On the Subject of Condescension Toward Non-Native English Speakers

I have a difficult time sympathizing with those who belittle or degrade immigrants to the United States that speak English as their second language. It is important to remember that the U.S. does not have an official language; seriously, you can google it for yourself if you don’t believe me. The national animal of Scotland is the unicorn and as nonsensical as that may seem, both facts are true. So why is it that so many people born in the U.S. look down on those who don’t speak English well when it isn’t even the official language of the country?

Learn English.jpg
This image won’t be quite as cute by the time you finish reading.

This question bothers me from time to time and it has once again reared its head to gnaw at my conscience through the combination of current events and what I have been reading recently. Last week’s book review was about the novel Love in the Time of Cholera, which was written by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez and originally published in Spanish as El amor en los tiempos del cólera. Despite my two years studying Spanish in high school and an additional year in college, I do not speak or read the language very well and had to read a version translated into English.

The reason I bring this up is that direct translation, especially between English and Spanish, doesn’t always make a lot of sense. Context is an integral part of speaking Spanish and since English borrows from many other languages, it doesn’t always follow such logical guidelines. As beautiful as the prose in the edition I read was, something is inherently lost in the translation. Though I am still technically reading his words, they have been filtered into another language and I cannot truly say I read the novel in its original form.

I have come to terms with this but what I cannot abide is hearing those who were born in the United States of America like myself deride non-native English speakers because they don’t speak the language as well as we do. This ignorance seems to come from a lack of empathy; it is not fostered out of spite or apathy because it would never even occur to us to identify that way. We don’t encounter the type of situation that would require us to be somewhere we don’t understand the primary spoken language. There is an attitude in the U.S. that speaking English is the most basic thing you can do and if someone is incapable of that, then they must be stupid or inferior.

Condescension is natural a byproduct of this, whether it is intentional or otherwise. I find it truly ironic that many people born in the United States look down on non-native English speakers when they themselves barely speak English correctly, let alone write according to proper grammatical structure or spelling; go on your Facebook news feed if you need proof of this. I understand that colloquial expressions and slang are found throughout languages and cultures, but to hear someone complain about “that foreigner” getting hired in 2017 and bringing up the fact that they shouldn’t have even been considered because of their accent embarrasses me to no end.

ESL Image.jpg

In my experience speaking Spanish with native speakers, both in and outside of school settings, they have been nothing but accommodating and patient with me. Correction happens and as I said in my editorial on interpersonal criticism, both parties benefit as long as they are open to criticism.

My father comes in contact with many people from countries in Asia through the nature of his work and I have seen him speak Mandarin with Chinese co-workers who always encourage and correct him with joy in their eyes; not because he makes mistakes while trying to speak their language, but because he put himself out there and tried to meet them halfway. Quite different from the sentiment above, isn’t it?

Before you chastise me for making such generalizations, I am sure there are people from other countries that condescend to English speakers who try to speak their language, just as there are those of us born in the United States who understand the skill required to speak two or more languages. However, these are the trends that have I have noticed.

A story went viral a little over a month ago about a woman who took her father, who is from Mexico, to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. For those who are unaware, one of the main characters is played by Diego Luna, an actor from Mexico City who speaks English with an accent because Spanish is his first language.

I will link the original post here, but the essence of the story is that seeing someone on the silver screen who spoke English with an accent that wasn’t a cultural stereotype or a minor character touched the aforementioned father on a deeply emotional level. Diego Luna saw the post after it went viral and responded, showing that a simple thing such as diverse casting, based on merit over skin color or spoken language, can make a difference.

Cassian Andor.jpg
Diego Luna as Captain Cassian Andor

Our diversity is what makes the United States great and we should be accommodating and understanding toward those who come to it. The Rogue One example is just one way of demonstrating the need for our films to reflect our diverse society, but it also brings home the point that no matter what language you speak, or whether you do so fluently or with an accent, we all just wants to relate to one another.

The next time you hear someone struggle with their English, try to remember that they most likely speak at least one other language fluently, and that is something to be both celebrated and encouraged. As a dear friend of mine said recently in a Facebook post, “…“monolingualism” is just one more step towards “monoculturalism”. Hence, if you are lucky enough to speak another language and you consider it part of your identity, keep using it with pride and master it, and make sure your children do the same thing. Keep this nation great. Remember that language is an essential part of our ancestors’ cultural inheritance.”

So, what do you think? If you were born in the U.S., do you see the same sort of trends? If you’re from a country where English isn’t the primary language, does your experience differ? I would love to hear/read your opinion.


