I am a native speaker of English. I was born and raised speaking a particular variety of North American English. It’s my mother tongue. Heck, my mother (and my father and the whole community around me for that matter) taught me how to speak it. Well, to say they “taught” me isn’t entirely accurate. I was brought into the fold and participated in this living, growing, evolving thing that is my native language. I’m proud of that. I feel like I belong to something quite beautiful and unique. It’s good to belong to something. It’s nice to share a language with other people, to know what they’re thinking and even, if you’re quite lucky, to have a little window into knowing how they feel. I think that’s really very special.
I am also a Native English Speaking Teacher. I started doing this over 25 years ago in Madrid. I worked alongside other Native Speakers who were from different places. They spoke differently to me. I like those differences. I like the way they spice up the communication between us. I like the way they enrich my view of my language.
It has always been a deeply satisfying experience to help people who speak another language join in and speak English with us. I have had this experience as well as a learner. I now speak a language which is not my native language because I was allowed to participate and share with speakers of this language. I understand what a privilege this is. It gives you access to more people, different ideas, sometimes even the power to do more things. And sometimes, if you’re very lucky, you can even get an inkling or maybe even more of what other people are feeling.
A funny thing happens when you teach your language to other people. You start out by thinking you are one who knows everything, but pretty soon you start to realize that the learners are helping you to understand your own language more deeply than you had before. Their need to know and understand and use the language feeds your own curiosity. You begin to see things through their eyes. You grow together and become part of a little community. You use the language to share these experiences and these perceptions. And occasionally you are lucky enough to get an idea of what one another are feeling too.
Some of these students of mine have gone on to become English teachers themselves. Sometimes they are called NNEST and apparently they make up 8 in 10 of all English teachers in the world. That’s a lot of teachers. They bring more people into this community. They also ask questions about the language and learn from their learners. This is something that makes me very happy. There are more people for me to talk to and understand what they are thinking and feeling.
I am proud to be an English speaker because it is part of who I am, but the language does not belong to me. It does not belong to native speakers either. If you keep something to yourself and only yourself if can be yours forever, but if you share something you lose ownership of it. It will grow and change in ways you never expected. This is the way of things. Loss can be bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter I think. I think back to how I spoke when I was a young boy with a New Jersey accent. I don’t speak like that anymore. I have changed. I use expressions from places farther away than I ever could have imagined as a boy. I understand my language through the eyes of my learners too.
The language has changed too. When I go back to where I come from people use new words, new phrases, sometimes new grammar. I understand them, but it sounds strange to me. And I sound strange to them. “You’re not from around here, are you?” they say. This makes me a little bit sad. Things have changed. My language has changed. But I am happy, very happy, because I can still speak to them and understand what they are thinking and get a feel for what they are feeling too.
I hear music now sung by people in Spain, the land where I have chosen to live. It is music like this or this or this (this last one shows my age a bit). When I hear this music I feel as though I have been transported across time and space to an alternate universe. They sing in the language I grew up learning in my family. They use another language too – the music and rhythms of the land where I come from to express things they are thinking and I can understand what they are feeling. This is a strange and wonderful place to be. I could not have imagined this world when I was a young boy in a small town far away. It brings a smile to my face to have lost ownership of my very particular way of speaking and have shared it with so many people. It makes me happy to see what it has become.
I have shared my language with many people and now they are sharing it back with me. I feel like I belong to something quite beautiful and unique. It’s good to belong to something. It’s nice to share a language with other people, to know what they’re thinking and even, if you’re quite lucky, to have a little window into knowing how they feel. I think that’s really very special.