English is the most widely spoken language in the world… Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “Duh… Everybody knows that!” Well, have you thought about the fact that of the 1.3 billion English speakers worldwide, around half of them are non-native English speakers?
What’s more, non-native English speakers are usually more effective at communicating in English than native speakers! Studies show that native anglophones have been known to question non-native speakers because of their accents or word choice but it’s often native anglophones who are guilty of language blunders. Native English speakers, while dominating English language conversations, are less deliberate with their words and unintentionally confuse word meanings frequently.
Second-language speakers of English are often just as good or better communicators in English than native anglophones. While they may still use accented English or speak more slowly, they use vocabulary more deliberately and use precise sentences. In 2017, BBC Africa claimed that… (hold on to your hats, Nigeria, Zambia and South Africa) Uganda holds the spot for top English speakers in Africa. This is unsurprising for those who know that Uganda prizes education highly and they’ve mastered their judicial, governmental and administrative language. Oh, and Ugandans also speak Swahili, Luganda, and a slew of other local languages. In Europe, top non-native English speakers are from the Netherlands. This is according to the EF English Proficiency Index, which measures English proficiency across the globe. I know this one from personal experience, however; there’s only so much embarrassment a girl with an English degree can take from being in a conversation with a Dutch anglophone. If you want to go toe to toe on English mastery with one of those, you’d better study.
Why are second-language speakers such good communicators? Well, when you learn a second language, you learn what words really mean, you learn idioms, you learn correct grammatical structures, and how to say things properly. As a second-language speaker of French, I often hear my native francophone friends laughing at my overly formal expressions or impressed by rare words that I use because I have learned them from reading. Second-language speakers are driven by a desire for mastery, and as such, often overtake native speakers who are overly confident in their abilities. A great example of something many native speakers aren’t familiar with in English is the concept of tense. There are technically, only two morphological, or grammatical, tenses in English. Wait what? Yes, you heard (read?) me. These are the present, as in ‘go’, and the preterit, as in ‘went’, – which you’ve probably never heard of if you’re a native speaker. Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking, “But what about, past perfect, present perfect, and modal verbs…?” Well, yeah. There are time references in English, but the linguists are still arguing about whether to call them tenses or not.
You may be wondering why you should, as a native speaker of English, be motivated to polish your English skills? Arnold who writes on Affect in second language acquisition emphasises the importance of the value of communicative competence for improved self-esteem. She writes, “our self-image is more vulnerable when we do not have mastery of our vehicle for expression – language.” English, like any other language, is just a vehicle for expression. It’s what gets the thoughts out of your head and into the air or onto paper (No, I won’t be taking Alice’s rabbit hole down to the place where we discuss if we can or cannot think without language… and all that about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis…). If you want to understand, and be understood, you should make it your mission to master your language. If your goal is being understood by the highest number of people, I would recommend English, or Mandarin, or Hindi. The point is, effective communication is a lot about deliberate word choice, structure, tone… If you master your language, like Picasso mastered his paints, you can make a mess of it to make a point – and feel confident about it too.