Growing up in three months

Three months ago I left my chemist job. I had been working there for two years. This was my first employment after having studied chemistry for eight years formally and many more informally. I posted an opinion shortly after talking about what the more conservative would describe as a childish impulse.

I had no good idea of what I could or wanted to do. I had dreams carried with me from childhood and lessons learnt as to what I didn’t want to do. I don’t regret my decision, but it is reasonable to say I have growing up to do in some regards. This is my three-month update on the process. During this period, I produced a smorgasbord of content, spurred on by the frustration of not having had a chance to before and seeing others apparently breezing through and being successful. I had a go at many things, strategy just as sensible as it often is in experimental science. There is a lot of failure, but you learn and maybe discover some things with potential.

What have I learnt or understood that might be of use to other people?

  1. Anything can become boring when turned into a routine. Even the task of trying something new is a chore if you have to do it everyday. The saying ‘Do what you love and you won’t have to work a day in your life’ is just absolute nonsense. Work, like anything else, is enjoyable only if you don’t stop to think about what you are doing. And if you never stop to think you are missing out.
  2. Working alone is not fun. You come to realise the problem with working with people is whether they match your character or not. Unfortunately, it can be almost impossible to end up working with just the right people, or ones that are at least tolerable. It is, however, interesting to note how certain jobs seem to collect the same kinds of people. It would be helpful if career advising looked at personality compatibility, rather than solely what kind of work you like or are able to perform.
  3. What you’re good at and what people appreciate are different things. There is no substitute for hard work. I value it and I think everyone should. However, it is rather frustrating to see people mistake achievement for inclination or suitability. It negates both: you get patted on the back for being good at something without having your hard work acknowledged and it denies you the chance of developing those things you would be good at without breaking your back.
  4. We shouldn’t live by other people’s standards. Back when I was in uni, I asked one of my tutor’s something along the lines of..what should I do? I find this just ridiculous. His answer at the time was infuriating, but actually brilliant: ‘You can do whatever you like.’ This might have been phrased differently, and I’ve heard it from other people in the meantime, but only now I appreciate and understand. At the time I thought this to be an easy way out, a way of saying a lot without saying anything. I don’t know if these people hold the same position for family and friends. But if they do, I now have the wisdom to appreciate them. Unfortunately, people do in general like to tell others what to do, especially children or younger ones. They probably mean well and feel they are entitled and compelled. But they should just stop. Two people’s lives are not the same. I hope I never make this mistake. If I have, I apologise.
  5. It’s awful chasing success. I have not reached full enlightenment on this point yet. I am still chasing and I blame my upbringing for it. Perhaps, I will make progress in time for the next update.
  6. Being fickle is not shameful. One thing that is paradoxical in the modern world is the craving for consistency and novelty. We consider everything that is not immediate progress a failure, but we forbid any experiments that are not solidly justified and edit any variation in form. We prize content and originality, but we find gratification in criticising format. We want the same thing as yesterday, but we want it to be new and exciting. Changing your opinions and ways seems like a recipe for disaster. I am learning to be proud of my attempts and failures. This is perhaps the true value of not living on someone else’s money (e.g. parents) or being on the payroll (employed). This brings me to the final point.
  7. Being your own boss. Whether I still want to or whether I would succeed, it is too soon to tell. The value I find is, as mentioned above, in the freedom to make mistakes. Three months ago I used to believe I wanted to be my own boss so that I wouldn’t have to do as I am told. I don’t think I would have ended up having this thought if it wasn’t for number 4 on this list. I am actually sensible and I like following rules as long as they’re not moronic.

TLDR

My main argument three months ago for leaving my job was that I shouldn’t be doing something that is turning me into a worse person than I actually am. My main argument now for having made a good choice is that I feel I’ve grown up more in three months than in ten years.

Asphalt cravings – Part of the Little Blue Marbles Series

Irene’s voice was discovered because she couldn’t help singing along with the choir whenever she was taken to church. From nine years of age she didn’t miss a single practice session (Tuesday morning and Friday evening). From twelve years of age she was singing centre stage on every occasion, so popular was she and high the demand the growing church attendance made for her performance. She cared little for anything outside choir. She wasn’t anymore religious than required and never showed interest in singing any other style of music.

