The unspoken privilege of the English speaker

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The study of foreign languages is at an all-time low in the UK, with over 50 universities in the UK having scrapped language courses or departments altogether since 2000, and the number of students choosing to take the subject at GCSE and A level continuing to drop. Now Brexit is raising concerns over the potential new challenges of hiring language teachers from abroad, and the loss of the Erasmus exchange scheme which so many young people used for language immersion.

It’s no surprise, then, that we have all become so used to hearing the phrase ‘British people are bad at learning languages,’ something which has now become commonly acknowledged and accepted. When the subject is continuously underfunded and undervalued, it’s almost ridiculous to expect students to choose to study it.

Yet, what’s always confused me is that English speakers get this choice in the first place. Why is English a mandatory element of public education in 142 countries across the world, while the study of foreign languages is no longer compulsory at GCSE level in the UK? Why are 62% of Britons monolingual, while around a quarter of the entire world is fluent or competent in English?

The answer may lie in the steadfast power which English holds, globally. When it has been shown that English speakers can earn up to 25-35% more than their non-English speaking counterparts, it explains why so many learn it as a second language. Studies have also shown that job seekers with a high level of English compared to the average level of their country earn 30-50% higher salaries. For other countries, learning English is considered an obvious essential to success, a stepping stone for opportunities. For this reason it is so often compulsory, it’s well-funded and well-taught and, in places where it’s not, those with money will find alternative means to access it.

For other countries, learning English is considered an obvious essential to success, a stepping stone for opportunities.

Language has become a form of currency – and the most valuable one is English. People who speak English hold an immediate advantage over those who don’t, and people whose native tongue is English have an even greater privilege, something we need to start acknowledging.

This is particularly necessary as the root of this inequality lies in an ugly history that we in Britain are keen to forget: one of colonialism and imperialism.

The rise of the British Empire led to large parts of the world having English forced upon them, through the establishment of schools to educate locals on Western culture and English language. Ruling over 458 million people at its peak, the language of British colonialism quickly spread. Even now, several former British colonies from Ghana to Hong Kong to Malta, amongst many others, continue to have English as an official language. Of course, there are many other factors that have contributed to the continued prevalence of English to this day, but the fact is that it remains a reminder of the oppression so many countries faced. The current continued influence of English reasserts past colonial relations between countries and suggests that those born into certain societies, where English is spoken, deserve automatic benefits.

It feels like the world has quietly brushed this privilege aside and decided that the dominance of one sole language doesn’t need to be acknowledged as something potentially harmful, something which causes enormous disparity.

But, if anything, English should be a perfect example of how everyone benefits from speaking more languages. The language is on its way to becoming a ‘global language,’ with the potential to bring people together and facilitate the exchange of ideas and information. The only issue is that other languages aren’t valued as highly as English, as they should be. We risk utilising one common language to benefit some of us at the expense of others, perpetuating English as a language monopoly.

Anyone limiting themselves to one language is limiting themselves to one way of thinking, one set of people to speak to, one type of lifestyle.

The benefits of multilingualism from accessing different cultures, to facilitating communication, and even improving the way we think, should be highlighted. The UK needs to start investing in language education, providing effective teaching from a younger age which is continued throughout, to allow students to leave compulsory education with an actual grasp of another language, and of the country’s colonial history.

Anyone limiting themselves to one language is limiting themselves to one way of thinking, one set of people to speak to, one type of lifestyle. But more than this, is accepting that the current system as it stands is fair, where those who aren’t born as native English speakers are refused the luxury of remaining monolingual.

If you have no interest in learning languages, that’s okay. If you find them boring or confusing, no problem. But don’t blame your monolingualism on the fact that language learning is “hard.” Instead acknowledge that you are lucky enough to be able to choose to avoid it without being disadvantaged, something which non-English speakers don’t get to do.

Next time you go abroad try learning key phrases in the foreign language before you go, instead of expecting shops and signs to adapt themselves to you. Don’t be surprised when people living in the UK haven’t mastered English, a second (or potentially third or fourth) language to them. After all, if you could move to another country with solely your native language, why can’t they? Read, listen and watch in foreign languages, apply pressure on the government to better fund the subject, and question the structures which uphold the privilege you have.

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