The images featured in this post can be found through the hyperlinks below.
Featured Image
Learn English Graphic
“Hello” In Various Languages
Diego Luna as Captain Cassian Andor

10 thoughts on “On the Subject of Condescension Toward Non-Native English Speakers

    1. I think it should be a general rule, but this post was mainly to address a trend I have noticed in the US, especially in recent years. I have a lot of friends who other speak languages in addition to English and for many of them it is their second language, so they have really opened up my understanding of what it is like for them to come to the US and feel like they are lesser than those who were born here.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. seaweed books

    Being an Indian, we have 23 major languages in our country and each state speaks one main language. We are made to learn three languages, that is, a regional language, Hindi (the national language) and English. Schools also choose English as the main language of communication in the premises but still we learn three languages. I’ve always wondered how people from around the globe seem to think that Hindi is the ONLY fixed language in India, but no, we do have different languages because of our country being called a nation with ‘unity in diversity’.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I must admit I too was unaware of how many languages are spoken in India. I have a friend from Norway and she has a similar situation where they are taught English and Norwegian in school but there is also a local dialect spoken on the island where she lives. Thank you for your comment, I love hearing from people with different perspectives on situations like this!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was born in Madrid, Spain, 46 years ago. I’ve been living in the USA for almost 20 years. I’m a naturalized American. I have never been able to lose my accent, which frustrates me. Every time I write in English, I go back, and I always find mistakes. My experience? I do understand some of the impatience or condescension. I know English is not even our official language, but I think that, sometimes, we want to see some gratitude in those who immigrate, and language and communication can be such an obstacle between those who don’t speak English and those from here… I don’t know, the atmosphere is charged with more than just language.
    As for this you say, “something is inherently lost in the translation”, I’m an amateur translator, and I’m sad to see how many translation pessimists there are in the world (I’m smiling as I type). I think we’ve inherited this feeling of ‘something loss’ from geniuses such as Nabokov, who have turned their personal experiences and views of language and the world into eternal woeful truths. I don’t know if there’s something loss in translation, I love to see all that’s gained in translation, and how, in any case, nobody completely possesses or exhausts any book, even if written in their own native language. I’m an optimist.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was wondering if you were going to find this editorial since we talked about translations on the other post haha. I definitely agree that the difficulty in communication isn’t the root of the issue; perhaps it is simply the avenue through which people’s frustrations are exercised most frequently. Again, I really like the way you approach translations and the idea that there is something added rather than lost. It is definitely a view I will work on implementing in my reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. If the subject interests you, Edith Grossman, Why Translation Matters, is not just a book about translation, but a book about a reader and writer, -since poor translators, they are more than just anonymous vehicles, they are also writers themselves. It’s an ingrate profession, since we all have our own mysticism about reading in original language, and translators are always blamed when a book in translation is not liked, etc. Another book I loved was, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? This is a short video, https://vimeo.com/27717121 (Maybe there’s something lost in translation, ha ha ha)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi, I’m an Indonesian who gets hooked on your editorial posts! I prefer to speak English with native speakers or any foreigners although they could speak Indonesian because I can’t stand their westernized pronunciations. The once interviewed a Japanese man and he sounded better than the westerners (almost like it’s painful for them just to try to say the words).

    I don’t have perfect English pronunciation, I’m aware of that. I feel sorry that I might’ve ruined your language in my writings. However, on a daily basis, I often pick up things quicker in English rather than in Indonesian. I also make a lot of mistakes while writing or speaking in both so there’s no much difference whatsoever. I speak them equally good, equally bad, or equally so-so.

    The interesting part, as a kid, I was highly praised for my english speaking while people had made fun of my attempts to speak Javanese (due to my poor accent). My country is multiethnic, and I “am” a Javanese. Now, I barely speak Javanese. Most of my friends and my parents speak Javanese well, but my javanese is as good as my french (which I was forced to learn in high school). You see? So I feel your concern. For some people, they thrive after encountering ridicule, but for the others, they actually get worse and stop trying at all.

    I befriended an American and started to see from his perspective as he’s living in my city. I think that has changed me a bit. I used to be tepid when it comes to people learning my language (I love the exclusivity knowing a little-known language, hahaha, it has its perks!). Now, I’m more welcoming and accommodating, I guess.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “I feel sorry that I might’ve ruined your language in my writings.” There is absolutely nothing you could do to ruin English, and it is as much my language as America is my country; I happened to be born here and as such was taught English in school. Thank you for your perspective and sharing your stories!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s