She attended get-togethers, but showed little interest in ball game and other childish nonsense. At first the teasing was growing with her choir girl reputation, but when she consistently failed to care, it eventually levelled off and the attention she received was diverted towards other insult avenues deemed appropriate in the name of social anointment: her puny stature, greasy hair, one ear bigger than the other and the eyes of a husky dog.

Irene spent long hours in the summer months lying on her back on the hot asphalt: in the road behind her house, on the side of the skate park, in the school parking area on a weekend, and her favourite, in the little alley behind the church. If people stopped to stare at her, asking whether she was alright, she would blink in an understanding and reassuring way until they gave up, called her mad, or both, and then left. In winter she would cover the floor of her bedroom in hot water bottles, throw a blanket over and, with arms splayed, practise her melismata until her voice went out or she started shivering, whichever came first.

Growing up brought into sharp focus that nature had not given Irene much beside her prodigious voice and dogged determination to passively endure existence. She turned sixteen and having failed all essential exams she could not apply for vocational school. The day her results arrived, she read the letter and then went to the skate park. For Irene it was just another summer afternoon.

The hot July sun softened the asphalt making it tacky to the sweaty touch of Irene’s back covered with a white tank top. The broken shade of a pine tree protected her enough so she wouldn’t end up peeling her skin off to the flesh. She had her eyes focused on the cold bluish green of the pine needles above her, not on their shape just on their colour. Her ability to completely disregard one feature and obsess over another had been her blessing and curse. She was so absorbed she did not observ the lanky boy staring at her for the best part of five minutes. His look was not dirty, but reverential, fascinated, and for a moment worried, checking her chest for the unlikely reason of making sure she wasn’t dead.

He stretched his hand holding his skateboard above her, forcing her to give him attention. She looked at him and spoke with her empty gaze.
‘I thought some extra shade would do you good, looks like you were burning your neck’ he said while still holding the skateboard above her. Irene had the corner of her mouth curl up, in what appeared to be her returning blonde-haired Dylan’s smile.

Irene had bypassed the torment of feeling adolescent shivers of love and had made her own the resentment of unrequited love. She had someone’s attention, and that was the only thing she wanted. She didn’t say a word and allowed two-years-younger Dylan to stare at will.

When his arms started to tire, he turned the skateboard round to show its bottom side, and having had plenty of time to gather courage, proceeded to talk about its custom paint job. Irene’s eyes were flicking open occasionally, looking past and through the eagle craddling a skull, set on a background of flames painted in the only style the guy at the skate shop knew of.

Irene attended the pine asphalt while Dylan was pining on the asphalt. He was actually a pretty talented skateboarder in spite of not being quite built for it, but with his mind somewhere else, but not very far, he failed more often than he should have and forgot about landing in a self-preserving manner. He only took a break when successful, and then he didn’t care for the cheer of fellow skaters and love-stricken girls. He would strut, mostly out of pain, over to the pine tree. The tree had become more welcoming that Irene, greeting him with its invariable sway in the hot wind. Irene would smile, Dylan would assume approval, and then go back for more. This ritual took place while pine needles grew slightly less blue and slightly more yellow, the scrapes and loose thuds of skateboard wheels hitting asphalt providing a fitting soundtrack to Irene’s wicked idleness.

When Dylan finally mastered a gazelle flip, he felt he had earned the right to Irene’s full attention. Irene was done for the day and proceeded to slowly peel herself off hot asphalt. She headed off, the back of her tank top stained in layers of sweat and bituminous matter providing ample opportunity for crowd entertainment. Dylan followed her, at first about 30 m back, but then he rapidly grew impatient and being wildly more fit than Irene he closed the gap in an instant. He wasn’t trying to stalk her, he wanted her to notice him, and when she finally did, she didn’t frighten. She spoke to him for the first time: ‘I’m going to church.’
‘Looking like that? It’s Wednesday. There’s no church today. Who goes to church anyway?’ said a befuddled Dylan.
‘I’m singing.’
‘I..I like music.’ mumbled Dylan.
By this point Irene was no longer a member of the choir. She didn’t fit the innocent child look the choir was built on. In an immature display of power, she plonked down under the open practice room window and outsang the poor choir children with every opportunity. When the choir leader had finally had enough, he came storming out, knowing well what he would find. He didn’t expect a lanky blonde skater boy standing dazed outside his window, staring at a sweaty, greasy Irene, who was, for the first time since he had known her, smiling. He found the scene so utterly surreal he couldn’t find a way of acting, not even one of the ones he had prepared on his way out. He went back in, closed the window, and tried once again for a Kyrie eleison.

