I’m A Native English Speaker. Here’s Why That’s A Privilege.

As I mumbled my way through China, a thought came to the forefront of my mind: in the U.S., it’s pretty common to hear people criticize immigrants for not speaking “better English,” yet there I was, struggling to tell a taxi driver where I was going.

Despite my many hours of Chinese study, my Mandarin wasn’t good, but I was determined to try to use it anyways instead of falling back on the assumption that people can — and will —speak English with me.

Throughout the world, many people learn English, making some native English speakers feel as though they can comfortably travel to or even move to other countries without making effort to learn other languages. This is essentially English speakers expecting people in other countries to cater to them, while the same efforts are generally not made in the U.S. for people who aren’t native English speakers.

I don’t write this to shame people who aren’t trilingual or discourage people from traveling. I write this to encourage people to stop harshly criticizing people’s English speaking abilities, make an effort to understand where people are coming from and perhaps try learning another language, even if it’s just some general phrases.

Being able to communicate across the globe

Gowoon Lee, a student from South Korea who studies at Michigan State University, said she thinks some Americans might think it’s unnecessary to learn other languages because English is common.

“Speaking English as a first language is a privilege when traveling because people in most countries, at least the countries I have visited or lived in, speak English,” Lee said. “People who speak English as their first language would be able to communicate with people in English when they travel to other countries.”

Expecting people to cater to English speakers

Gwen Bagley, a student at Central Michigan University, said she would’ve gotten by without knowing German when she spent a year in Austria — but she wouldn’t have succeeded. She believes using English when traveling is possible, but learning other languages opens up opportunities to communicate with more people.

“People feel that since we speak a very prevalent language that other people need to and will cater to us English speakers and therefore never seek out another language at all,” Bagley said. “I also think our language learning system is broken. In school I spent two years conjugating verbs and writing little stories about the colors, but I don’t remember speaking. In that type of environment where students are not initially taught an application to what they’re learning, it may discourage students from studying a language.”

Learning something new 

Grand Valley State University student Corie D’Haene also thinks some Americans believe they will be able to find someone who speaks English wherever they go. This is a misconception, she said. When she was doing an internship in France, there were plenty of times when she was lost or needed something and she couldn’t find an English speaker.

To D’Haene, who primarily communicated in French at her internship, learning the local language not only makes travel easier, it also helps build relationships and create a better experience.

“A lot of Americans don’t deem learning a language as necessary because they’ll always live in the U.S., but learning another language is such a beautiful experience,” she said. “Once you can look at a set of letters that are not like English and say ‘hey, I understand what that means,’ that is a very cool experience, plus it opens up so many doors for work and friendships.”

Making an effort 

Emileigh Stoll, who studied in Prague while she was a student at Central Michigan University, thinks learning a language helps show cultural appreciation and respect when traveling. Many people would smile at her when she spoke Czech, she said, because they saw that she was making an effort to engage with them.

She chose to learn Czech because she thinks language is an important part of a culture and allows people to live more like locals rather than tourists.

“I feel that it is a great misconception that you can travel and just expect other people to meet you where you are at,” Stoll said. “Learning, or attempting to learn, any major words or phrases is a great step towards entering a space and respecting a culture.”

She thinks some Americans don’t pursue another language because of convenience.

“In the U.S., it is almost a social expectation that any individual within our borders speaks English,” Stoll said. “I do not think this is a fair or compassionate approach. Imagine if other countries held American tourists to the same standard. It would be frustrating and potentially upsetting.”