The Poisoned Pint Glass
Updated: Nov 22, 2020
I applied for a job yesterday. I'm not even sure that I really want it. But I still found myself saying how much of an "honour" and a "privilege" it would be to work there. Bleugh. The last time I genuinely found doing any work an "honour" was reading out a poem in my primary school Remembrance Day service.
I think I don't really want it because, in all reality, I don't have a hope in hell of getting it. It's an internship at an international organisation (the UN, in fact, so probably the most international organisation) which means the competition is international which means I have the first hurdle of being British. While Cecil Rhodes might have said that it was "the greatest prize in the lottery of life", when it comes to job searching I'd be inclined to disagree- not in the least because he was a terrible racist. It is our own fault, as ever, and it springs from nothing but our own laziness, complacency and actually, when I think about it, the very mentality that that Rhodes quote summarises. Having English as your first language means that you don't have to learn it so you speak one language fewer than a lot of other people. And then, as everyone knows, language learning is like dominos, once you knock one, it leads to another. Long story short, I felt like an uncultured and stupid moron only ticking two boxes for languages when they gave me the six official UN languages to chose from and then an 'other' box. The worst part in me is telling me that it isn't my fault and that people who can speak Arabic or Chinese and English fluently provably can only do so because of their background. This must sometimes be the case but even then, as if the UN cares how you learnt it. Whether it's from hard slog later in life (slog which I avoid even when I'm paying £9,000 a year for the privilege of having to do that slog for my degree) or from speaking one language at school and another at home or one with one parent and another with the other, they could do something aged 10 which will take me years, if not my whole life to do.
I recently had a flip in opinion when it came to having English as a first language. It was when I was living in Brussels where in the Eurocrat circles the language of socialising is mainly English. Even though most of the Finns and the Danes, the Germans and the Hungarians and all the other Europeans I met spoke English brilliantly, when we were chatting over a drink in the kitchen at a house party, I could tell for them it was like writing with their non-dominant hand. If you do it loads (as they do) you can get pretty good at it, but it doesn't have the style and natural flair and ease of using with the hand first learnt to read and write in. I could crack jokes far more easily than them, I could make cultural references and use idioms to perfectly express myself. I sounded far more sophisticated than I certainly am, while they were somewhat reduced. Or maybe I just thought that because I was usually half-pissed. But I am pretty sure they felt this way as I had the reverse whenever I spoke French. The whole experience of socialising in a second language can be shown through me once (drunk again) telling my poor French housemate "I swear, I am really funny in English! No really!" after making a joke in the wrong tense ten seconds too late. Disgraceful.
BUT! While having English as my mother-tongue was a clear benefit at a pub in Brussels, any one of those continentals could have ticked the 'English - fluent' box on the Jobs section of the UN website as much as me. I doubt they care too much that I'm possibly a bit funnier than them in English- or at least they didn't ask. Then, they are able to tick their own first language- which either is very widely spoken (useful) or not (therefore niche) and then the one they inevitably speak on top of that. So before the HR department at the UN have even read my CV (which probably isn't as good as my continental competition's anyway), English native speakers have the disadvantage of being able to speak a language that most people can speak fairly well anyway and then, in most cases, no other.
This is very whiny and, as I said before, comes mainly out of my own complacency. And it also totally disregards the massive privilege of growing up middle-class in a developed (if slightly insular) country. The fact that someone from a country with a far worse education system can speak English far better than I can speak any other language (let alone theirs) just goes to show how lazy me and my fellow country men for the most part are. I doubt I'm alone in the shame I felt when a Cambodian taxi driver chatted away fluently to my family despite having left school at fourteen. He told us he had learnt English from reading books, watching TV and listening to tourists so just imagine what someone of that motivation and initiative could do if given the chances I've been given. It is true that learning modern languages is massively sidelined in British education, but the chance is there is you can be smart enough to take it. At first I really was not. I chose to do Drama and Theatre Studies over Spanish at GCSE for no real reason other than one would be more of a laugh and the Spanish teacher had annoyed me once. I learnt my lesson and three years later I made myself so a French degree. The plan is that I sort of Trojan Horse it. I would have chosen to do English Literature because I like reading and thinking about books and do it enough anyway but the sadist in me basically thought that would be too fun. What I'm doing now is essentially French Literature which means I get to do the aforementioned but have the inconvenience of having to read the book or poem or whatever in French. Really this ought to be a thrill and for a lot of other modern language students it is. They love speaking their language or reading in it, love the grammar and watch foreign TV just to learn new vocabulary. I do all of this but somewhat begrudgingly; the French (snooze) is the chore which earns me the jam of getting watch a film (fun!) or chat to someone (fun!) or read a book (fun!). This plan is clear enough from the language that I chose to study- basically one of the easiest ones for an English speaker to learn and the one that most have at least some idea of (most people can give "Oon cafay o'lay see voo play" a go). What I mean to say is that it's not like I'm making myself learn Japanese so that I can read manga or watch anime or Russian so that I can read Dostoyevsky or Pushkin.
So all in all, I basically do not deserve this job and I wouldn't be able to do it as well as someone who can speak a couple of languages. What's more, they're probably doing a degree in something else on top of all that so they not only can speak a couple of languages more than me, they are learning about International Law or Chemistry or something else which I know nothing about and probably never will. I suppose this inferiority/superiority complex could be linked to Brexit but I won't go into that here but I will try to sum it up in a little story. I had to see a doctor in Brussels, he was from Syria, spoke French perfectly and English very well too. On my second visit he told me that we were going to speak in French so that I could practice which I suppose was good of him. Anyway, he told me this story: When the Chanel Tunnel was built, the Queen was the first person to drive through it to France. She went through in her Rolls Royce and picked up Francois Mitterand, who was President of France at the time. On the way back to the UK, the Queen allegedly told Mitterand "It is so nice that there is a land link between Europe and Britain. The Europeans will no longer feel so alone now". Whether that actually happened or not I think is besides the point. Equally, I was once in a skiing gondola with a British friend who, let's put it this way, did not pick up a word of German while living in Austria for four months. The couple who happened to be sitting opposite us were chatting in German. She tutted and whispered to me "I hate it when they do that". "Do what?" I ask, presuming she meant snogging so enthusiastically in public, which they were doing too, as it happens. "Speak in German so we can't understand. We can't do that because they all speak English, it's annoying". I told her she was being stupid but thinking about it, how different am I being now to either of those Brits?