Since one of my major motivations for studying in Argentina was to improve my Spanish, I thought that now as I near the end of my year abroad would be a good time to dedicate a post to some thoughts about my identity as a native English speaker.
One of my biggest insights during my time abroad is how many advantages being a native English speaker gives me in terms of world travel, research, and making connections. Every single one of my many international friends from Europe speaks English (in addition to Spanish) regardless of their country of origin. That means that every European I have met here in Argentina speaks at a minimum 3 languages, and most of them speak more. When I asked my friend from Switzerland why she chose to learn English, her response was Hay que aprenderlo. In other words, to her, English was a necessity to be able to function in our globalized world. It wasn’t so much that she wanted to learn English (although she did); it was that she felt that she had to. This seems to be the prevailing attitude among my exchange student friends. Additionally, many of my Argentine friends speak or at least understand a little bit of English because either they were required to learn English in school or because they learned by watching American television shows and movies.
Traveling throughout Argentina and South America in general, I was completely amazed that every place I went had multiple hostels/excursions/menus/etc. in English. In terms of tourism, English is definitely the powerhouse language. Even more striking was when I realized that this is not a phenomenon singular to South America. As an English speaker, I can travel to pretty much any country in the world and find someone who speaks my language. My communication opportunities are much broader than those of a non-English speaker.
Academically, English also concurs an advantage. For my class on International Security at the University of Buenos Aires, it is a requirement that all Argentine students be able to read and understand English as some of our reading assignments have no Spanish translation. I do not know of a single class outside of a foreign language department at UW-Madison that has a language prerequisite. Additionally, every single one of my argentine professors has allowed me to use English sources to write my class papers because the variety of articles either written in English or translated into English is much broader and richer than in almost any other language. My mother tongue gives me access to so much more material because the academic community has accepted English as its leading language.
Despite these obvious advantages, I think that English’s prominence on the world stage as well as the relative geographic isolation of the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom have resulted in very poor emphasis on language learning compared to other countries. Honestly, sometimes I feel embarrassed admitting to people that I only speak 2 languages fluently (although I also speak a little bit of Portuguese). I know, that sounds ridiculous right?! There is a huge portion of the world’s population that speaks only one language. But still, knowing how many people are making an effort to learn my language, I would like to return the favor.
Beside, no language is perfect and English too has its limitations. One of the things I have loved about living and learning in another language is that I have had to adapt to a different way of expressing myself. Some of my friends and I got into a debate the other day about whether or not the same person has a different personality in each of the languages they speak. Personally, I think that while our essential personality carries over between languages, there definitely is a perceived change because the syntax, vocabulary, and other components of language mean that you cannot express yourself the same way in one language that you can in another. People who have never studied a foreign language tend to think it is as simple as Word X = Word Y. The reality, however, is much more complicated, and learning a new language is not simply a matter of correspondence of vocabulary. For example, Spanish splits the past tense into two forms 1. The preterite and 2. The imperfect. Without getting into the mechanics of it, English speakers do not usually make this distinction when conjugating verbs, and using Spanish allows to you express a meaning that can be harder to convey in English.
In addition, being able to communicate with someone in his/her native language leads to a much richer discussion. As funny as it sounds, my preference when having a serious conversation with a native Spanish speaker is that they speak to me in Spanish and I answer back in English. While this hardly ever happens, nor is it very practical, it is my preference because both of us can more profoundly communicate our thoughts. I always get more interesting details and conversations with an Argentine when we speak in Spanish, but sometimes I get frustrated with my inability to truly express my own sentiments and ideas to the extent that I would like to when I respond in Spanish.
Anyways, this got a little bit long-winded, but basically I am 100% behind the benefits of learning a foreign language. I knew this before arriving in Argentina almost a year ago, and this experience has done nothing but enhance this conviction. It has been very rewarding to see my own progress and to finally say with confidence “sí” when someone asks me if I speak Spanish.