Recently, I was asked to help a young student in my school from France with some of her classes. She's in the process of learning English, but isn't quite comfortable with it yet - so often she reads books to me, I correct her pronunciation, explain the meaning of a word she doesn't recognise. She's wonderful at it, despite being here for less than a year. She's 12 years old.
Sometimes the teacher goes to fast for her to translate and process what she is being taught. Her teacher will describe a blank "I have no idea what she just said to me" face that she spots in amongst the rows of children (although she says she sees that face a lot from native English speaking pupils also). But she's getting a lot better. Let me reiterate: she's 12 years old.
The first time I spoke French to her (basic: hello, how are you, do you like learning English?) her face lit up. She looked so happy that I had made the effort to speak to her in a way she fully understands; her native language, the one she doesn't have to think about to understand. I see sincere gratitude in her eyes, and complete understanding and patience when I stumble over a word I can't remember.
She is the reason I study languages - the reason my chosen degree is in languages. She is the reason I despair at the dwindling number of Spanish and French students, the reason I don't deserve an "oh my god wow, really?" when I tell someone I speak a language other than English.
Why do most English speakers feel they have no responsibility to learn even the basics of a language other than their own? We feel entitled to travel to other countries, eat their food, lie in their sun, drink their wine - yet most of us can't even count in their language. It's embarrassing.
Even worse: when we expect non-English speakers to be perfect at the language they are at least making an effort to understand. I've been to France many times, and there is always one person persisting with English, despite it being clear that the French person does not understand what they are saying. Hint: shouting "Where is the swimming pool?" at them will not help.
We are not more important than everywhere else. We are not the most spoken language in the world, and we are certainly not the easiest one. Have patience with people learning to speak English; appreciate them, and follow their lead. Pick up a "Spanish for Dummies" book, download a language learning app, attend language classes - and learn how to communicate with a whole new world of people.Suggest a correction