Being a native English speaker is something I have always taken for granted. Though the U.S. does not have an official language, it is rare that an English speaker experiences any type of disadvantage in the U.S. When I came to Finland, I was comforted by the fact that almost everyone can speak some English, even though the two national languages here are Finnish and Swedish.
Learning a language in college has been a humbling experience. In my Arabic classes, I often spend 4 hours per night doing homework, which is harder than I’ve ever worked on anything school-related. Still, there is an internal debate within myself about whether or not learning Arabic is actually worth it. Will I use it in my future? Probably not, unless I move internationally or specifically seek employment where that is a requirement (that’s the plan).
A major part of my internship is teaching English classes to asylum seekers. This may seem counter-intuitive; English is not an official language here! Shouldn’t they be learning Finnish instead? (There are Finnish classes as well, but I am obviously not qualified to teach those.) The rationale for teaching English is that English is a far more universal language than Finnish, and many asylum seekers do not yet know if they will receive refugee status in Finland or if they will be required to leave. in 2015, over 32,000 asylum seekers arrived in Finland. Slightly over 1,000 received refugee status, giving them a right to remain in the country. Those other 31,000 asylum seekers are required to go somewhere else, where Finnish language skills will be of no help to them, but English very well might be.
No one ever expects to become a refugee. Where you are born and what calamities occur in your country are out of your control. The women I teach are primarily from Syria, and many of them do speak more than one language (Arabic and Kurdish, for the most part). How were they to know these languages would be of no help to them in just a few short years?
It now seems obscene to me that many Americans never become fluent in a second language. Every other intern, with the exception of one, speaks at least one other language — including Spanish, French, Mandarin, Thai, Cantonese, Italian, Arabic, Berber, Romanian, Polish, Latvian, Kazakh, Portuguese, Greek, and Russian. If they hadn’t learned English as an additional language, I would be unable to speak to them at all. It makes me feel pretty lazy, actually! Why am I just now learning a second language?
As a native English speaker, I have the luxury of knowing my language is spoken by many people throughout the world. When I traveled to Sweden and Estonia, I was able to get around using English. Still, were the tables turned and I was to seek refugee status in the Middle East, my mediocre Arabic skills would not be of much help. Being able to speak English endows me with immense privilege, more than I had previously considered. I am grateful for the opportunity to realize this facet of my privilege, and I am also thankful that I do have those mediocre Arabic skills — they have been so beneficial when seeking to teach English to Arabic speakers.