Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
Last summer, my family went back to the Philippines after a lengthy, lonely eight-year hiatus from our beautiful island home. It was a time frame short enough for me to still feel like the same little girl who left 13 years ago, but long enough to catalyze the awkwardness that came from being apart for so long. My cousins — my absolute best friends when I was younger — continuously pointed out the stark differences that being "Americanized" afforded me, especially noting my visible affinity for speaking English to them, rather than Tagalog.
To my family back home, the ability to speak English was not just a privilege handed down to those who were lucky enough to move to the States, it was the goal. As much as they joked about me being too afraid to speak Tagalog, they also reveled in the fact that I could wrap thought after thought in this mysterious language. Speaking English changed from being a communal joke to creating a divide in my family because I could speak it.
This phenomenon is far too common in other countries that uphold English as one of the most commonly used languages. When my mother was in grade school in the Philippines, she was taught to speak only English and was chastised when she would speak in her native dialect. In a similar light, when this year's Miss Philippines, Maxine Medina, was preparing for Miss Universe, she was criticized for her lack of English mastery. Some even believed she would not win because she would inevitably need an interpreter for the question and answer portion, which she did. But that goes to say that one's ability to speak English is upheld as the standard, rather than being an optional skill.
English isn't even the most natively spoken language. In fact, it comes out at third place to Chinese and Spanish — the former having 1.2 billion native speakers. Putting the English language on a pedestal degrades the fact that language is an identity for communities across the world. Language is molded across centuries to characterize a group of people in distinct and beautiful ways. "For many groups of people, having a specific language is to say 'I exist,'" writes Jason Koebler for VICE.
Not knowing the English language can also create massive chasms among groups. Because it is the primary language of academia, as well as a requirement for many universities and businesses, English is an inherent privilege that not having would be a major demerit, writes blogger Robert Nielsen. This creates a divide between those who are — by chance or by wealth and time — privileged enough to learn English and those who are simply unable to.
Nielsen further explains that expecting everyone to speak English "enforces barriers to three quarters of the world." He compares English mastery to arbitrary classes like race, which divide those who are inherently lucky enough to be born the dominant race.
While having English as the universal language seems to be the easiest way to promote communication between groups of people that would otherwise not be connected, it isn't to those who feel pressured to spend an extreme amount of time, money and effort to learn the naturally complicated language.
It may seem convenient, but only to those of us who are lucky enough to either have parents who passed down the language or put us in an environment conducive to learning it. Instead of promoting English as the primary language worldwide, people should promote the use of other languages. Nielsen suggests science journals can accept other languages with or without translation and business conferences needn't to be in English. After all, there are ways to learn how to communicate apart from using English.
My vacation back in the Philippines was the trip of a lifetime, the best moments coming from the conversations I had in Tagalog and laughing with my cousins at my awkward and incorrect grammar. My effort was well returned; at the end of the trip, they learned as much from me as I did from them. Language communication throughout the world needs to be just that: a cultural exchange, not a divisive privilege.
Maris Medina is a freshman journalism major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.