There are about 50 of us at a conference, an international meeting for those who work in my area of mathematics. We heard of many of the people presenting but never met them personally. My own presentation goes well. I think the work is pretty good, and I’m reasonably proud of it. Best of all, I deliver it in flawless English.
No big trick, you say, given that it’s my native tongue. But I’m one of only two native speakers here. Everyone else is European or Asian. The conference itself is in France, so the most common native language is French, but I also hear Italian-accented English, Spanish-accented English and German-accented English.
And yet even though exactly two of us speak English as a first language, the conference caters to us. All the papers are published in English, the talks are given in English and the questions afterwards are in English.
Looking around my cafeteria table during one of the lunch breaks, I guess the accents of my conversation partners. Two French, one German, one either Spanish or Portuguese, and me. Even the cafeteria conversation is in English. I’m the only one who’s conversing in his native tongue, and no one thinks anything about it.
How many Americans truly understand what a position of privilege we occupy, particularly when we travel abroad? Due to mere historical circumstance, a skill that millions of others spend years of painful effort to acquire comes to us as easily as breathing.
lt’s not like English is especially suited to be the world’s international language. Our spelling is horribly difficult, we have all sorts of nasty irregular verbs, and things like articles give non-native speakers fits.
To crudely sum up all the history of civilization, it just worked out that way.
But to paraphrase Spider-Man, with great privilege comes great responsibility.
I haven’t found the stereotypical haughtiness that Americans are supposed to expect when we try to speak French. The key thing is to try, to make the effort, as a courtesy and a sign of respect to your host country.
That’s why I begin my talk with a carefully constructed paragraph of high school French, just to show some effort. The self-deprecating joke I throw in gets a laugh, so I think it was much appreciated.
After all, the other speakers are giving highly detailed, technical presentations in English. Could I talk about my work in energy conservation functions in French? Japanese? German?
Not a chance.
Given the importance of English as the [[lingua franca]] of the civilized world, I’m bewildered by people’s resistance to “English only” initiatives here on our side of the ocean. Everybody else on the planet wants to learn English as soon as possible, but in the most influential English-speaking country in the world we insist on slowing the process down.
Learning English and assimilating is what will happen naturally in America if we stop assuming people have a right to be educated in the language they were born with.
Immigrant groups understand this quite well, since they’re not the big lobbyers for bilingualism. Those who push for bilingual education and so forth are predominantly Caucasian native English speakers. They seem intent, at best, on showing how enlightened and nonracist they are.
Riding the tram to and from the conference, I’m constantly struck whenever nonwhite riders talk. They may be Asian, black or Arabic, but as soon as they open their months, out comes beautiful, perfect French. My first reaction is “Wow, there’s an African-American who speaks French!”
Which is of course ridiculous, since she’s not African-American. Nor is she African-French, the very concept of which would be even more ridiculous here. She is simply French, and proud to be so.
Why can’t we have that here?