I actually read an answer to a question like this online today, and the answer was slamming people who speak English as a first language saying they don’t appreciate foreigners speaking English. I am a native speaker of English, and all I can say is they were generalizing too much. There are different attitudes among English speakers about people speaking English just as there are different attitudes among people who speak other languages as their first language toward people who speak their languages.Those of us who learn foreign languages need to do it for good reasons, and not for selfish reasons, and we will be more appreciated.
I have talked to English speakers who say, “If they want to speak to me, then they will have to learn to speak English.” It is true that attitude exists, but not with everyone. People with that attitude are happy with their lives. They are happy with speaking English, and they don’t feel the need to reach across cultures. Don’t bother with them unless you really want to talk to them. There are people who appreciate people who speak English as a second language as long as the attitude is right.
Many English speakers admire people who learn to speak English because they don’t understand language and think people who learn another language must be very smart. Ones who understand language understand how much effort it takes to learn English and appreciate the fact that someone took the time and effort to try to learn to talk to them. In fact, there are jobs in America that they won’t give to Americans because they think only foreigners can speak foreign languages. They don’t expect Americans to learn foreign languages. They advertise for bilingual people and hire foreigners who speak English, not Americans. However, I know people who have learned to speak English just to lord it over English speakers and walk around thinking they are smarter than everyone else, and those people are offensive. I have met them in more than one country. People who learn English just to see what monetary gain they can get from English speakers can be offensive too. If you learn to speak English because you truly want to communicate and make friends, people appreciate it.
There are even English speakers who are drawn to foreign accents. They think they are cool or sexy or something like that. If a preacher from another country comes and speaks at church, I have seen people mesmerized by his accent and want to hear more. Especially if someone has a French, Spanish, or Italian accent, English some speakers may think it is sexy. Americans love British, Australian, and Irish accents. They also like the accents of people who speak English as a second language.
I actually had trouble in Romania because my rector asked me not to speak Romanian at the university even though I was fluent because he didn’t want the students to know. He wanted them to be forced to speak English to talk to me. I complied, and I heard the students talking about how much smarter they were than I was because they could speak my language, but I couldn’t speak theirs. I was offended and told them off in Romanian, and shocked everyone. Maybe I should have toned it down a bit because the rector heard and wanted to know why I got mad at the students. I have seen their attitude in more than one country, and they forget that ESL teachers have given up their own country to come to their country to teach them. They don’t realize that some ESL teachers speak their language and some don’t, but they may not know which ones because in many countries, ESL teachers are asked not to speak anything but English. One of the reasons I study foreign languages is so I can understand where my students are coming from when they study English and be able to answer their questions more effectively or understand their problems better. However, another reason is also because I want respect. Some people have lack of respect for people who don’t speak their language, and as a professor, I need respect so I can teach my students.
Japanese who speak English well still might use a translator to show that they are humble. Anyone in their right mind knows that someone who speaks a language as a second language will never actually speak exactly like a native speaker no matter how good they get. It is impossible, so we need to be polite to one another and appreciate people who do it with a good attitude. When I was a student in Japan, my Japanese friends actually pushed me to speak Japanese to them and appreciated that I could. I used a translator for a class I taught, and the translator didn’t show up one day, and the students pushed me into teaching them in Japanese. They liked my Japanese even if I felt it lacked. They just wanted communication to take place as did I. It had nothing to do with who was smart and who wasn’t. It was communication that wouldn’t take place if I couldn’t do it. There was an American preacher in Japan, and the Japanese appreciated his preaching, but they had trouble listening to him because his grammar was bad and he mispronounced things. They said he made their ears hurt, but whenever he preached, they still showed up in full force to hear him because they liked what he was saying. He wasn’t skillful, but he got his message across, and that is the point.
Here in Korea, the Koreans have different attitudes too. I know an American preacher who has been here since before I was born, and they won’t let him speak in front of the church in Korean even though I have heard him speak Korean. He says he thinks it is because he makes mistakes when he speaks Korean. He has used a translator for more than sixty years because Koreans don’t like his Korean.
Some Koreans want to learn English, and they make friends with English speakers, not because they like them, but because they want to practice English. How do they think their English speaking friends will feel if they figure out they are just being used as an English conversation partner, and the person really doesn’t like them? I have Korean friends who don’t speak English, and they actually appreciate my terrible broken Korean. They asked me to teach a Bible class in Korean, and I don’t feel my Korean is that good, and I struggle and study hard, not just Bible, but also Korean, to teach that class. I have a Korean friend who I have known for several years now, and he just isn’t good with language, and he has just pulled my ear crazy trying to get me to understand things he says. He brings a movie in English he wants to watch that doesn’t have Korean subtitles and pushes me to watch it with him and translate for him into Korean as we watch. He has much more faith in my Korean than I do, but he has been very good for my Korean.
