Native English Speakers: The Gift And The Curse

So there I was, in Berlin on what I recall was a perfect summer evening. As nightfall drew nearer, and having only just arrived back in Berlin from a short trip to Florence, it could have been argued that this particular Saturday night would be not too dissimilar to the many that had preceded it. And in many ways that would be the case.

 

 

Whilst taking the two-train, hour-long journey home from the airport it came to my attention that I would be required to put on my brave face and get friendly at a local party. Exhausted from repeatedly committing myself to late nights and early mornings in Florence, I was in desperate need of a lift. I knew this moment required a shower beer, the perfect way to set the tone for the evening and get myself buzzing before battling my way through yet another long night. Just to make one thing clear, I do not condone getting intoxicated in the shower. It’s not only dangerous but also kind of sad! However in a situation like this, adding one beer with some tunes to the mix is not only acceptable but almost a requirement.

 

After quickly getting organised, finishing my shower beer and grabbing one for the road, we made our way toward the party. A short fifteen-minute stroll later and we arrived, surprisingly as some of the first few. Everything at this point was pretty standard. I was in high spirits and enjoying a good old laugh with my German friends, and as always the drinks, food and banter that has become a staple at an event like this were at their typical best (don’t even get me started on the Germans’ obsession with beer-pong).

 

Fast-forward a few hours and the dark of the night was well and truly upon us, the party was in full swing, and there were people scattered all across the apartment. That’s when it dawned on me. I think I had noticed it on previous occasions too but somehow I had never let my attention be drawn to it. Everywhere I looked people were laughing and having a great time. They were talking, I mean really talking. The kind of conversations you really want to be a part of. I could see it. I could hear it. But in a sense I really couldn’t hear them at all. That’s because here I’m an outsider, a foreigner, from a land far, far away, where my words do not match up with those that I find myself surrounded by. However obvious it seems that my being in Germany surrounded by Germans would result in German conversation, this was the first time it had become overbearingly apparent. And with my German vocabulary consisting of only a few random and generally useless words, suddenly I felt isolated. In that moment my friends were like strangers. I couldn’t understand them, I couldn’t relate to anything they said, I couldn’t contribute anything of my own. I was very much a fish out of water. Whoever thought that the words of others would equate to such deafening silence!

 

So there I sat on the living room floor, seeking refuge in front of the television (thank goodness for sport), and I began thinking more broadly about the nature of language and communication. The friends I was surrounded by, all of whom were German and therefore natives to the German language, were all able to communicate to varying degrees in English. Each of them able to speak a second language, some of them a third or even fourth! And then there was me, if not the typical native English speaker then certainly the stereotype, able to speak English and only English. Drowning in the privilege of being a native to the ‘world language.’

 

I’m instantly reminded of a few experiences I’ve had in the past, witnessing English speakers (mostly American but also some Australians) getting frustrated with locals in foreign countries for not speaking English. I mean who would’ve thought that people from a different country with a different language might not be able to speak English? Crazy I know! But I’ve witnessed it firsthand, this sense of superiority or entitlement. Maybe sometimes it’s just confusion or miscommunication, but there is definitely something different about the expectations of many of those privileged enough to be native to the English language. What is it though that makes English stand apart from everything else in the world? Why is English widely considered to be the world language?

 

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The full moon guiding our late walk home

 

Suddenly my current communication issues seemed laughable and rather insignificant. I knew I was onto something much more interesting, much more thought provoking, the English language and the privilege associated with it. My mind was a hive of activity, I was lost in my own little world, or so I thought… I came crashing back to reality at warp speed when my absence was promptly discovered, resulting in the party migrating to the living room, seducing me back into action. From that moment on it was business as usual, an enjoyable night with friends that lasted well into the early hours of the morning. On our way home I remembered that moment in the living room right before I re-joined the party. I tried to reignite my thoughts on the topic but it was no use, after a big night that had followed a big week, both my mind and body were exhausted. Sleep was the only thing I could really think about and so that’s where it ended. We arrived home. Clambered into bed. And the rest, as they say, is history.

 

-N

 

P.S. That’s not really the end! It can’t be. I’m still curious about this topic, and I continue to wonder what makes the general attitude of English speakers towards language different to that of many other cultures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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