The next day Irene didn’t turn up to the skate park. She never turned up again.

From the Little Blue Marbles Series:

What is Xmas?

It’s not Christmas, perhaps it is Crossmas or Eksmas. And to be fair, I think it will serve me well to work with Eksmas for defining this end of year experience, alongside the traditional Christmas for comparison.

Eksmas

Is for me invariably one of the worst times of the year. The period leading up to it has ended, leaving most people (or just me?) sick of decorations, tunes, and festive compulsory cheer, the proceedings fail to deliver, the end of the year is coming up with its forceful pondering on the state of your life and annoying and mediocre firework displays causing noise, and then perhaps the worst part: the January-March season, with equally horrible darkness and cold weather as the previous three months, but lacking their suspense.

Having firmly set the depressing tone, I will now proceed to be a fastidious grinch and elaborate on these points.

Eksmas/Christmas

  1. The season’s madness. Starting November, especially if you live somewhere large enough to have the commercial potential, shops get decorated with glittery wonders, baubles, tinsel and who knows what else. It really only looks good if it’s been planned by an interior decorator and funded from corporate accounts. If you try buying the stuff and doing your own decoration, you are doomed to fail. Even if it looks good, it won’t look as good as in store. There is the overload factor. If you have two months to enjoy the beauty, it won’t be that amazing really by the time 25th December hits. Then there is the weather factor. Not all parts of the northern hemisphere enjoy proper cold weather and December snows. If it’s 10 degrees Celcius and raining, the magic of the sparkle is really just bloody insulting. You only need wear gloves to stop the mulled wine burning your hands. And then there’s the carols. If they weren’t supported by their festive purpose I think people would hate them as much as they hate Abba songs. They’re nice to listen to, but not more than a few times. And I quite like some Abba songs.
  2. Unsatisfactory proceedings. This is the main thing that annoys me. You want Christmas, but get Eksmas. I believe most would ascribe the value of Christmas to be spending time with loved ones (family, friends). Some also value it for its religious significance. These are both fine reasons, but unfortunately people just mess things up. This one day of the year should be a celebration, the cherry on the cake for a year spent building and enjoying meaningful human relantionships. It is not meant to be a substitute for these things. Slaving away to fulfil whatever requirements and preparations the ritual in your part of the world requires and then being forced to socialise with relatives – this flavour of the issue mostly applies to families – whom you don’t get along well with is a recipe for disaster. Going through the motions on a background of aggravated fatigue is just insult and injury in one convenient package. Eksmas is this celebration of empty ritual and maintaining appearance. Conversely, if you happen to have people you care about, but can’t spend Christmas with them, all is not lost! You might be surprised to find that people have not forgotten you. Christmas is like meeting an old friend for a half-hour chat once a year. You are still best friends, and have a lot to say.
  3. Future plans. Once Christmas or Eksmas have passed, you have the New Year to look forward to. Traditionally people celebrated the changing of season, so I guess there is nothing wrong in finding reason to celebrate in changing calendar year. If you like to party New Year’s Eve is a great opportunity to change the cosiness of the table with the glamour of the ball room (one can dream). But don’t try to sort out your life plans for the next year in one day. If you didn’t do this over the course of the past year, forcing yourself to do it in one day is probably not a productive exercise. On a different note, I don’t get what is up with the fireworks? First of all the ones for the public should be banned. If it’s got enough power to pop or fly it shouldn’t be handled by children (or adults) who don’t know any better. Pyrotechnics should be kept for professionals. And on this point, can’t someone come up with some way of making them more quiet? They scare pets and are just a pain if you’re not celebrating and can’t even see anything from your window.
  4. The worst part: the bulk of the winter season. Holidays are gone, it’s still dark, cold or miserable outside, depending on where you live, and there’s nothing to look forward to.

It seems a bit too much that I’ve managed to complain about half the calendar year under the umbrella of one holiday, but that’s the risk you run when you mark living with compulsory milestones. It’s a bit of all or nothing.

