…because some thoughts are worth remembering
There are many benefits of English being your first or second language, even though it’s not the most commonly spoken language in the world.
Native fluency of English in Europe is especially useful because when a Spaniard and a Lithuanian who can’t understand each other’s language communicate, the language of choice is almost always English, even if each of them know multiple languages, because English is usually the common denominator. But I feel guilty sometimes joining in on the conversation because they are making an effort to communicate in a foreign language they aren’t necessarily the most comfortable in, and I feel like I’m enforcing the dumb American stereotype, sticking to English. I feel like it’s unfair because being able to speak English at a native level, there is an advantage in being able to articulate your thoughts. When my European friends struggle to complete their sentences, I jump in to help out with a vocabulary or an expression. They give me more respect than I deserve for being able to provide the right words. It’s easy for such participation to be mistaken for a developed skill and, god forbid, intellect. Pretty soon, people look towards you to lead discussions, not because you have leadership qualities or you have something important to say, but the fact that you can say something in English well.
Whether you approve of the quality of entertainment coming out of Hollywood, it’s everywhere. There are lots of options for films and movies while abroad because you understand English. More educational opportunities are open, too. In a small country like Denmark, there isn’t sufficient critical mass for textbook publishers to be publishing specialized books for advanced courses in Danish, so the Danes must suffer through mastering a new topic in a foreign language. More books are published and translated in English.
If another language is used for a sign or a menu, it’s usually in English. English being such a chopsuey of languages, even if an English version of a document is not available, it’s easier to figure it out if it is a Romance language, especially if your English teacher was diligent about pointing out roots of words. Japanese, for example, doesn’t help you in learning German vocabulary at all, but knowing English does.
With all the advantages, it is no wonder we get lazy. I struggle to at least not act like a I take that privilege for granted. I don’t want to assume that there will be books in English sold at a bookstore in a foreign country. I don’t want to assume that I can just start speaking in English with another foreigner. I shouldn’t be so shocked when food packaging doesn’t have any English (because the language choice in this case is for compliance with the countries being exported to, vs. the most popular common language people might know in those countries). I should show gratitude when they can understand you and speak with you in English. So despite the fact that most Danes have basic conversational English, I start off with Danish, if only to say, “Mit dansk er ikke så godt. Må jeg snakke på engelsk? (My Danish isn’t very good. May I speak in English?”)”
Photo: Sign at the entrance of Christiania, the hippy (?) district of Copenhagen in multiple languages including English.