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!