Close Menu


Everyone speaks English


A Canadian hockey player who lives in China started talking to a group of my friends in a bar. We asked how China was; smiles on our faces, expectantly waiting to hear something interesting, something fascinating. He replied:


“Nobody speaks English! Before I was living in Shanghai things were great but they moved us out to the country and nobody speaks English there, it’s terrible”


We nodded politely, our smiles froze slightly but we continued talking. After he left all three of us looked at each other and said “why doesn’t he learn Chinese? What’s he doing in China if he can’t speak Chinese?”


Maybe he is just there to play sports and has no intention of becoming proficient in Chinese, but if that was the case why would you complain nobody spoke English? If you aren’t going to put the effort in to learn Chinese then it’s totally fair that they don’t speak English. But his tone of voice told me that he was genuinely amazed and very pissed off that no-one spoke English in his city. So ice-hockey dude, what’s the deal?


English speakers. We are a lucky bunch. Everyone is learning our language; everyone watches our movies, our TV shows, consumes our news, our media. We can travel pretty much anywhere and someone will speak our language. We demand that other countries learn English for economic benefits; if you can talk with us we will buy your stuff. So when we come overseas there is this feeling that we just don’t need to really try to learn a second language, it isn’t necessary. We’ll learn the basics but that’s it.


English speakers are woefully monolingual; 25-30% of Americans can speak a second language and 25% of Brits can hold a conversation in another language. New Zealand sit at 19% with people of Pasifika and Asian decent far more likely to speak a second language. I am more sympathetic to those who live their whole lives in their home country, I get why they don’t speak a second language.



Where I live (Japan) the foreigner community in Japan is a mixed bag. Some of us are fluent and some of us can only speak a smidgen of Japanese. For some of us it’s our first experience of being illiterate and not understanding anything. This is scary. But thanks to the world-wide push to learn English (and because we teach it) many of us point the finger at the locals and say “why can’t you speak English? You studied this in school!” I’m guilty of saying this a few years back when there were so many moments where I was struggling to communicate and the other person wouldn’t meet me half way. You know everyone has studied English and they should be able to speak a little bit, they should try harder! But should they? I live in Japan where the main language is Japanese. The expectation that people should try to communicate with me in English is packed full of privilege. Let’s reverse the situation. If a French person came to the UK where French is taught in schools and started talking to everyone in French, then getting angry at people when they didn’t understand him what would the reaction be? I’m pretty sure he would be told to piss off and learn English because this is ENGLAND. Look at the recent debacle in Australia with an advertisement at a bus stop in Arabic.  People were not happy.


But my lack of language was tolerated, even expected.


The presumption that you can’t speak their language (apparently this happens a lot in Korea) can make it difficult for you to become proficient because people will just use English to talk to you. I get that. I also know that a system which hires native speakers who don’t need to speak the language is deeply, deeply flawed. These countries want our English or our sports abilities more than they want us to be functioning members of society. That’s kind of gross. But it’s also gross we can get jobs and opportunities just because we are from English speaking countries. It’s not simply that native speakers are inherently lazy; the system sets them up with the idea that learning the language is not necessary. For ALTs it’s an advantage to speak Japanese, but not a requirement. If your role was reversed you would feel very little sympathy with someone who came to your own country and didn’t speak any English but expected people to help him or her indefinitely.

Taken from NY Times "The Benefits of Bilingualism" Source

Taken from NY Times “The Benefits of Bilingualism” Source

Most of the world is multilingual. People have the ability to speak two languages. They are not geniuses nor do they have any kind of super powers. In some countries it is the most normal thing in the world to operate in two even three languages. Linguistic research tells us we can become bilingual; if we can speak one language we can definitely learn another. But it takes commitment, dedication and a willingness to shed your cultural safety net. Adults apparently have more clout then children do when it comes to learning another language; we have more systems in place to learn faster and more efficiently. The fact that you didn’t learn a second language when you were a child will not impede you if you decide to do it when you get older. That whole “learn it when you’re young” thing is actually bullshit.


I think us native English speakers should try our darndest to learn another language especially if we live in a non-English speaking country. The whole world is making an effort to learn our language, watch our movies, read our books. The least we can do is return the favor, if we don’t we are behaving like the worst kind of spoiled, demanding child. Nobody wants to be that kid throwing a tantrum at the mall because mum said they couldn’t have another doughnut even though they’ve already eaten three and had a McFlurry AND been taken to the movies AND got a like five new toys.


Learning another language should be something we all do because we CAN. If you are living overseas use this opportunity to become at least conversational in another language. It’s hard, and you feel dumb sometimes but by god it’s worth it.


This was for you, hockey guy.




Pinterest Share Goggle+ Share

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *