Once in a while, someone tells me my English is better than of many native speakers. That compliment, while flattering, hits a very sensitive string in my soul. It proves that I succeeded at something. But it also reminds me this is much bigger deal than it looks and we need to talk about it.
Before you file me as an ungrateful jerk, hear me out
I am not great at handling compliments. I’m a vocal critic of myself and I see room for improvement in every single aspect of my own life. No amount of ‘self-love’ or positive external feedback can mitigate this. Instead, I embrace it as fuel to push me forward and get a little better every day. Never in my life was I in a position where I was number one and nothing else was left for me to improve.
The side effect is that I’m surprised to see the discrepancy between my own perception of performance and how other people see it. Whenever I’m praised for things, my inner impostor starts blabbing and I can’t shut him up.
The case of my language skills is particularly complicated.
I have a bachelor’s degree in English. I taught English to children. I use English daily. I’m often the most competent English speaker in the room and people tend to treat me like a human version of Google Translate. Like Wyatt Cheng announcing Diablo: Immortal to a dissatisfied crowd, I sometimes want to scream: don’t you guys have freakin’ phones or what?
But I want to signal something else, especially to my friends who were fortunate to be born in English-speaking countries.
You see only a tiny part of the truth. And it’s the part I specifically want you to see.
What you don’t see is the real cost of getting there. The cost a lot of people (not only me) had to cover, sometimes against their will, long before I knew what was happening.
So listen carefully: I’m nowhere near close to any native speaker of English. Let me tell you why.
I spend a lot of brainpower to redact my messages
I like to explain it in the following way: we humans are born with only three brain cells. One for thinking what we want to say, one for saying it and another one for everything else.
Since English is not my first language, my brain had to adopt another function: storing vocabulary and syntax of a new, different language. One of my three brain cells has to spend its processing power searching for words and grammar of a language I didn’t hear in my childhood.
This can be a very taxing process at times. Sure, I reached the point where I think in English and I no longer translate my thoughts. Sometimes I even have dreams in English. Honestly, though, I still wish I could use that brainpower for other things.
You mostly see my finished writing. And I write only what I want you to read
Most people only see my written English. It’s not impossible to write reasonable English as a non-native. You can use dictionaries, thesauruses, ChatGPT and millions of other similar tools to your heart’s content. You can even search for a specific phrase in Google and see if other people use it the way you think it’s used.
And most importantly, nobody sees what happens before I hit Enter. I have all the time in the world for edits, corrections, and even deleting whole sentences and starting from scratch. With enough research and practice, I could probably mimic somebody else’s writing style.
Another thing is that I’m particular about my selection of topics to write about. You will probably never see me writing about quantum mechanics, complex financial instruments or tax law. I am capable of saying something meaningful on all of these topics, but neither of these is something I do on a daily basis, so my vocabulary range won’t scream ‘competent’.
I don’t have many opportunities for speaking English, mostly due to the fact I live where I live. Therefore, my spoken English is nowhere near close to my written English. Sure, I can use it with confidence to get things done. But when I start speaking, everything about me and my origin becomes obvious to anyone who is listening. If I stutter or forget a word, everyone’s going to hear that. Truth be told, I’d rather be stuttering because I don’t know what to say than because I don’t know how to say it.
This is also a reason why streaming on Twitch never fully clicked for me (there are more reasons, but that’s a topic for another article). And I never switched from blogging to podcasting or video production.
It’s not a talent. It’s a survival skill
I was born in Poland. I was already alive while the revolutions of 1989 were happening, effectively starting a new chapter of history of my country.
That was a period when knowing one of the languages from Western Europe was a great advantage in the job market. It meant one could communicate with that better, more ‘developed’ part of Europe. That part of Europe that had been inaccessible to my parents for many decades.
My parents had great intuition about what was about to happen. They signed me up for private English lessons at a very young age, long before English became a part of my school curriculum. It was another chunk of time taken from my childhood, but my parents were right to call it an investment.
A few years later English joined my school curriculum and since I had had an early start, I never had to put much effort into it. And let’s be honest, English lessons conducted by poorly paid teachers in public schools weren’t particularly educative. Many of my classmates struggled a lot. I struggled for a different reason: I was bored.
I’m grateful to my parents for their visionary thinking. But when I think about this as an adult, I think of years of life spent to maximize my future chances just because I was born in the wrong country at the wrong period of history. And I feel strange about this.
I was learning English while my fellows in Great Britain, Germany, Spain and France were learning art, maths, history and physics.
I was learning English not because it was fun. It was a necessity.
These days single-digit-year-olds learning English is nothing surprising. You can even read English books to your 3-month-old toddler. But one thing hasn’t changed: for plenty of us, it’s still a necessary survival skill.
We simply want to have equal chances in the globalized post-colonial capitalist world.
I adapt my messages because my peanut brain won’t cooperate
What you see here is an illusion. I pretend I write what I want to write and you pretend you understand me.
But the reality is much different. Sometimes I struggle to find appropriate words to deliver my message. I will never speak or write as clearly as educated native speakers. I will never post a column in The New Yorker or The Guardian and get praised for communicating serious things to smart people.
Of course, I work around my limitations. I omit certain statements or adjust my words to be as close to my original thought as possible. But it’s never 100% perfect.
It’s not that I don’t know how to say it. Sometimes I have a very clear idea, but my brain just nopes out. My long-term and short-term memory are in a constant state of civil war with each other. My brain still prefers to remember phone numbers of people I no longer call than the vocabulary I need to express my thoughts.
I read slower and listen more actively
My process of consuming content in English is different than in my native language.
First, I read slower and a little more carefully. The difference in speed isn’t dramatic, but I cannot afford to read on autopilot if I want to benefit from what I read. If I don’t read English texts carefully, I risk missing complex points or emotional load those texts might carry.
Paradoxically, I reached the point where I’m no longer concerned with words I don’t understand - English studies taught me well to infer meaning from context. But I can’t skip checking them in the dictionary if I want to use them myself.
Listening is more tricky. Some English accents, especially ones I don’t hear often, still cause me a lot of trouble. I get lost if people speak fast and use colloquial terms. And I particularly struggle to fill in the blanks if people speak below a certain level of clarity.
Case in point: in my childhood, I had a VHS tape with a selection of ancient Looney Tunes cartoons, among which was one called ‘Hamateur Night’ from 1939. Around 4th minute of the cartoon, there is a performance of a tiny black flea. Only as an adult I found out that the flea was actually speaking English. Even though I had a vague understanding of the cartoon as a child, I had no idea that squeaking was actually a human-understandable speech.
And speaking of cartoons, I never understood any single word Donald Duck ever said. My brain doesn’t decipher his quacky voice as speech.
I hit the ceiling often
Despite numerous inconsistencies and occasional clusterfucks, I don’t find modern English excessively difficult. It uses only 26 letters of the alphabet I already know. It uses no letters with diacritics. Nouns have no declension. You need only a handful of grammar rules for daily use. What works as a single word in English often requires a few words in my native language. I like to say English makes efficient use of a limited number of words to express a wide variety of ideas.
But I do have my share of struggles as well.
I know very few idioms or colloquial expressions. I’ll probably never learn how to use articles or prepositions correctly in 100% of situations. I’m not comfortable with punctuation and if you see me using fancy constructs like Oxford comma, it’s because I want my spell checker to shut up. I’m never 100% sure whether my sentences remain simple enough.
All of those things I find legitimately difficult to learn on my own, especially when I’m not exposed to living spoken language on a daily basis.
I will never break the ceiling. I can only make it crack.
If your response to this statement, as my English-speaking friend, is ‘don’t worry! We don’t always get them right too!’, I’ll be brutally honest with you: you had the privilege of hearing all those constructs used by people around you since the very moment you were born. That’s a different kind of learning experience - far superior to mine. Meanwhile, my parents were speaking Polish to me, I was reading Polish books and I was also learning English from books. And I won’t be bragging, but I never struggled with grammar, spelling, or punctuation in my own language. I love you, but we are not the same.
I’ll never enjoy certain privileges English-speaking people have
If you, my lovely friend, were born in the USA or the United Kingdom, you were born in a country that creates and gives names to novel ideas before everybody else does. You will never know the pain of translating English content and inventing local equivalents of words that don’t exist in dictionaries.
You will never know what it feels like to pick up a video game and not be able to hear your favorite protagonist speak your native language. You will never know what it feels like to have an iPhone and have Siri not speak your language. You will never know what it feels like when this small family business called Nintendo is on the verge of bankruptcy and they can’t support your language in their flagship product that’s been on the market since 2017.
You will never face the dread of getting lost in a foreign country and not being able to talk to locals. In every single area of the world there is at least one person who understands your language.
You will never know the struggle of typing your first and last name in the online form and being told to use ‘letters only (A-Z)’ because US-made computer systems are still too cool for UTF-8.
You will never see the term ‘linguistic racism’ being used in the wild.
Speaking of me - I will never know what it feels like to visit another country that speaks the same language as mine. I will never know what it feels like to talk to Canadians as an American or to Brits as an Australian. And most importantly, I’ll never know what it feels like to visit a foreign country and never have to use any foreign language to talk to locals. I can speak in Polish to Czechs or Slovakians and we will establish some level of understanding, but our languages are only vaguely similar to each other.
I will never know what it feels like to live in a country where culture, art and entertainment are produced locally and exported worldwide in masses. I and millions of my fellows watched thousands of American and British productions. We watch the same Netflix shows as everybody else. And you? How many Polish productions have you watched?
If you or your English-speaking kids are learning another language, I salute you. But you are in a position where you can learn another language for fun. You probably don’t need it as a survival skill. You could have spent more time learning different things.
Now, I’m fully aware life in English-speaking countries isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. It’s not my intention to argue who has it better. I know enough about American and British politics to know my country isn’t even half as bad in comparison. And I know I have my share of privileges as a citizen of the European Union.
But a lot of my privileges have nothing to do with my place of birth and they are rarely exclusive to my country. Speaking English in a world where English is considered a common language of business is an entirely different story.
If there is one thing I want you to take from these 7 pages of writing, it’s the following:
In the name of my parents and teachers, I sincerely thank you for the compliment.
But be aware you essentially complimented one of my skills of survival in a messy world of injustice. I’d rather you complimented me for raising valid points or making your life better in some way. Meh, compliment my photography or something. Or tell me you’re grateful for one of the open-source projects I wrote. There was no reason for these things to happen and yet I made them happen. So much stuff of mine craves validation more than my language skills.
And one more thing to all non-native English speakers
I see you. I love you all. We are the power.
I want to remind you there are more than 1 billion of us in the world. If we all decided to form a single country, we would be in the top 3 of the most populous countries on Earth.
At the same time, depending on which sources you consult, there is anywhere between 300 and 500 million native speakers of English.
That means in case of a zombie apocalypse, there’s more than twice as many of us. We can surround them.
We’ll be fine.