I was talking with my Canadian partner about my relationship with English, and the effect it has with some of my expat friends. Previously, I have talked about the impact of performing in a second language, and this time I want to share a little bit of the experience on living in a second language, and the pressure most of us felt of you either learn English, or you won’t be successful. Please, take a seat, this might be a bumpy ride.
Disclaimer: On this post, I focus mainly on my experiences performing Improv in English; but most of the struggles and experiences might be relatable to any person using English at work or their life. I also record myself talking about this on this video, if you want to hear me sharing some of my journey with the language.
I come from a country that is known for their poor English level. There are already a thousand articles about why that might be (and I am not a researcher), so I will focus on my experience instead.
I grew up with two languages (having an immigrant dad), and I always struggled with diction and enunciation in my mother tongue and never bother to change because they understand me good enough. I was heavily active online, so every time I improved my English I could immediately reap the rewards.
My English education focused on grammar, vocabulary and writing. I rarely practiced any English, and I grew up with teachers having a very thick accent.
I could see how much this created feelings of rejection for my peers. It is difficult to learn a new language; it wasn’t really required for anything (back then Netflix wasn’t a thing, and 95% of the media is in Spanish), we didn’t have the best teaching and, every other day, we were reminded about how useless of a worker we would be if we didn’t learn English. Sometimes it feels like a generational trauma.
My father would mix our two languages involuntarily and, even if I am aware how much sorrow it caused him, he has a fulfilling a happy life. I grew up with the example of “this will affect you, but you will find a way”.
And, personally, I am the lucky generation. English was a big focus during my school years, I had access to Internet where I could perfect and find a use for my new skills and travelling became a huge goal of many. But I can really see the struggle for previous generations. Let’s explore that later on.
It was clear from the beginning that if you wanted a good paying job; you needed to learn and master English. And I am not only talking about jobs related to services and tourism (which is a huge sector in Spain).
Working in healthcare, you need to keep yourself up to date; and the best papers are written in English. And many IT companies did international hires, and English is the de facto lingua franca. Even if want you want to do is just social media, English is required to get most sponsorships.
But it also creeped into your daily life. You should travel around, but feel ashamed if you are one of the few friends who can’t even express basic ideas in English. With Netflix, it became hip watching things in their original language. Your friends share videos, memes and jokes online all the time; and many are in English.
My mum grew up in a Spain where English wasn’t even a thing, and now she feels pressured to learn it if she doesn’t want to be left out. I am not talking about media or work, but I am living abroad, and probably my partner won’t speak my mother tongue fluently. Who knows if even my kids would like to learn it! It is hard to see how pressured she feels, but I understand the reasons.
And don’t get me started if you are ever planning on being a public speaker. I have a thick accent and, as an expat, I have less difficulty understanding people speaking English as a second language than most natives; but I still prefer listening to podcasts or keynotes of people without a thick accent. I can’t help it. Even if that ends up excluding myself.
The Identity Issue (and asking for help)
It is so impressive that you can perform in English. I have heard this many times. If you have any problem, just ask for help; it is impressive you are doing it in a second language!.
But it is not always easy to ask for help. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think I understand my reasons: not being able to communicate feels like a failure. It is not only the difficulty of a second language, but the idea you are failing at all those expectations we previously talked about. And we should also add the difficulty of talking about your feelings when many men are not used to it.
I can see it with my family too. My mother is not struggling with her ability to a new language (she embraced Italian extraordinarily fast when my dad moved in), but the identity issue of not being enough yet and being required to learn the language.
I can see the same in many of my peers back in Spain. They were never comfortable with learning a second language, and the fact that people who they know and love (like me) decided to start living, sharing and performing in this language makes them feel increasingly more rejected.
Many reached the point of giving up an assumed that the world would be ruled in English and resigned or decided to adapt. And, even then, you realise the limitation it brings.
I will probably have a thick accent for many years to come (I even have issues enunciating in my mother tongue!), and that will greatly affect my eligibility to be part of an improv cast. Or just sharing videos on social media. But let’s explore that in the next part.
I have been praised for performing in a second language but, on the other hand, I can clearly see the impact it has on my performances.
