Me No Speak Australiano
Wednesday, October 26 2011
English. For most Farrago readers, it is likely our first language. It is also the most widely spoken language in the world, making travel exceptionally easy. Lucky us, right?
Image via Ian Fuller
In today’s world, as native speakers of English we are in a privileged position. When we travel to most places, we are often not expected to know the local language. People from Bolivia to Tibet to Poland invariably speak a little bit of English and it’s usually possible to get by. In spaces where people of varying linguistic backgrounds get together—such as on university exchange or at youth hostels—English is the lingua franca of choice. On my exchange in Copenhagen, the vast majority of students are from European countries. They have a diverse range of mother tongues, from Slovakian to French to Greek to Turkish to Spanish, yet English puts them all on an equal footing for communication. All of them except us, the native speakers.
In class we have an advantage, we are able to convey our arguments more lucidly in discussions, essays and debates. In our friendships and budding relationships, we are also in an unfair position. It is much easier to control situations when one is fluent in the language that is a second or third language for the others. We can express ourselves better, communicate more subtle and complex feelings and generally steer the conversational ship on which we are all aboard.
At a youth hostel in Florence, we decided to try an experiment after noting the fact that we were speaking English despite being in Italy and only twenty percent of our party being native speakers. We tried switching to another language native to someone at the table every five minutes. As you can imagine, it didn’t work so well. We accomplished little apart from reinforcing the fact that things were much easier for us English speakers, not having to think, not having to constantly translate in our heads and not having to speak a language that we didn’t speak at home.
Despite this, being on exchange, and in the company of speakers of many different languages, I have realised that being a native English speaker is also a profound disadvantage. It makes us fundamentally lazy. We have no reason to learn another language. Yes of course we may make some sort of tokenistic effort for the novelty of being able to communicate while on holiday, but in our hearts, we know that our language has primacy in the globalised world. This is a terrible fact that makes our societies profoundly monolingual. In comparison, Europeans speak not only their own language and English, but usually one or two more languages as well. In fact, the EU is an active supporter of language diversity, encouraging its citizens to speak at least two languages apart from their mother tongue.
Language is a key to culture, and unfortunately speaking the “world’s language” is at our detriment. We could use the excuse that in Australia, we are somehow isolated and therefore have an excuse for being monolingual. This is absolute rubbish. Not only do we have vibrant multicultural and multilingual communities at home, we are also on the doorstep of Asia, a region whose languages we have neglected for far too long. As native English-speakers we close our ears, our mouths and above all, our minds to the rest of the world, and we are the worse off for it.