Tips on Being the Native English Speaker

Monastic_LibraryI’m not sure there’s much to debate about English’s place as the current means of international communication, particularly when it comes to global business and intercultural exchange. Recent studies confirm this trend (here and here), particularly in Europe. There’s even an abbreviation, ELF (stands for English as lingua franca, a term that it is itself oxymoronic), for conversations that occur among speakers of different first languages.

Personal accounts also seem to bear this out. From my experience in Germany, any meeting or discussion that involves at least one non-German speaker is conducted in English. This is a massive credit to Germans as businesspeople and citizens of the world. Nevertheless, this is a great sense of satisfaction from being able to participate in a discussion in a foreign language. In fact, it is one of life’s great delights to witness the collective relief of a group once everyone realizes that the meeting can be conducted in their native, non-Anglophone language. Americans rarely experience this, so it’s worth stating: Being able to express yourself in your native language, especially when the stakes are high, is one of the most freeing feelings ever. If you’re into blogs, here’s my favorite from Ta-Nehisi Coates. So let’s say you’re a native speaker of English, and you suddenly find yourself in a non-English environment. Here are a few tips about how to conduct yourself and also address some inevitable questions.

1) Embrace your role as the English expert
If you do happen to be the native speaker among non-natives, embrace it. Accept every request to review a document, review an email and (if able) translate a text. Become the expert even if you at first feel unprepared. These requests allow you to be involved in lots of different projects, tasks and discussions, many of which you would not otherwise be involved in. Native English skills can open plenty of doors, doors that will later lead to rooms where you can showcase other talents. What’s more, if you do indeed happen to be living and working in a non-English environment, the chances are that you will also need plenty of linguistic favors from your colleagues or acquaintances.

2) Learn how to address the question, “Is this right?”
Unless you’ve ever had a course or five in writing tutoring, second language writing or comparative linguistics, your answer to this right-wrong question will often be a version of, “I don’t know. It just sounds right.” This answer is often not enough for those non-native speakers who want to correct their mistakes and avoid them in the future. Why exactly should the adjective be “continually” rather than “consistently”? Why do five prepositional phrases in a row make for poor sentence structure? Why should the list of bullet points all begin with verbs in the imperative? Why shouldn’t we use the passive voice here? The internet is a wonderful thing, especially when it comes to questions about English grammar and syntax. Here are some of my favorite resources: Purdue Online Writing Lab or tesol’s resource page). If you don’t have time to look into this stuff, remember that Google can solve most grammar-related questions in .10 seconds or less. If you’re looking for inspiration, see here.

3) Don’t assume that your English is the correct one
There isn’t just one English. In fact, that is one of its greatest but also most depressing qualities. English is spoken and written differently in different corners of the earth. Moreover, no central ministry exists, like the Academie Francaise or the German Kultusministerium, to adjudicate all English-related controversies. In that sense, I think English is a fitting communication medium for the modern, individualized, be-yourself world. There are some rules, but in general, you can stylize your English for yourself. Just think about all of the possibilities for expressing the second person plural: y’all, you, you guys, yousuns, youse, yiz (Irish Times). In short, just because you learned it one way, doesn’t mean that others didn’t learn it another. No need to be elitist or a homer about it.

4) Don’t let English define you
Being a native speaker of English can get you off to a fast start in a non-Anglophone world. It offers plenty of advantages, particularly among those involved in global business or any other situation that involves speakers of many different languages. But it can also be a crutch, one that hinders you from ever really becoming part of your new or adopted culture. Just because everyone around you can speak English, doesn’t mean that they automatically want to or feel particularly comfortable doing so. English might open many doors. There just might not be anyone in the Zimmer.

**Dedicated to the memory of Linda Bergmann. She was a great mentor and teacher, especially when it came to discussing and teaching English in its many native and non-native contexts. She will be missed greatly by the Purdue family and the writing center community around the world.

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