One thing that Koreans do to other orientals is actually get mad at them for not speaking Korean. If you are from another oriental country and could pass as Korean, you better study some Korean before you come to Korea because some Koreans could be offended by seeing a Korean looking face that does’t speak Korean. If you are what the Koreans call Gyopo, someone who is Korean, but has grown up overseas, they will appreciate your Korean, but they want it to be good. I knew a couple of guys who were Gyopo, and they could communicate in Korean, but they communicated in the kind of Korean used at home, not the more formal Korean. They didn’t know more formal Korean, and Korean has several levels. The Koreans were actually thrilled with these guys and asked one to translate at church, but soon asked him to sit down because his Korean was too informal. He wasn’t what they expected at all.
What they have done to my daughter in Korean is crazy. She tests on level six in Korean, the highest level you can get. She can read novels in Korean. She and her husband speak sometimes in Korean and sometimes in English together because she is married to a Korean. However, a Korean person can come to the door who doesn’t know us and they will be speaking Korean, and if she speaks, they ignore her and insist on speaking to me. She may say something, and they will act like they don’t understand, and I will say it in much simpler Korean with easier words and grammar, and they want to talk to me, but I only test level 2 in Korean. You have to be level 3 to attend the university where I taught English here. At the lowest level universities, you might get in with a level 2. I would think they would want my daughter to speak instead of me. Sometimes I try to figure it out. Either they like simpler words and grammar or perhaps they do it because they respect age in Korea, but then I think about the old American preacher they won’t let preach in Korean. It is a conundrum.
In Mexico, I have heard they get upset with the Americans who want to travel in Mexico and use the Spanish they learned in high school. One of the problems with our Spanish classes in America is that many only learn the present tense because the verbs are so difficult. Some also don’t emphasize speaking Spanish as much as much as grammar and vocabulary. I have seen students in their third year of Spanish in high school who have never been asked to say a word in Spanish. They don’t learn pronunciation. They can’t trill their “r’s”. They say the Spanish “t” like an English “t” instead of a Spanish “t,” etc. They stumble all over themselves when they start trying to speak, and I have heard that some Mexicans just have not patience with them.
As for me, I can trill my “r’s,” and when I was teaching ESL in Texas, one of the student’s parents came to my classroom door. All my students were Mexicans trying to learn to English, and their parents couldn’t speak English. My students didn’t know I could speak Spanish, and when they heard me talking to the parents, they were mesmerized! They kept saying things like, “Where did you learn to trill your “r” like that? ” or “I have never heard an English speaker do that!” They were amazed because Mexicans don’t expect English speakers to speak Spanish, but many of us do. I used to go to a group in Granbury, Texas at the library where we just sat around and discussed topics in Spanish, and the group was huge, and I have been in many groups like that in Texas. If an American speaks a foreign language, it is probably Spanish.
I met a girl from South America when I was in college. She had recently come from South America, and she was doing a pretty good job with English. I asked her how long she had studied English, and she said two years. I was so impressed! I thought to myself, “If that is all the longer you have to study to learn a foreign language, I can do it!” As I have been studying foreign languages, though, I have learned that it takes more effort for some languages and less for others because of the proximity of the languages. English and Spanish are actually pretty close compared to many other languages in the world. The only way you could get closer is by comparing two Latin languages. In fact, if you speak Spanish and hear Portuguese, you would be amazed. It is like just an accent of Spanish! German speakers often feel the same way about English, but English speakers don’t feel that about German.
It is hard to generalize about how people will accept you speaking their language. There are some who are snobbish about it and won’t appreciate your effort like the article I read was saying, but that is too general of a thing to say about everyone. There are also people who appreciate it. People who just want to communicate don’t care if you do it perfectly like the Japanese who like to listen to the old American preacher who butchers Japanese or the Americans who all want to hear that preacher who speaks with an interesting accent. If you are busy lording it over people that you can speak their language, but they can’t speak yours, they will feel disrespected and not appreciate what you can do. No one likes a show off. If you are doing it for selfish reasons, they won’t like you. If you are merely trying to communicate and make friends, if they are decent people, they will appreciate it. Sometimes, people attitudes toward people who are speaking their language as a second language are just hard to understand. Here in Korea, they never expect a foreigner to speak Korean because they know Korean is hard. That is why English is such a big business in Korea. Koreans are shocked when foreigners actually speak Korean, but many who don’t speak English will try Korean on you anyway because they have no recourse if they need to talk to you.
Most English speakers think you are smart if you can speak their language because they probably can’t speak yours. As a native speaker of English, everyone from all these different countries always wants me to speak their languages, but all those countries only study English, and I can’t learn every language in the world. Many native speakers of English just give up and don’t try because they know everyone will learn English, but they are not doing it to snub anyone. They have just accepted that everyone wants to speak English, so they let them. Americans are used to funny accents in English. However, in Romania, in front of the church, they insist on a Romanian reading scriptures or saying anything in Romanian because they don’t want a foreign accent. Sometimes I think they are like that because they just aren’t used to anyone trying to learn Romanian. Some people don’t realize that communication is the only reason to learn a foreign language. The Americans flock to hear a preacher with a foreign accent because it is interesting. The Japanese whose ears hurt who still want to hear that American preacher with bad grammar and pronunciation because of what he communicates. That is all it is about, communication, and they will appreciate our efforts of communication if we have the right attitude.