It’s not all doom and gloom

I started this article a few weeks back planning to make it an indictment on people’s foolishness in complying to organised celebration. It isn’t so much an accusation anymore, but a warning. I’ve mellowed, people have remembered me, and that made me happy. Christmas day is not as bad as the run-up to it. If you don’t plan too much, if you keep expectations reasonable, there is no pressure. You might actually enjoy the day, even if you just light up some tea lights and sprinkle some biscuit munching onto your daily routine.

There is one cliché I am inclined to agree with now. It’s the small things that matter. Merry Christmas, or whatever else you might be celebrating!

Red pomegranate

Little Ellie stood on the bed’s edge, eyelids still heavy with sleep, staring dreamily out the roof windows at the sharp building edges, overlapping and blending, softened by the passing of time, and graced with a fuzzy charm by the misty morning light and a cold drizzle. The cold was making itself felt in the old town square which was now part of a bustling city filled with full-to-the-brim but deserted modern skyscrapers. Living on a budget in the coveted old neighbourhood took a toll on the home comfort Ellie’s mother could afford to provide. Their living there was a matter of history, rather than choice; still, they wouldn’t trade the early 20th century converted attic for the sterile warmth of modern apartments. It was only October but two pairs of socks, a jumper and a winter duvet were the bare minimum required to sleep through the night.

Ellie pulled the covers off, put her house shoes on, headed to the window and placed her hands on the crumbling, moist plaster of the windowsill. The piercing cold brought a smile on her face. Growing up in that place, she had developed a taste for living, for appreciating the feeling of time in her body, made possible by the thick buildup of historical layer in that old town market square, which she could analyse from above like a historian turning manuscript pages with soft white gloves.


Ellie sat listless on the gold embroidered cushion of a Chippendale chair, sipping her coffee in the extravagant comfort of the hotel room. She didn’t bother to open the curtains. Although the somptuous interiors made those unaquainted feel like they were sharing chambers with royalty, the ugly truth was the hotel was a steel and glass giant, overlooking a forest of equally belittling buildings. She had spent the best part of the previous five years living in such hotels, at one point being so caught up in work affairs that she actually did not bother to call a place home. When she did have a place rented, she often avoided staying there worried she might have to make her own coffee or toast. She didn’t like this life, but she had gotten used to the sickening comfort brought by her income, and kept telling herself that once she had enough saved she would quit. She had parted ways with her old self following her mother getting a better paid job and selling the old attic flat to fund a mortgage for a warm and lacking-mould apartment. Ellie believed herself understanding of her mother’s growing arthritic pains, but she was in response drifting more and more, literally and figuratively, into the new city centre. She was fighting fire with fire, and left completely lost by her time in university, she ended up working in public affairs for a multinational corporation. She was devilishly good at it.

Once, she left the hotel she was staying in in the middle of a cold November night, took her shoes off and walked the dark alleys hidden behind bars and clubs, cutting her feet on broken glass, and talking to herself until the sun rose. She sat on a bench next to a homeless man smoking handrolled cigarettes. He would lick them soaked before lighting them on fire, producing such a thick choking smoke it clinged onto the surface of clothes rather than penetrate them. She dipped her feet in a puddle beside the bench.


Ellie felt like she had nothing left to live for. She came to understand that she had spent her life searching for that feeling of belonging, feeling which was lost temporarily when moving out of the attic, and then permanently when the old buildings were deemed unsafe for habitation, lacking historic value and summarily demolished and replaced by a new office building. She felt betrayed by her mother, then her friends, then her coworkers. After her husband left her, she went silent for months. She didn’t cry, she didn’t hate, she just felt like it was meant to happen and she deserved it. She couldn’t remember much from the past thirty years of her life. She didn’t care. She turned off the heating, opened all the windows, crawled under the covers and waited for the sparkling December air to fill the house. She started shivering violently, curled up in a ball and grabbed the soles of her feet with her hands. She read the scars like Braille. The moist and abrasive skin drew the heat out of her hands.

On Christmas morning she jumped out of bed, stretched like a gymnast, and devoured the sight of the shabby old table covered in layers of flaking drab greens, ochres, maroons, more greens, and a feeble white overcoat. On it stood glowing, proud and innocent, a red pomegranate.

A Christmas card for organic chemists

Being the grinch that I am, I thought I might as well jump on the celebration boat following the obvious reasoning of ‘ I want to see the world burn’.

So, here is my take on the Christmas card/wishes business.

