The Rise of Non-Native English Speakers

November 6th, 2013
The Rise of Non-Native English Speakers | One Hour Translation

Non-native speakers of English now outnumber native speakers by a ratio of 3-1, granting a tremendous advantage to English speakers everywhere.

Have you ever contemplated the concept of ‘privilege’? Privilege comes in many forms, and generally implies a subtle or obvious advantage you have over others, usually because you’re part of a mainstream that dominates. The rich, for example, enjoy privilege despite laws that require equal treatment, because the rich can afford services that their poorer fellow citizens cannot.

Privilege isn’t always purposeful – in other words, not everyone is even aware of the privilege they’re enjoying. That’s one reason I love translation – it affords you the ability to truly contemplate the meaning of words and language, and the term privilege with its multiple meanings and endless facets is really fascinating. Especially when it all goes meta and we contemplate the concept of ‘English Privilege,’ which I’d define as the benefit of being a native speaker of the most popular language in the world. You may not be aware of this privilege, but if you learned English without even trying as you grew up, you’re enjoying it every time you travel abroad.

Three to One

English has long dominated international politics, economics, and technology for a variety of factors. The United States is the lone superpower left in the world, militarily and politically speaking, which is part of it, and it’s also still the largest economy in the world and the biggest technology innovator. Put that all together, add in the economic and political power of other English-speaking countries and no wonder English dominates.

More importantly, however, the world is learning English. English as a Second Language (ESL) classes can be found literally everywhere in the world, and recent statistics have shown that the number of non-native English speakers – people who speak English as a second language – actually outnumber the native speakers by a ratio of three to one. We’re closing in on three billion English speakers in the world, and the overwhelming majority of them aren’t native speakers.

English Privilege

That means that without any special training or other advantage, those of us who effortlessly speak English as a native language can basically go anywhere and get by without any other language skills. You may have already experienced this privilege when on vacation and easily finding locals who speak enough English to understand you.

That’s privilege – imagine someone from another part of the world came to your neighbourhood – would there be any chance that someone would speak their language? Likely not. They would be forced to take classes to learn English, or hire an interpreter, or simply struggle through without understanding or being understood.

So, next time you’re watching the news and they’ve found someone in some remote area of the world who can be interviewed coherently in English, be grateful, because it’s your privilege on display.

Image courtesy erasmusmadrid.org