On Speaking English as a Second Language

Smart in Russian
A friend on Facebook posted this picture, which then sparked a discussion about speaking English when it isn’t your native language.

So here’s the thing: It’s hard. What this illustration points out is incredibly true. When I moved to Lithuania, I had no idea how to speak the language. Eventually, a few years after I arrived, I had the opportunity to take a basic, entry-level class.

It was hell.

Being a teacher myself, I would talk with my teacher who told me, after that fact, that when she saw she had an American coming in to her class, she was a little nervous. “I hate teaching Americans – any native English speakers, really.”

Now, mind you, the class itself was taught in English as that was the common lingua franca amongst the students, so the idea of speaking English wasn’t the problem. 

There’s an old joke that goes “If you speak 2 languages, you’re bi-lingual. If you speak 3 or more languages, you’re multi-lingual. If you speak 1 language, you’re American.” Regardless of the language requirements for high school or college graduation, Americans are rarely taught to respect another language. In fact, we’re often not taught to respect our own. I had a professor at UNLV who delighted in telling students about the time he was at a party and the conversation got around to professions.

“I’m an English professor,”this professor had told his conversational companion.
“I was never very good at English,” came the reply.
“I could tell.”

Th point of the short interchange, as was explained to us students, was that this wasn’t an unusual dialogue. This professor was astounded at the pride Americans often took in not knowing their own language. The particular exchange he told us about was the culmination of years of him not knowing how to respond when that pride of ignorance reared its head and how he finally decided on an answer.

So when this teacher of Lithuanian said she didn’t like teaching Americans, I had this in the back of my mind. But that wasn’t the primary reason. No, the primary reason she didn’t like teaching to native English speakers was the same thing which made me feel like the girl in that picture up above and almost caused me to quit the class midstream – gendered words. We don’t have them in English (not entirely true, there’s two, but they really don’t matter) and they’re hard to grasp conceptually. Not having them makes English, at a basic level, one of the easiest languages to learn and communicate in.

Which brings us right back around to that picture up top. Trying to speak Lithuanian, I felt like an idiot. Then I thought of my students who are forced to speak to me in a language not their own. Sure, they start learning in second grade and they have to pass an English test with a level of B1 (in the European system where A1 is basic and C2 is native-level speaker) in order to get into university, but still, they’re unsure, especially around a native speaker.

I do my best to put them at ease, but every semester I have students fail the class, not because they aren’t smart or because they don’t know the material, but because they are too uncomfortable with their English proficiency to ask questions, do the homework, or even come to class. I explain, in every first lecture, every semester, that I won’t grade them on grammar, but on content, in hopes of alleviating the problem. Sometimes it works. Often it doesn’t.

And it sucks. Becuase I know these kids have original thoughts and good ideas. I know they want to contribute in class and do their best in the homework, but they’ve been taught, somewhere along the line, that they must be perfect or they shouldn’t speak at all. And that’s wrong.

When I see them struggling with a concept or word in English, I have them say it in Lithuanian, in hopes someone else in the class will be able to help. As a last resort, I have them just explain their whole idea in their language, becuase the class isn’t for me, it’s for them. And when they are allowed to revert to Lithuanian, you can see the cognition in their faces, that they get what they’re saying and they’re able to impart it to their classmates.

And that feels good.

As for me, I finished the class and have an A1 certificate in Lithuanian, I can order my coffee. Sometimes. Becuase more often than not, to a native Lithuanian speaker, I sound like an idiot.

4 thoughts on “On Speaking English as a Second Language

  1. As a long-term fan of kpop and similar industries, I would compare Americans not too willing to learn a foreign language to Asian idols rarely being able to speak English (bear with me on this one). I used to be quite frustrated, cause only few Asian idols speak English and 80-90% of those who do were mixed race and thus grew in America or so. I wasn’t able to enjoy their appearances or TV shows or similar products by them, cause not everything gets fansubbed and if it doesn’t – what’s the point if you can’t understand it. And after quite some time I realised – they don’t learn English cause they don’t have to. Their main promotions are in Japan and China. In other businesses, it’s not that prevalent or necessary to deal with USA or Europe, since the rest of Asia is huge. So English is not even nearly as needed as it is for European folks, who have way more inter-language interactions due international exposure within Europe. And that’s where the American similarity comes in – USA is huge with tons of people. A lot of them (I would even dare say majority) do not have such strong ties with Europe or Asia, so for them English is perfectly enough to get by. And perhaps that’s where the pride comes in, it may be nationalistic in a way – “why would I need to learn other languages, I can perfectly live my life here in USA, with what USA provides me, I do not need other countries to rely on”. There’s of course, still the power in a “hey, it’s *them* who need to learn my language, not the other way around”, which is just straight up a douche position to have. So while I’m still displeased with such situation, these thoughts do make it easier to forgive Americans for not knowing English, unless I can just see that they’re that kind of ignorant people by choice.

    I’ve also heard one joke/remark that these days, in business, English is not a foreign language anymore. (In Lithuanian context, that is). And that’s kinda true. Cause the way things are going, we *have* to know English. It’s now a requirement, not an advantage. I still take great pride in being fluent in English, though, rather than just being able to communicate with others. Cause among Lithuanians you can quite often see a very clear difference between someone claiming they speak English and not really being able to use it aside from certain necessities or standard vocabulary. So I’ll finish on a somewhat fun note – a good American friend, who’s very smart and educated and all that, once told me (it was about 2 years into our friendship): “during all this time, there have been probably only two times when your language reminded me you’re not a native speaker”. And that’s the kind of statement I want engraved on my tombstone.

      1. In regards to the “America is huge so we don’t have to learn another language” idea, this is very true. You have to remember that fewer than 30% of Americans have passports (and about half only have them because you need passports to go to Mexico on Spring Break and they never renew them after university). You could spend your entire life traveling in the US and still not see it all. And if you want foreign content, that’s what EPCOT is for. You can hit a dozen or so countries, meet natives, have traditional foods and do it all in an afternoon or two.

        That said, whenever I tell that joke about “one language, you’re American” over here, someone always says “or British!” which seems to indicate a certain sense of nationalism, considering there are different languages and cultures just a short ferry ride (or, in the case of Wales or Ireland, just across the border).

        As for English not being a foreign language here, I always remark on the fact that so many signs and company names and marketing concepts are all written in English. Fascinating to me from both standpoints: one that it’s so prevalent and two, the companies who refuse to acknowledge it.

  2. It’s hard. Really, really hard.

    I am published, so you’d think I wouldn’t have these problems, but no matter how good you are, they still persist. I get comments from readers, editors–and what have you–that my fiction sounds a little strange. After they find out that I’m Lithuanian, they graciously retract this and add that my English is really good. That still stings though, because I don’t want my English to be good, I want you not to notice it. After all, you don’t get any freebies, just because you started out from behind the starting line. You have to be as fast as everybody else.

    Think about anything you might want to pursue. Writing has prose. YouTube has accent. These things do matter, in the end.

    Now non of these problems are insurmountable, I should know, but sometimes it does feel like running with weights on.

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