Privilege is something that you hear about constantly, especially recently. When someone says “privilege” the first things that come to your mind may be white privilege, male privilege, or maybe even just the privilege to take out the family car when you need it. These are all things that I personally think about a lot, but the one thing that never really came to my mind was English privilege.
Living in the United States, I never really thought about what life was like if you didn’t speak English. However, after living here in the Netherlands for almost 8 months now, it is hard to avoid the fact that life really is much easier for native English speakers. When it comes down to it, everything is made for English speakers. All of the best TV shows and movies, social media sites, music, etc. are made for and geared towards English speakers. I guess I just always assumed that other countries would have just as many options for people of their language, but the resources simply aren’t there. Lots of people around the world speak English, that can’t be denied, but English speakers only make up about 20% of the population. In fact, only about 24% of those English speakers actually learn English as their first language. That is a vast majority of the global population that does not speak English.
Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand why most things are made for English speakers. Economic superpowers such as the United States and Great Britain are home to millions of English speakers, and that just happens to be where the money and resources are to produce these types of things tend to be. There are also plenty of Dutch shows and music over here, considering that only 23 million people speak Dutch worldwide (compared to 1.5 billion English speakers). In reality, when you are creating content for a much smaller audience there isn’t going to be as much variety or large-scale production, it simply isn’t logical.
In order to make up for that deficit, Dutch people turn to English entertainment. I don’t know a single person here who doesn’t watch countless English TV shows or movies (with Dutch subtitles of course), or whose favorite artists and songs aren’t all in English. Everyone uses Instagram, Youtube, and other social media sites where most of the content that is being created is in English, and it’s not just English either! My host mom has gotten me hooked on the Danish show Rita and lots of French artists can also be heard on the radio every so often. Here, it is normal to watch everything with subtitles because chances are, it’s not in your mother tongue. As my host sister told me, she learned English more effectively through the internet and TV shows than at school because it’s everywhere, you can’t avoid it. Maybe that’s why the Dutch are so much better at picking up languages than us Americans...
None of this ever occurred to me until one of my friends turned to me one day and asked, “what is it like to be able to understand everything that musicians are saying?”. I just kind of stared at him for a second thinking, huh? It had never occurred to me that all of these kids were just singing words that they didn’t know the meaning of. Someone’s grandmother could be singing the most vulgar song and nobody would be any the wiser. This is not to say that everybody is clueless because that definitely isn’t the case, but the reality is that English isn’t everyone’s native language and they are never going to understand all of the slang and “isms” that come along with it. That was CRAZY to me, a kind of wake up call that I didn’t know I needed.
In the United States, at least from what I’ve experienced, people do not watch things that are not in English. Subtitles are annoying and there’s enough to watch without them, right? The thought of watching something that you wouldn’t easily be able to understand may sound pointless or just dumb but for many people, it is their only option. There is undoubtedly a huge privilege that comes along with being a native English speaker, and just as with many other privileges, it’s something that you are born with and can’t just decide to get rid of. Nonetheless, what you can do is acknowledge it and actively try to expose yourself to other languages. This year I have found some of my new favorite shows, such as Wie Is De Mol? And Temptation Island, neither of which are in English. I’ve also watched some pretty great movies that I would never have discovered had I not been here in the Netherlands. English speakers have access to anything they could ever need at the tips of their fingers, but you never know what you might be missing out on if you just push yourself slightly outside of your comfort zone.
Therefore, if you are a native English speaker, I challenge you to take some time this week to head on over to the “International” section of your Netflix, slap on those subtitles, and watch something new. The rest of the world is waiting for you.