If you were born into a family where English was your first language (or the second or third if you were blessed with multilingualism), consider yourself among the lucky ones.
There are approximately 1.5 billion English speakers in the world. However, only 375 million are native speakers, according to Statista, which means that more than 1 billion people had to learn English–a sometimes quirky and not altogether easy language to grasp with its idioms, slangs, and all its confounded exceptions to the spelling and grammatical rules.
What’s more, there is a rapidly growing number of English language learners every day. That is because it is considered the official language of business globally. Most multinational companies only hire those with proficiency in English if their jobs involve cross-border communication. For some, learning English can mean the difference between upward career mobility and stagnation.
And for people in places with a strong tourist trade, English proficiency can mean access to jobs that would not be available to them otherwise. In many cases, learning English provides a unique opportunity to raise themselves and their families out of poverty.
So what does this have to do with you, a newly-minted expat trying to find your way in your adopted country?
English as a tool
Rather than seeing English as that crutch that you fall back on while you learn the language of your new home, you can view it as a valuable tool in your travel toolbox. It can be seen as a transferable skill, a way of furthering communication, and even a gift that keeps on giving.
For example, suppose you are newly settled in Colombia, trying to learn Spanish. Many Colombians will happily trade off Spanish lessons with an opportunity to better their English. Maybe you decide to meet over coffee once a week–which also happens to be a great way to make new amigos.
You can find each other by posting a notice on the bulletin boards of institutions, such as the library if permitted. Also, many of the local language schools can set something up (some of these schools that teach both English and Spanish have even incorporated “tandem learning” into their regular programs).
Online language exchanges
If you tend to shy away from in-person meetings–or can’t find the right partner in your place of residence–it’s easy to find tandem partners online.
There are numerous apps, such as Tandem and WeSpeke, that allow you to choose the people that you want as language partners. Ideally, they want to improve their English and they are a native speaker of your target language The two of you get to decide your frequency and form of contact, whether it is through emails, WhatsApp phone calls, or Skype video.
Being a native English speaker can also be a valuable asset when you’re looking for volunteer opportunities. To date, my husband and I have taught classes in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Cambodia, China, and Vietnam.
And you get just as much out of it as they do, as evidenced by the students who follow you after class, eager to expand their vocabulary. You can also pick up a few choice phrases in their language.
These experiences can be an endless source of amusement as well. I remember the after-school program that my husband and I volunteered within Cusco, Peru. We kept trying to teach the children that polite phrase, “Nice to meet you.” And they would repeat faithfully (or so they thought), “Machu Picchu.”
Have you found that your English skills have worked to your advantage in another country? If there are any interesting stories you’d like to share, I’d love to hear all about it.
by: Eileen Brill-Wagner