What would you say, or how would you respond if somebody said to you, “You are SO lucky that English is your first language.”? Maybe you’d respond the same that I did when I was first asked that question . . . I answered, “Really?” somewhat dumbfounded, and then I really thought about it for awhile. Since then, I’ve had other discussions where the same theme keeps coming up. “Wow, I wish I grew up in a place where English was my first language.” Interesting, eh?
We come from another place. We are born in the United States of America. We speak the most “correct” English and infiltrate the entire world with our movies, music, and Western culture. Many of us have a somewhat stable financial upbringing (more or less), attend school and college, and go on to work in jobs we may or may not be passionate about. Most of us (at least in the older generations) don’t travel much except to other states in the U.S. to visit other family members, or to get away to a those tropical all-inclusive-Mexican-resorts, and the furthest from home that some of us may go is to the islands in the Caribbean or perhaps Hawaii. Even if we WANTED to travel to somewhere more exotic or further away, we’d rather use the measly 1-2 weeks vacation per year we are granted to stay at home or to go to another city not too far away just because we are too tired to really care to plan some exhausting vacation.
But this is just normal life in the U.S. Why WOULD we ever stop and think that we would be so lucky to have the lives and education and jobs we have, and WHY would it ever occur to us to think we are “lucky” to speak English as our main language?
I know people often say that English is the “Universal language” and that most people around the world speak it, but I fully did not understand the FULL truth in that statement until I studied at a foreign language school in Spain for 6 months. I’ve shared classes with, befriended, learned the culture of, and swapped stories with people from all over the world . . . Italy, Australia, China, Japan, England, Ireland, Germany, Malasia, Finland, Sweden, France, U.S., Latvia, Russia . . . and over and over again the common language we all share as 20-something-year-olds is ENGLISH ENGLISH ENGLISH. Of course it’s only those from the U.S., England, and Australia that can speak more “perfect” English and understand the complicated phrases and the ridiculous amount of slang our culture incorporates into the English language. The others have to study 5, 10, 15 years and speak the language constantly to only BEGIN to master this “Universal Language” they all so yearn to speak perfectly. And the students in my school who couldn’t speak English . . . well, many of them were just beginners in Spanish and ended up being somewhat of outsiders or a bit more isolated because there were only so many things we could say to one another in “Beginners Espanol.”
In the end, I’m really glad that I’ve come to live in Spain and have been forced to speak the language, learn the language, and interact with people from the culture here. Currently, I’ve been traveling around Spain for a week with my good friends Ann and Marty (who came out here on vacation from the US) to Barcelona, the island of Mallorca, then to Granada, Jerez, and Cadiz . . . and WOW has it been extremely helpful and MUCH more easy to travel since I can communicate with the people. I only wish I had learned more Spanish in college, or even from when I was really young,,,, when it’s SO much easier to retain the information and understand sentence structure, etc. But people in the US really don’t stress the importance of learning any foreign languages, and in the end why should they?–everybody in the U.S. speaks English. Hell, even trying to decipher some strong accents from different parts of the country is like learning a foreign language in itself!
But maybe if schools/parents would just incorporate some foreign language in classes when children are 4, 5, 6, they would learn the language SO much easier without much struggle and who would it really hurt? It’s interesting to find that all of these people I’ve met from my classes know their home language, English, and then maybe one other language… all before the age of 20! Martti knows Finnish (of course), Swedish, English, and now quite a lot of Spanish . . . and he’s going to be studying French next. Another girl I’ve befriended is from Chile and speaks Spanish, but also knows English, German, and French. And then my Italian friend can speak perfect English and Italian, and pretty much has mastered Spanish in a total of maybe 4 months! It’s unbelievable! And then here I am: American, speaks English. Period. Just like most other Americans.
But yet all these people envy all of us from the great ole country of the U S of A, because to them we have “EVERYTHING”, and everything is BIGGER and better in our country. And actually, it’s pretty much true,,, not to mention we live in one of the strongest and powerful countries in the world. It’s a good feeling for me to say that. Think about it though. People around the world think of us as the luckiest people in the world because to them we have everything we could want—we have “The American Dream”, we speak English, and we live in one of the most powerful countries.
But that’s also why they love to hate us. AND hate our president. My sister, who traveled in March/April in a few European countries has also been a target for “president bashing” by foreigners. You can pretty much count on somebody making a comment or joke at you about, “How horrible your president is,” if you mention to them you are from America. All my sister or I could really reply to a Bush-bashing comment is, “I didn’t vote for him.” But it’s interesting that they even care THAT much, you know?
I just visited Martti in Finland last week for an extended weekend (SIGH, how nice, but how short of time together!) and his roommate has a GEORGE BUSH poster on his door that lists all the stupid things/phrases President Bush has been quoted on saying over the years. Haha, have you ever thought people in countries on the other side of the world would really care THAT much to have a poster on their bedroom door bashing our president?
Anyway… back to the original point: try learning a foreign language, even if it’s just the basics. It doesn’t matter your age or background (heck, I’ve had plenty of people in my classes at age 50, 65, 72!!), but you will be at a greater advantage if you do . . . even if you never end up traveling to a country that speaks the language. And if you have children or will in the future . . . look into information about enrolling them in foreign language classes early on. They just might thank you when they arrive at adulthood and venture off to foreign lands to experience other cultures or if they call you about the amazing job they got because they are already completely fluent in two languages or more!