cannot hear, or even produce. We have consonant clusters that are nearly impossible for some people to pronounce, given the insertion of vowels between them in their languages. Of course, there are sound that are very difficult for English speakers to pronounce in other languages, such as the Czech rz (written as an r with the diacritical mark over it), Italian rr, aspirated Korean consonants, or the Tamil ‘zh’ that many native speakers cannot even pronounce. The richness of sounds in our language is part of what makes it very difficult for those who learn English.

Another important aspect of our language that we must be aware of is its constant reinvention, especially in American English and with the advent of personal technology devices. We are a very scientifically advanced country, and therefore we are adding new words to our vocabulary. Texting has spawned a whole new genre of language, which one could argue often dumbs our language down. We are also a very young country, and so our vocabulary develops along with our social change. This may not be the case in other countries and cultures where their languages are ancient, and they may not have certain words for certain items or concepts. Bhutan is one example, as they only opened to the world a couple decades ago. They have to borrow words for science and technology. Therefore, we are in a sense forcing the rest of the world to use our form of communication. This adds to the hegemonic aspect of English.

English, especially American English, favors efficiency. Therefore, in our interactions, we can be very direct and fast. This may not go over with many other cultures, especially when doing business or diplomacy. It is imperative for people who work in these fields to understand the cultural context in which they are working and communicating.

These are just but a few points about which we must be mindful when speaking with non-native English speakers, especially when overseas. Even making the effort to learn a few words shows a willingness and humility to understand that the world is full of linguistic diversity. A Stanford professor who taught an undergraduate course on how to teach ESL suggested that everyone should spend one week per year learning the basics of a new language. That is truly an excellent suggestion–plus a lot of fun!

Further Reflections from the Polyglot Conference

Much to everyone’s delight, the polyglot conference was extended by another week, and we have been able to continue listening to the hundred or so lectures by various speakers on an incredible variety of topics, and avail ourselves of the various language chat rooms and general meeting room on Zoom. This has been one of the most wonderful experiences in recent years, and one that has truly made me feel like I have found my tribe! I have learned so much about the world, people, and languages, but also so much about myself. Here are some of the things I have been reflecting on.

-Monolingual cultures are really insular and lacking. I always felt like an oddball growing up bilingual, but I have grown to really appreciate it and have come to see that there are so many others in America who are natively bilingual or trilingual or more. Many other polyglots I have spoken with have commented on the negatives about monolingual cultures (especially in the context of our Anglophone countries) and it is something I see more clearly now. English-speaking countries, as a whole, really do seem to take an attitude of “the rest of the world speaks English, so why should I learn a language?” Frequently, someone in an Anglophone country says that they had X number of years of Y language in school, but they can’t remember a word. Why not? Granted, there are always individuals who do not learn languages well, but this type of statement should not be considered a proud confession and instead a reflection on the flaws in our education system. There is no impetus to use foreign languages on a regular basis in America, unless one makes a certain effort or is able to speak with people in ethnic community. This really needs to change.

-It is perfectly normal and wonderful to have a deep passion for words and languages. I have met people who have been studying Ancient Hittite, Eastern Armenian, and the languages of indigenous Californians. I have met people who love learning different scripts as much as I do, even someone who knew how to spell my name in Tamil! There is nothing wrong with being curious about the various dialects of any given language, and knowing the differences between them and discussing them with others. These kinds of things often make one a freak in mainstream American society. But one does not need to be a scholar or trained in linguistics in order to be highly knowledgeable about any language or languages–I’ve met people from various walks of life, from warehouse worker to professor to computer programmer.

-It is perfectly normal and wonderful to have a deep passion for geography. One group activity involved people filling out the different regions of different countries, and it was really amazing to see how knowledgeable people were in knowing the different areas of so many different countries like India, Germany, and more. This is so necessary in a world that has become extremely globalized.

-Knowing multiple languages really changes your brain structure. If you grow up bilingual or multilingual, this has really shaped your brain and cognition, and even if you have learned languages later, this is very important as the brain has so much neuroplasticity. I enjoyed watching talks by neuroscientists and scholars who showed data and images from fMRI studies. There are even some studies that show that learning languages can keep Alzheimer’s at bay!

-Language is inseparable from culture and meaning. How we use gestures, express certain thoughts, ideas, and shades of meaning all relate to language and our need to communicate. Certain concepts exist in some languages, but not in others. Grammar reflects the subtleties of expression; the more cases in a language, the more precise it is about relation.

-Language is connected to history. It is endlessly fascinating to learn about how various languages developed and branched off within any given language family. Sometimes this process has been over millennia, and at other times, in a matter of centuries. The history of English is incredibly fascinating and complex, and the more we know about its linguistic roots, the more we can understand how we think and what influences shaped our language.

And finally,
-Humor is humor, regardless of the language, and is truly global. People from all over the globe will keep giggling when trying to pronounce the Georgian word, gvprtskvni, that is all consonants except for the final letter. Everyone will find it funny that someone is still awake at 5 AM to be on a Zoom chat, like a vampire. Several people will ask, in a Hindi lesson, for expressions on how to bargain, knowing that that is an ingrained part of Indian culture. And my favorite, a question posted in the chat on what country you will end up in if you dig a hole through the earth from your country? Whether people were from Uruguay, America, or Sweden, the answer was China!

Language can often divide us and is what makes us so distinct and unique from culture to culture. But, as this polyglot conference has shown, it can really unite us in the most amazing ways. Many thanks to everyone I’ve learned from and connected with!