Not long ago I got into an argument with an East Asian international student. Now those of you who know me will know that I’m not really an argumentative person, for the most part I avoid confrontation wherever it arises, and even if people are rude or distasteful I will humour them for the sake of social harmony. But seeing as this girl was a recent acquaintance, and also quite singularly annoying, I let my usual guard down and decided to give her a piece of my mind.
What on earth caused such a crumbling of my usually affable demeanour, you might ask? Well, in the course of one of her usual griping monologues about the inconvenience of living in my country and city – regular complaints included; accusing us of a failed multiculturalism; overly expensive luxury food (hint: it’s luxury for a reason); and having crappy building standards; among other things – she decided to leave me with this gem: “I’m so glad I’m not a f***ing English native who can only speak English.” Now, this accusation is far from new. But her added arrogance was the straw that broke the camel’s back.*
We here are very used to being told that our language skills are appalling compared to the rest of Europe – let alone the rest of the world. It is something we glumly accept with a sputtering of self-deprecating comments while seeking to turn the conversation elsewhere. For the sake of argument I will leave this accusation unchallenged in statistical terms although I do wonder if it is not one of those pieces of common knowledge that is actually just common ignorance. At any rate, it is clear to most people on this planet that native English speakers are born with a natural advantage, two successive world super powers have been English speaking, to the point where it is the de facto international language of business, and science. A British tourist can travel from one side of the globe to the other, passing through countless countries and, assuming she has even a modicum of money, never truly fear the language barrier at all.
Where even millions of well off Europeans are learning English to bolster their international career options, native English speakers are secure in the knowledge that any international institution worth its salt will have an office or branch in their home country; some may even require a sort of neo-imperialist mid-level bureaucrat to be dispatched to some far flung outpost of their business empire where they, as a white person with a western salary, will instantly jump up several social classes with next to no effort at all. This is all true and it is by various degrees unfair and even subtly racist or oppressive depending on the context. Be that as it may, the girl’s comment was, in my humble opinion, dripping with class privilege and the fallacy of individual merit (I forget what this is properly called but I shall elaborate on it below).
That is to say, that this girl, who has studied at a university for her bachelors, lived in Shanghai, toured the USA, and is now doing a masters at a top ten university in London – the fees for which are probably on the order of tens of thousands of pounds a year for tuition alone – was doing the verbal equivalent of spitting on poor people less fortunate than herself. Almost all of this due the happy accident of her birth. And when I challenged her on it she had the temerity to say that her German adviser and some other international elitists had the same opinion so it’s not just her. Oh, well that’s alright then isn’t it!
The simple fact of the matter is, most skills that people develop in life are either forced on them in their youth, or acquired through acute economic necessity. If you’re an itinerant salesperson in the hinterlands of China you probably do speak 3 or 4 dialects purely out of economic necessity, by a similar mechanism, if you are a Taiwanese student your English is probably pretty damn good because you’ve been forced to learn it at school for about a decade**. If you’re a regular middle-class American kid your chances of going to Yale, or MIT, is orders of magnitude higher than that of an Afghanistani kid of even slightly higher comparable social class. If you went to an East Asian school your maths is probably better than the world average because your school system spends about twice as much time on it and starts significantly earlier, forcing high level algebra down children’s throats when their western counterparts are still working on integers and fractions. At the end of it such people will have better maths skills, and a higher relative skill in a foreign language, does this mean they are somehow better people than the feckless English natives who were never forced into such scenarios and have never been faced with the need to learn six or seven dialects to avoid starvation? Is the American kid who gets into MIT that much better than his Afghani counterpart? Not a bit of it!
As someone, who knows just how difficult it can be to learn a language to any appreciable level of fluency (granted I’ve chosen a particularly difficult one in Chinese), I’m under no illusions as to just how much time, effort and, yes, hard cash, it takes to become good at a foreign language under your own steam. Frankly, the British natives would be nothing but workaholic martyrs if they went about learning languages the way others in less privileged positions do, simply for the sake of being as “bilingual” as other communities are.
If we were to take the same view as this girl, we would be scoffing at malnourished peasants from the third world for being too stupid to go to university: if only they’d put the effort in, 40% of us go to university, glad we’re not like those f***ing [developing country name] natives. Never mind the fact that they have to work all day to get water and food. And we would be rightly given a thorough telling off for it afterwards too. (Hyperbole, guys, I’m not pretending our struggles are as serious as theirs).
Relative privilege cuts both ways and is no less indefensible when it comes from a foreign elite and is directed at poor working class whites than it is the other way around. We need to stop kicking downwards in the vain attempt to inflate our own egos. Everyone suffers and everyone works hard chipping away at the coalface of life, the difference is some people have pickaxes, some have mechanical diggers, and sadly, some have toothpicks.
*Granted her deep contempt for the British working class may be an accident of language, swearing at an inappropriate moment and unwittingly conveying something she didn’t intend to, textual communication is fraught with such misunderstandings, but I stand by my interpretation given the context of her other messages in the past.
**Funnily enough, after writing this article I came across this gem: http://www.thewildeast.net/2015/07/taiwans-english-language-education-a-living-dinosaur/
It seems that even the girls basic claims of broad scale English proficiency in Taiwan were greatly exaggerated.