Blog / Thoughts

The Language Bias: English & The World

Language can be a peculiar thing. At times, it appears that being a native English speaker comes with many benefits. Should you choose to travel the world, you have the option of teaching English (given you have certain other qualifications). Should you want to speak to a group of varied foreigners, English will probably be the language that is being used in that situation. Should you have any interest in media – whether it be music, movies, or television – you will have an abundance of options to choose from. It all sounds wonderful, but it comes with a cost.

Although most foreigners assume – based on my accent – that I come from some part of the US (mostly California), the truth is that I was raised in a very bilingual environment. As a kid, most of my classes were in French. See, this is because I’m Canadian. Furthermore, I grew up in Canada’s most prominent bilingual (between English and French) city. The neighbourhood I lived in? Very “Francophone”, as we call it in Canada. This means that 50% or more of the area’s residents spoke French as their first language. Thus, those of us who grew up there were most likely enrolled in French schools, if only to be given a boosted education.

While I was known as “one of the French kids” at my childhood school, English is – and always will be – my first language. There’s no denying that. Therefore, I see the world from an English-speaking perspective. I understand the benefits of being an “Anglophone”, and how I’m also fortunate to have been educated in another language. However, what no one seems to talk about is the language bias that exists within English and other languages.

Whether you choose to practice another language in another country, or simply want to practice within your own environment, being an English speaker can be a hindrance. How, you may ask? Well, it’s simple: English natives are much more tolerant in regards to varying accents and vocabulary. At least, this usually seems to be the case, unless dealing with a small-minded, not-so-worldly person. Still, within Canada, and around the world, it appears as though should you have a foreign accent in English, it isn’t much of an issue.

Yet, one has to wonder – why aren’t other languages like this? During my first few months in Spain, I noticed that Spaniards – including those who spoke horrendous English – didn’t want to speak Spanish with me nor my other friends who weren’t quite fluent yet. In Canada, French Canadians are hostile towards anyone who doesn’t speak their exact dialect of French. It’s gotten to the point where native French speakers – from France, Africa, or other parts of the French-speaking world – will even get questioned on it. The funny thing is that this happens within the language, too; people from France are known for being quite hostile towards French Canadian (particularly Quebecois) accents. The Hispanic world seems to have its own slight bias, too. What’s the deal?

It’s no wonder that so many English natives have a hard time learning other languages. While we have the advantages of speaking a universally-sought-after language, many foreign speakers seem to hold a certain sense of pride (and arrogance) over their own mother tongue. It isn’t true for all languages, nor all peoples, but it’s a contentious issue that needs to be addressed.

When speaking to foreigners, we’re taught to be patient with their English. English isn’t their first language, we’re told. If they speak good (or somewhat good) English, we’re encouraged to praise them. However, the same isn’t really done in reverse in a lot of cases, and it gets frustrating. While I was lucky enough to grow up in a bilingual city and in a bilingual school, many people – especially Americans and Australians – are raised in English-speaking countries where learning a foreign language isn’t really as easy for these reasons and many more. So, are they really to blame if they only speak English?

Another perpetuated myth seems to be that all Canadians speak French. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, not all Canadians speak English. Some Canadians only speak English, while some others only speak French. Some speak neither. At the end of the day, it makes for a society of linguistically-confused people who simply seek out fellow [insert language] speakers.

Now, that’s not to say that I would ever discourage any English natives from learning another language. It’s just a warning, though, particularly for those who want to learn French. Sometimes, the natives just don’t make it easy, even for those who are natives themselves. Having said that, when some of the non-English speaking world seems to be so intolerant towards English natives who try to practice their language(s), are English natives still expected to be so understanding in regards to foreign accents? Does it depend on the country?

From one (former) English teacher to you – I’m not all that sure. What do you think?

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