I have a ‘problem’. As my level of Castilian is still relatively low, Catalan people tend to switch to English as soon as anything more complex needs to be communicated. This has the effect of faster communication in the moment, but the broader effect of making it difficult for me to raise my level of Spanish. I find myself lamenting the fact that so many young folk speak such good English, and feeling jealous of my students in London, who had a whole host of linguistically inept natives on their doorstep, forcing them to step up their English at top speed.
And then I remember that my ‘problem’ is not a problem at all. English is an obligation here, if you want to get a promotion or travel. You need to pay to get classes if you want to speak excellent English: yet another aspect of life that makes the rich richer and has the poor facing closed doors.
So it creates a power differential within the country, but of course between citizens of different countries as well. One who is not a native English speaker is disempowered in relation someone who is, because the former has an extra challenge to overcome in order to be at the same level of international employability. Not only a glass ceiling, but glass walls as well.
Once, as a child, I wondered out loud why my grandfather had had to go to war. An adult in my life replied by asking me this question: ‘Well, would you like us all to be speaking German?’ There’s nothing wrong with German: the interesting observation is that she was using language as a handy indicator of both power and identity. To have another country invade ours and win would have had the effect of disempowering us and erasing our identity. Now, in addition to their military invasions, the UK and the US are invading the rest of the world linguistically.
It’s common for those who are dominant to belittle the struggles of those who are disenfranchised; to accord them weight would be to acknowledge one’s powerful status and therefore have it threatened. Whether I like it or not, the possession of inherited economic and political ‘power’ as a British person is part of my identity; this power is playing out and being reinforced every time I go to another place and speak English.
Indeed, my ‘problem’ is not a problem at all, but a ‘white tears’ phenomenon: a minor inconvenience that results from my unearned privilege. It’s a signal that one must transcend our privilege before one can get closer to understanding the disempowered. A native English speaker must listen hard to those from other cultures, in their own languages. And if it takes us a little extra effort to get to that level of understanding, so be it.