When people say “check your privilege,” what do we think about? We think about white privilege, male privilege, maybe we even think about class privilege. We consider the world immediately around us and the different ways an individual can experience existence in that world. How even the simple action of walking down the street late at night is experienced dramatically differently by different sexes, age classes, and ethnicities. Taking a moment to stop and consider the concept of privilege is usually pretty eye-opening, and it can feel like an aha moment to really process and understand what privilege means and how it manifests itself in our culture. But I am starting to think that we are often too quick to congratulate ourselves for this understanding, because I think we consistently forget to include something in this conversation: language privilege.
For the vast majority of my life, I have been blissfully ignorantly immersed in the English language. It’s my native language, the language I have always used to communicate with others (whether they come from an English-speaking country or not), the language of science, the language of the Internet, the language of mass-distributed pop culture, and the language of many countries with a high standard of living around the world, allowing me to travel comfortably (both as a tourist for whom countries accommodate by learning English, and as a tourist visiting other English-speaking countries). I never really put much time or energy into thinking about these facts. It made my life easy, and since it was easy, it didn’t feel like there was a problem to stop and think about. AKA: it functioned exactly the way privilege always does.
So when I moved to the bilingual city of Montréal 3 months ago, I had many rapid realizations: 1) Anglophones, myself included, are total douchebags without realizing it a lot of the time, 2) Being an anglophone makes your life unfairly easy, 3) No one talks about this. Why does no one talk about this?! This realization stings even more when you think about how obsessed the world is with the term “echo chamber” right now. (I can just imagine the Google Ngram line for “echo chamber” climbing and climbing ever since November 8th.) If we want to talk about echo chambers, let’s talk about the biggest one in the world: the English language. We anglophones can talk amongst ourselves about the issues of privilege all we want, but until we at least start recognizing that an anglophone-dominated discussion is not an equally inclusive discussion, aren’t we just propagating another form of privilege? How often are we disregarding the opinions or contributions of others because we don’t speak their language, we never invested the effort in finding a translator, or perhaps worst of all, we find their English hard to understand and we’re too lazy to even try to work through that?
For example, I was once out shopping with one of my family members and we were buying some boots at the cashier’s desk. The man behind the cashier had a thick accent (I’m not sure where from, but I think Middle Eastern) and he was explaining that because we had spent a certain amount of money, we would receive a $20 gift card, but because of a problem with his computer he needed to first add $20 to the purchase and then subtract it. You could tell he had probably been dealing with irate customers all day demanding “wait, why did you charge me $20 extra?!” when that wasn’t actually the case. The relative I was with had some trouble understanding and became irritated. Once we left the cashier’s desk, they complained to me in a huff that “when [cashiers] have an accent like that they’re impossible to understand.”
I know this is a really inconsequential interaction in the grand scheme of that cashier’s day, and my relative didn’t even get that irritated at him, they just complained to me afterwards. But it really rubbed me the wrong way. I have no idea what the story arc of that cashier’s life is, but I don’t think I’d be wrong in assuming that he put in a huge amount of effort and study to become fluent in English along with all the other challenges of immigration. Just the action of communicating a problem in English represents a huge effort he had to put in earlier in life, and he did that to be able to live among and communicate with us. And it is so easy for us to just disregard that and complain about his accent. And it’s bizarre, because this relative of mine is an empathetic listener, liberal-minded, and just not the type of person you’d expect to act like that. This bias is so subconsciously rooted in the anglophone mindset. If you were to interrogate my relative directly about this interaction, my bet is that they would agree completely with the points made above: learning a new language is hard, immigrating is hard, this man didn’t deserve to be disregarded. But passively, without interrogation or critical thinking, this subconscious bias makes itself known.
So I think it’s worth it for us to start taking a pause to think about whether or not we are exerting our language privilege, and what we can do to to ameliorate that. If you live somewhere that is English-speaking but with a large immigrant population, like the majority of Canada and the United States, maybe it’s time to take a moment and think: am I being fair and respectful to those around me? Am I making an effort to acknowledge and appreciate their effort? Am I actually listening? And if you’re an anglophone visiting or living in non-English speaking countries, are you trying to learn something about that language? Or are you using English as a crutch?
Now, this is where I feel my argument starting to enter a grey area: because as much as English is a “crutch,” the fact that it’s so ubiquitous makes it an extremely convenient bridge between cultures. The dominance of English means that most people know at least a little bit of English: people want to know what’s going on in the “most powerful office in the world.” People want to consume internationally marketed movies and television. People want to pursue careers in the domain of science, people want to immigrate to countries with high standards of living. And more often than not, English is a means to achieve these goals. In this sense, whether we want it to be or not, English is a sort of “universal language.” For example, I take French classes in the evenings and the majority of my classmates are immigrants from South America. Occasionally the professor will use an English word to explain the meaning of the French word for the anglophones in the class. One day when he did this, he added on an apology to the South Americans in the classroom – “sorry, I always forget to use Spanish as well!” To which all the South American students waved their hands and said “English is fine, we understand that.”
And as much as I’ve seemed to attack the English language here, to be honest, the more I’ve learned French the more I’ve learned an appreciation for my own language too. And not just because learning a new language makes you appreciate how easy it is to express yourself in your own language. Because there are some aspects of English that generally make it a friendly language to learn and use: for one, anglophones really lean on their English. That makes it really easy for people learning English to practice it, because an anglophone will always stay in English and try to cooperate with their conversational partner, rather than switching languages according to their accent. This happens to me extremely frequently in Montréal: if I start a conversation in French, it’s highly likely the person will hear my anglophone accent and switch to English, hindering my learning. English is also a very general and flexible language. You can use pretty much whichever words you happen to know and that should suffice to get your point across, and there are very few linguistic faux pas. Whereas in French, word meanings and prononciation are quite specific, and sometimes it feels like a mine field to try to get my actual meaning across without making a mistake that obscures my intention.
That whole section made me cringe a bit to write, romanticizing about the great utility and ubiquity of my own language, and this is where I really get a sense of unilingual guilt. But I think they are fair judgments, and it’s just the reality we live in. When you know English, you are able to participate in a strongly interconnected global community.
So there are two ways an anglophone can deal with that reality:
- Take it as an excuse to remain inside the echo chamber
- Take it as a challenge to expand your world despite the default of convenience
Am I saying every anglophone should feel bad about themselves if they don’t know another language? No. Am I saying that it can only help you and expand your understanding of other cultures if you do? Yes. But for many people it’s just a fact that it’s not in the cards for them to put in that massive amount of time and effort, I know. What I think we can all agree to do, and start doing today though, is to look outside our echo chambers, listen empathetically, appreciate the efforts of those around us, and be cognizant of language privilege. Try not to assume that your English is “the right English,” and instead embrace the variety of accents – that variety only exists because all around the globe, people learned your language.