The problems of being a native speaker of a lingua franca

by Kristin Fehlauer

I’m glad I grew up speaking (American) English as my native language. I certainly wouldn’t want to have to learn it! Its huge vocabulary, incomprehensible and inconsistent spelling, subtle verb tenses – no thanks.

But speaking English as my first language has some unforeseen … I don’t want to call them downsides, but unexpected frustrations. Mostly these have to do with the fact that large swathes of the rest of the world often speak English as their second language – and do so excellently! It puts most Americans’ efforts to shame.

Kristin Fehlauer

Years ago I read a joke that nicely illustrates the somewhat paradoxical nature of this issue: Two men are walking down a road somewhere in the United States. A foreign car with diplomatic plates pulls up next to them. The chauffeur rolls down the window and asks, “Parlez-vous français?” The men stare back at him in puzzlement. “Hablan español?” Again, shrugs and blank stares. Slightly frustrated, the driver tries again: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Parla italiano?” Still no response, other than incomprehension. Exasperated, the man drives off.

One of the Americans turns to the other. “Maybe we should learn a foreign language.”

“Why?” his friend replies. “That guy knew four, and look at all the good it did him.”

Why don’t you speak [insert language here]?

As that story shows, speaking a foreign language can be pointless unless it’s the right one. So how do you choose what second language to learn?

This is a tricky question in the U.S. In many areas, Spanish is the logical choice, but there are also persuasive arguments to be made for French, German, Chinese, Russian, and so on. When you can convincingly argue for multiple languages, it’s hard to settle on one. By contrast, nearly everywhere else in the world has an excellent reason to learn English.
And this question has ramifications for when you learn this language, too. Obviously the earlier you start, the better. But given the large number of viable options, how do you choose which one to start teaching at the elementary school level? Because the choice is so much more obvious in other countries, it’s easy to make that a standard part of the primary school curriculum. As a result, they have a head start when it comes to learning their foreign language.

Photo credit: Florian Bernhardt

Where am I supposed to practice?

Another thing that interferes with Americans trying to learn a foreign language is the sheer difficulty of finding opportunities to practice. Rehearsing dialogues and memorizing vocabulary will only get you so far; you need to learn to express yourself in the other language in real situations. If you (are allowed to) fall back on English in desperation, you do yourself no favors. The pervasiveness of English as a second language means that Americans abroad are rarely required to use another language, lapsing into their mother tongue for reasons of expediency or comfort.

Personal appearance plays a role, too. For a few years I was attempting to learn Arabic, and traveled to a few Arab countries where I hoped to have an opportunity to practice. However, I am clearly of European heritage, so when interacting with the locals, they often mentally switched to English (or sometimes French or German) before I’d even thought about opening my mouth. I would make a feeble attempt in my baby Arabic, but they were already moving on to speak something else. Contrast that to when I was learning German, and I would be able to get at least one sentence out before the Germans figured out I’m not a native speaker; I was in a slightly better position to practice!

Why don’t I simply insist? I try, on occasion. But native speakers of English can still be rare in certain parts of the world – people are often eager to practice their English, and I hardly have the heart to refuse.

Is it ironic that we call it patois?

There’s yet another aspect of these encounters with non-native speakers that I find problematic. I’ve written elsewhere about the slight bemusement I sometimes feel when I come across even fairly standard varieties of British English. To my ear, some of their words sound like mistakes (anti-clockwise) or particularly quaint (fortnight). This quality is reminiscent of things children say as they learn, like “I goed to bed” instead of “I went.” My natural response is to laugh in delight at the unexpected term or usage – but also to conclude that it is wrong. It took me a long time to remember to give the benefit of the doubt and first inquire if what I found to be incorrect was in fact accepted British usage.

This sensation is only exacerbated when I talk with non-native speakers, who naturally make mistakes. But when is it a mistake and when is it new usage? With English becoming so widely established, this is a fuzzy, shifting line. I saw others have this reaction on one of my favorite television shows, QI, a British panel show all about “quite interesting” facts. In the episode “The Future” (air date: 2009), host Stephen Fry talks about two varieties of English: Panglish (Pan-English) and Singlish, or Colloquial Singaporean English. Fry cites various examples of the latter, such as “lay leo” for “radio” and “orleng tzu” for “orange juice.” As he does so, the four members of the panel, all native English speakers, continuously burst into laughter and call the examples “rubbish” (“garbage”).

I found their response understandable but also somewhat troubling. I certainly make (more than) my fair share of mistakes when speaking German, but fortunately most people refrain from sneering at them. Also, I couldn’t help but think of another empire that spread its language far and wide, which ultimately evolved into multiple different varieties. I imagine the Romans laughed as well if they heard the Gauls and the Galicians “mangling” their native language. And yet that non-standard, “vulgar” Latin ultimately gave rise to the Romance languages, important and beautiful tongues in their own right. Should we be so derisive now about what could be the lingua franca of the future?

4 responses to “The problems of being a native speaker of a lingua franca”

  1. nisha sharma says:

    I wanted to express my admiration for people who learn it later in life, because I think it’s really hard!

  2. Eugene says:

    “I’m glad I grew up speaking (American) English as my native language”. Nuff said. 🙂
    That joke you recall is originally Russian and is about Ukrainians. The punch line is “And a fat lot of good it has given him!”.
    Speaking of the Russians, they have a saying terribly fitting your case, “you are making God angry with your [evidently unfounded] complaint” (meaning you have been blessed with English as your native language).

    • Thanks for your comment, Eugene. I love how sometimes you can find the same joke in different countries. When I said I’m glad I have English as my mother tongue, I wanted to express my admiration for people who learn it later in life, because I think it’s really hard!

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