The vast majority of the notes I get from shows and classes (and the ones from many of my non-native scene partners) are related to enunciation, projection and clarity. Which makes sense. If I can’t use the medium to deliver the message, the message itself is irrelevant. But I would
As a performer, I can’t see many examples of performers with an accent on stage. Even if native speakers are rare during our early levels, most of our performers are either English native or Scandinavian. I understand why this happens, but it also sends me a clear discouraging message.
Also, you can’t help but notice that most of the guest teachers come from English-speaking countries. And a really high percentage of performers who are fast-tracked to mainstage are native speakers. It makes sense. The theatre wants a style that sometimes required fast-paced actions and, for that, using your mother tongue is a huge advantage. For this, I am also including some Scandinavian who had a very strong foundation in English!
But, luckily, there are some nice things of being in such an international crowd. Like the comradery? it created among the funny-accent ones!
The Comradery with other Non-native
I don’t know the science behind it, but I am aware that many non-native speakers feel more comfortable and have an easier time when they speak with an expat in English; than when speaking with with an English-native.
As I shared in this post, performing with native speakers can feel like you need to adapt to their pace. I have an easier time creating slow and heartfelt scenes with my fellow expats. I might be biased, tho, as I we are starting a trope called Far From Home where we used these qualities as an asset…
What can we do
I didn’t want to finish this post on a sad note, but I have no clue on how to improve the situation or work on it. So I decided to reach out to Kadi -a friend who studies communication and the usage of English as a lingua franca- and asked what can we do. She focused on Creating Awareness and Adaptation.
We need to embrace that with more people moving around, there is also more diversity in how people sound when they speak the same language, such as English. In countries where linguistic diversity is high (UK, Norway, Switzerland etc.), it is not uncommon that people speak differently and sound different. It is to be expected and adapted to (also judged for various reasons).
In more homogenous societies like Denmark, anyone who speaks slightly differently stands out as the odd one. Depending on what kind of society we grew up in, we may subconsciously have adopted ideas about whether different ways of speaking are acceptable or not, and whether we know how to deal with linguistic diversity in everyday life.
Not everyone agrees with this, but aiming for an impeccable British/American English accent and vocabulary cannot be the goal anymore considering the amount of people using English successfully as part of their everyday lives, personally and professionally.
Researchers of English as a lingua franca have been tackling this task in classrooms around the world for the last 30 years. The motto seems to be - it’s more about communicative success than impeccable grammar; while also addressing that people still get judged for not speaking “perfectly”, whatever that means. Changing minds, however, takes generations.
With higher linguistic diversity, there is also a need to adapt more. But when you have people who speak English as a first language and those who have learned it later in life, such as in an international Improv theatre or workplace, who is to say who needs to adapt to whom? I’ll first share what are some common scenarios for how this has been handled.
In many international companies, English is put forward as an official language policy. In real life people do whatever people feel is right in the situation or what speaks to their comfort zone. This can cause many awkward moments about whether conversations should be held in English (which would disadvantage some but not others), or Danish (which would disadvantage some but not others), or even in both.
In short, it’s all around awkward when people have competing ideas about appropriate language use.
So… what shall we do?
The question remains - who gets to decide who adapts to whom in a case where people speak English with different levels of competence, different accents, vocabularies, and conversational styles? The short answer is - everyone ought to adapt.
Research on English as a lingua franca field has repeatedly shown how international groups manage their interactions best by everyone paraphrasing words and ideas, adopting non-English words in their shared vocabulary, repeating, clarifying, and so forth. All of this requires an awareness that regardless of the different languages or country origins, people are different, and going about expecting everyone else to play to your tune or according to your expectations will not work.
At the end, it becomes less about English and more about how to be a considerate human being to whoever we are speaking to without treating them as either inferior or superior because they speak a certain way.
This is something I want to explore with Improv audiences. At the moment, our audience is very international; so it requires that we adapt the English of our performances so it is more inclusive for the entirety of our audiences.
What about you
I am more open and “out there” now with with this projects, and I am looking forward to see how that is going to shape me and my relationship with the language.
This is a subject I am passionate about. If you have any experiences you would like to share, or any questions; feel free to comment or find me on social media down below.
If you are interested in this topic, feel free to subscribe to my mailing list to get notified when a new post is up! I am planning on writing many posts about this subject because, whether I like it or not, it is a big part of my life.