As a communications professional whose first language is not English, I think about language, accent, and culture a lot.
A little bit about myself — I grew up in Hong Kong but I studied in an international program. While I wouldn’t consider myself a native English speaker since my family and the majority of my friends speak Cantonese, I never had to worry about my English standing in the way of me communicating or landing an interview in my home country or overseas.
A few years ago, my family moved to Vancouver. As a newcomer to Canada, my brother was required to take an English level test to ensure he was placed in the appropriate curriculum and received the support he needs at school. While waiting for his assessment, I overheard a conversation between a desperate teenager and an impatient receptionist. The teen was trying to provide information about his recent move to Canada but the receptionist was having trouble understanding him. Distressed and embarrassed, the teen said, “Sorry for my bad English.”
I’m sure we have all heard this phrase before, whether in an online forum or in a real-life conversation, but what exactly is the mentality behind this whole sorry-about-my-bad-English attitude?
It is common for English speakers to naturally expect people to speak in their language as theirs is the global lingua franca and everyone else has gone to the effort of learning their language. No matter how many languages a person speaks — if they mispronounce words in English or speak with a non-native accent, they can easily be perceived as less intelligent and be subjected to ridicule due to their “lack of communication skills”. I know foreign students who drop their ethnic middle names and strive to lose their accent only so that they can prove that they are just as capable as native speakers of English. While English speakers have the privilege of learning for the sake of fun and improvement, speakers of other languages suffer from the pressure of knowing that their career prospects will be affected if they do not know the language well enough.
Accent is a funny thing. It gives variety and adds diversity to a language, a society and a culture, yet I have seen the most articulate people stutter and lose confidence in front of a crowd due to their accent. We often hear about the concept of privilege, relating to gender, race, and social status. What we don’t hear about as often in the media is linguistic privilege — an inherent advantage you get for growing up speaking a powerful language. As speakers of the global lingua franca, native English speakers are definitely the most linguistically privileged of all.
Native English speakers are privileged in a sense that they don’t have to deal with unreasonable expectations of being fluent and speaking without accents in a second language. They don’t have to deal with the fear of being judged unfairly based on their speech. Even in societies where English does not dominate, accommodations for English speakers are still rather prevalent.
In Hong Kong, people often joke that if you know Mandarin, Cantonese and English, you will get around; if you speak Cantonese and English, you will be pretty well paid; if you can only speak English, then you have absolutely nothing to worry about. This may sound absurd, but it’s the sad truth. Even in Hong Kong, where most people are Cantonese speakers, you are more likely to be excused for having poor Cantonese than for having bad English. I had numerous friends from international schools who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, speak Cantonese properly. In fact, some of them even pride themselves for having English, instead of Cantonese, as their first language. They are often deemed as being “more competent” or “better educated” because of their proficiency in English; whereas students with poor English often get ridiculed and do not have as much of an advantage in terms of job prospects and opportunities.
No one should ever feel the need to apologize for their bad “English”, or for their poor performance in any other languages. Not only does it create a power disequilibrium but it also reinforces unrealistic expectations.
To all the English learners out there: it is normal to have insecurities about how you sound in the ears of native speakers, but at the same time it is also absolutely normal to not be fluent in it. Lastly, to all the English native speakers: be considerate to other learners of English as privilege isn’t something you can choose, otherwise it would cease to exist.