English and I – overcoming the second language barrier

English is not my mother tongue. Can I hope to overcome this ‘disability’ and be given a chance to use the language as my tool of the trade?

I imagine with English being a dominant language currently, many find themselves in a similar position. Is there a real barrier? I am going to analyse the practical and psychological factors, starting from the job applicant’s perspective and moving to the language learner’s experience.

Proficiency

The Oxford Languages definition ‘a high degree of skill; expertise’ and the Cambridge Dictionary definition ‘the fact of having the skill and experience for doing something’ are broadly comparable; the former attempts to quantify skill and set a bar for the ‘proficient’ person, and is what people have in mind when they use the word ‘proficient’. I find the latter pragmatic: being good enough to accomplish the task at hand.

When searching for a job, we often find ourselves faced with demands for ‘proficiency’, especially when it comes to using software or language, the latter potentially having the twist of asking for ‘native speaker’. As I do like to provide context for my opinions, let’s first analyse this from the employer’s or recruiter’s position. It is understandable that they would ask for nothing but the best (which is what I assume they had in mind), knowing they are unlikely to find a perfect candidate anyway, but it is not sensible. And it is counterproductive on all sides involved. As mentioned above, proficiency should be about being good enough to do the job. Hoping to find an English language scholar to write promotional material is unlikely to get you results. They are more likely to be writing books or teaching university courses. And neither is the ‘native speaker’ necessarily going to fit the bill. Just because someone was raised on the English language does not guarantee they have the ability to write good quality text. I think providing some detail as to what level of skill the candidate ought to have would be more useful; do you require someone with vast vocabulary, ability to write complex sentences, or who can just write in plain English so that the proofreader doesn’t need to spend more time on the text than the writer?

The right candidate

The problem with having vague, excessively demanding job descriptions is that it might put the right people off applying, or get you, the job advertiser, too many applications altogether. An under-confident person will maybe give up on applying when faced with an employment litany. The over-confident or past caring will apply anyway. And this leads us to the psychological factor relevant to all jobs, even the recruiter’s: what you can do vs what you think you can do.

Most people have a good ability to learn. It seems unlikely to me that any job will leave you perfectly prepared for the next. On the first day on the job you are ‘shown the ropes’, introduced to the idiosyncrasies of the place, and told what it is exactly you are expected to do. You learn. And you probably will find you can do the job and that what you learnt previously is only relevant incidentally. You become proficient at doing this exact job, because you don’t have a choice. You are either good enough to stay, or you will probably have to leave. But you can only find out if you applied, were offered a chance, and gave it a try. Otherwise said, if you and the employer had the right mentality.

My experience

I started learning English sometime before the age of 10. I quite enjoyed it initially since someone drawing a duck and telling you ‘duck’ is quite fun when you are that age. After having a few private teachers set up the basics, I ended up in a school with lots of English classes. Having for the most part been useless in school, and faced with a boring and perhaps too challenging English language education (grammar!), I lost interest. For the next 6-8 years I made negligible progress compared to what I could have achieved. I learnt English from TV and the internet.

Because I wasn’t actually a complete moron, and some things worked out, I ended up applying for universities in the UK, for which I had to take an English language test. Following a month of study with the help of a tutor, I passed the test, and eventually ended up studying in the UK. And I guess I have been improving my English ever since.

How do I rate? Well, I guess I’m alright. I am sure there is plenty of room for improvement, and I am working on it, but can I assess myself? And going back to the point discussed earlier, assess myself using what standard?

The gap

So here is my list of to-dos, with the added perspective of the foreign vs native language learner:

  • Improve knowledge of informal language. This is perhaps the hardest to do. Because much of this vocabulary is only heard, and rarely written, it can be hard to get enough exposure to it. This, I believe, doesn’t have to do just with the amount of social interaction you have; the spoken language varies among regions, times, and depends on the speaker’s preference. This is in contrast to the formal language which changes more slowly and is heavily edited in publications. For the foreign learner, I am afraid it is down to having time and good memory: being exposed to the language and wanting, and being able, to remember it. The native speaker has the advantage.
  • Write without grammar and punctuation mistakes. Control of these two interdependent features of the language is something the professional writer should indeed have. Is anything perfect? No, but I assume an editor will expect to find less than a handful of mistakes in a book. This is my idea of how publishing works. For the foreign learner, just like the native, study is the solution. I don’t think there is an intrinsic advantage here for the native speaker: grammar is not studied everywhere.
  • Improve spelling and pronunciation. These two form another pair, but making mistakes with the latter is more easily forgiven. Some variation is expected in pronunciation (i.e. accent), but none is tolerated in spelling. The American/British spelling situation does not make for an example in tolerance, and it surely confuses the foreign speaker of English. Having a good memory helps with both skills, either by allowing for enough examples to be learnt to make pattern recognition feasible, or by learning common rules. What I find more useful for a foreign learner is studying phonetics. Having a basic knowledge and being able to read phonetic spelling for dictionary entries does wonders for your progress towards listening and spelling like an (educated) native. I only have basic knowledge, but I have found it useful and very rewarding. It goes miles towards dispelling the myths about the chaotic English language. The native speakers have an advantage, which they can grow through study.
  • Expand vocabulary. I guess this is the complementary entry to the first in the list; I am using it to talk about formal language. This is just down to memory and probably the volume of reading one goes through. Any advantage on the native’s side comes really in the form of time and education.

You might have noticed this covers most aspects of language learning. A language, not just English, is vast. You can keep learning for as long as you want.

The Conclusion

Unsurprisingly, the native speaker does hold an advantage when it comes to language. If during a lifelong ‘race’ both native and foreign learner put equal amounts of effort in, they will find themselves closer and closer together the longer they ‘race’ for, with the native holding a shrinking advantage. But does it matter for job prospects? I would like to believe it doesn’t. The problem with answering the question is, in fact, one of general relevance. How can an employer know the candidate is any good without hiring them?

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