Apr 12, 2009

The global isolation of English

Posted by: Marian Salzman In: American life

While living in Amsterdam just over a decade ago I was impressed by the way everybody I met spoke English—fluently, not just conversationally. What’s more, there were plenty of English-language movies and TV shows with subtitles, as well as books, magazines and newspapers in English. In my global travels since, there have been very few times when I’ve had to resort to phrase books or gestures, not even in France. Just kidding—sort of.

People all over the world are so keen to learn English, it seems like the world has opened up for English speakers. Face-to-face or online, I can chat to my heart’s content with friends and colleagues from Latin America, Europe and Asia. What’s not to like? More than you might think, in fact. A comment in our PepTrends Tweetup last week got me wondering. What about all the communication out there that’s not in English?

My Dutch friends could connect with me, and the rest of the world, in English or French, but they could switch back to their own private Dutch language world in an instant. It’s the same with my Indian and Chinese and Russian friends. My English language world is completely accessible to them, plus they have a whole world of their own language and culture. And walking round midtown Manhattan, as a visiting friend observed, you hear more snatches of Spanish than English. Those Latinos are completely part of my world and completely part of the Latin world too.

Not a single one of those non-English-speaking worlds is accessible to me.

While living in Amsterdam just over a decade ago I was impressed by the way everybody I met spoke English—fluently, not just conversationally. What’s more, there were plenty of English-language movies and TV shows with subtitles, as well as books, magazines and newspapers in English. In my global travels since, there have been very few times when I’ve had to resort to phrase books or gestures, not even in France. Just kidding—sort of.

People all over the world are so keen to learn English, it seems like the world has opened up for English speakers. Face-to-face or online, I can chat to my heart’s content with friends and colleagues from Latin America, Europe and Asia. What’s not to like? More than you might think, in fact. A comment in our PepTrends Tweetup last week got me wondering. What about all the communication out there that’s not in English?

My Dutch friends could connect with me, and the rest of the world, in English or French, but they could switch back to their own private Dutch language world in an instant. It’s the same with my Indian and Chinese and Russian and Indonesian friends. My English language world is completely accessible to them, plus they have a whole world of their own language and culture. And walking round midtown Manhattan, as a visiting Indian observed, you hear more snatches of Spanish than English. Those Latinos are completely part of my world and completely part of the Latin world too.

Not a single one of those non-English-speaking worlds is accessible to me.

Suddenly being a native English speaker feels less like a passport to a globalized world, and more like a one-way ticket to a global isolation.

  • I've always loved learning languages and it still constantly enriches my life. I've found having good French, German, Italian, Dutch and Spanish has given me "ins" to so many people, places, ideas and cultural goodies. Even my smatterings of Portuguese, Greek, Bahasa and Japanese have repaid the effort many times over.
  • Guest
    Don't stop learning people. Just keep at it and you'll get it eventually.
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