Having ’til not long ago worked as an organic chemist, I still find a connection to this world which provides me with plenty of inspiration. That is how this card came to be.

What about its meaning? I don’t want to risk it being misunderstood; I am sure it will be mostly ignored. But I have to try.

Here it is in the painful equivalent of explaining the joke.

  • If you’ve been naughty, did not follow proper protocol, and ended up with your beloved sample getting intimate with the Rotavap bath, then Santa has a great bottle of XquisitePhos ready for you
  • If you’ve been nice, followed proper protocol, and both optimised your eluent polarity and measured the Rf value for your sample, then Santa has a nice glassware brush waiting for you

You may be thinking ‘That makes no sense’. There are a couple of possible explanations: either I’ve mixed up my boxes or I planned this all along in a clever way; something that chemists call, use, and abuse: rational design.

Let’s assume it is the latter. I planned it this way. Why would the naughty chemist get the expensive present? Well, there is the old saying ‘Fortune favours the brave’, and as I have found for myself, playing by the rules gets you nowhere. Sometimes it goes wrong, but you have to take your chances if you want to get anything done.

There is one other clever interpretation of this metaphorical Christmas ‘wish-you-well’ item. There are a couple of things any organic chemist who’s been in the business for long enough cannot avoid: going on the Phos and having to clean glassware. Some, working on very well-funded projects, might have lab dishwashers (I actually don’t know what the proper name is for those). In that case I assume they would probably throw out the compromised glassware that can’t be cleaned this way. Maybe I was wrong.

It’s less likely that you can get away from the Phos. Which brings me to the label on the beloved expensive Christmas present:

XquisitePhos
ResplendentPlus grade
Purified by triple incantation
Immobilised onto unicorn tears

I am so proud of myself for coming up with this one that I won’t explain it. If you are a chemist and don’t get it, then I guess..you must be new? Good luck!

Happy holidays and may the Phos be with you!

Solstice

It's dark, it's dark, dark all the time. 
The sun rises fat as a toad
And marches crippled carving a road
In cloud from where it cannot shine. 

Light flurries in patches of amber and grey
And catches on branches breaking its fall. 
Noon has passed, light we just missed,
The sun was gone before we knew it was day. 

It's dark, it's dark, dark all the time
And don't forget night promptly arrives. 
Please do no whine 'cause tomorrow will bring
Passing the point and turning the tides.

Hold the line

Captain Ryan Hold had a feeling nothing would happen by the end of the day. It was unusually quiet, the dull grey of the sky compressing the atmosphere, making everything move a little more slowly than usual. There was no wind to rustle the leaves and no traffic on the dusty cobblestone roads. They were all closed for the parade. The discrepancy between the din expected of a public holiday and the reality of the still barracks life made Ryan feel like he somehow did something wrong, performed his morning rituals and did his chores incorrectly. He struggled to remember what might have caused this.

The soldiers had already left before Ryan arrived this morning. He wished he hadn’t moved up the ranks so quickly. He missed his friends, he missed performing the same tasks everyday in company, laughing at the same jokes and mocking those in higher ranks, not because they were bad, most of them were quite good, but because it was part of subalterns’ duty and the professional way to show affection. He was one of the higher ranks. And he mostly spent his time on paperwork, running inspections, attending meetings, and waiting for the phone to ring.

After lunch he went for his second patrol of the day, duty he had with all the soldiers being away. He finished the round and entered the communications office. It mostly served for respite and as a log book deposit since phones had been installed all over the base.
The old telegraph machine came to life and filled the room with a sense of urgency conveyed using simple tones:

BeepBeep…BeBeep…BeepBe – and carried on.

Having had Morse code drilled into his head in military school, Ryan didn’t miss a single thing, even while trying to figure out why anyone would be telegraphing in this day and age.

’Man with a gun’, the message read.

It snowed

Oh, what a shame!
There barely is reason to hope 
For a thick white coat.

If I were young, 
I'd pray there be 
Music without party, 
Drinking and regretting,
Pretending and forgetting. 

If I were young, 
I'd learn to wait 
For nothing that won't come, 
Learning but not winning, 
Caring but not crying.

Now it snowed while I wait
For the damned season to pass.
I no longer think the next better, 
I still find the longing bitter. 

It snowed. Oh, what a shame! 

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?