The Power of Being a "Native" English Speaker

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Written by  June 26, 2015

Danika realizes that her sunny Spanish lifestyle is due to a privilege she never knew she had.

I’m in a town of about 23,000 people on the Guadalquivir River, just south of Seville, Spain, watching an enormous container ship cut through the chop, rusty wooden fishing boats bobbing up and down like little carved toys, anchored to the shore. At the wharf, the day’s catch of fish, tiger prawns and mussels is brought up the river from the coast at Sanlúcar de Barrameda and laid out on big-wheeled wagons. Behind me stands a bronze statue of a Japanese Samurai, hand on his sword, eternally gazing across the muddy banks amongst wilting cherry trees. Something in this scene is out of place.

It’s me.

In the aftermath of last decade’s financial crisis, Spain is known as having one of Europe’s highest unemployment rates—almost 50 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds are currently out of work. For a 40-hour-a-week job, a minimum-wage employee can expect around about 750 Euros. A month. So how is it that I’m here—a foreigner—working for the same amount, for just 12 hours a week? It gives me a pang of guilt to say it:

I’m a native English speaker.

With English as our native tongue, we are the linguistically privileged. Like several Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders hoping for a long-term stint in Europe without the visa trouble, I’ve landed here via the Auxiliares de Conversación program—the Spanish version of several native-speaker-attracting schemes across the continent. I’m contracted by the government and paid a “stipend,” to work in a primary school and, well, speak English.

I’m in hot demand, despite the fact that I barely understand anything about the grammar structures of my own language.

The English teachers at my school in Coria del Río, a town known for its descendants of a Japanese envoy that visited 600 years ago (hence, the Samurai statue), earn just a little more than me, for four times the hours.

Hoping to make a little more dinero in my spare time (and there’s a lot of it), I post an advertisement for cash-paid private classes online. I’ve got no experience in English teaching and no real idea of what I’m doing, but by the end of the day I’ve had six phone calls. There are mothers who want their three-year-olds bilingually babysat, businessmen in their 40s who’ve suddenly found themselves irrelevant, university students who need to pass a test just to finish their degrees.

I meet Sergio in a hole-in-the-wall café; blue patterned tiles line the walls and men in flat caps sip beers on tiny wooden stools. I’m not sure about first English class etiquette, but I figure that it’s an unintimidating, neutral space. I order a manchado (a milky, machine-poured coffee, which is about the closest I can find to a flat white) and pull out a couple of worksheets I printed from the Internet.

“Why do we change the second clause into simple future tense when we speak in the first conditional?” Sergio asks me.

Clearly having no idea what he’s talking about, I reply: “Err...because we just do.”

The waiter comes back with our coffees and gives a curious side-eyed glance at our sudden change of language, although he doesn’t look too surprised. One-on-one English classes are about as common as buskers playing the accordion; you’re likely to overhear one everywhere you go.

My native-speaker status means I’m in hot demand, despite the fact that I barely understand anything about the underlying rules and grammar structures of my own language. Sergio doesn’t call back for another class.

While my 700-euro-a-month salario doesn’t seem like a great deal in my home country—which boasts the highest minimum wage in the world—it’s more than liveable over here. I rent a one-bedroom apartment with my Spanish boyfriend in Triana, a district of Seville known for its nonsensical mish-mash of tight little alleyways and people singing flamenco spontaneously in bars. I buy fresh vegetables and craft beers from the nearby market, wear clothes from European chain stores, and consume copious amounts of full-bodied red wine and greasy tapas on the weekends. My life is almost idyllic.

But I’m not the only foreigner who’s come searching for the sunny Andalusian lifestyle of siestas and orange trees; the city has a huge number of African immigrants, Latin Americans from the old colonies, and Romanians who work mostly in construction and hard labour. None of them, however, have the same privilege I apparently inherited the minute I stepped off the plane in Madrid.

The immigration officer rhythmically tapped her nails on the desk as she studied my passport from behind the glass.

“And what are you going to do here?” She asks, still looking down.

“I’m going to teach English,” I reply

I could see her physically stifle an eye roll—the first of many to come. It’s a common facial expression, one I now see almost every time I’m asked what I’m doing over here. It’s gotten to the point where the second that someone realizes I’m foreign, I don’t even need to explain myself.

The resentment amongst Spaniards is strong; in an effort to improve the country’s lowly 15th place ranking in English proficiency across Europe, university students are now required to pass an exam before they can graduate. Young people with only months left in their degrees are now facing several more. The English teaching industry is booming.

Which brings me to where I am now—the hot summer slowly creeping in to take hold of the city for the next three months, making the daily siesta imminent. I’ve finished my stint at the school—surprise; surprise... teaching wasn’t really for me. My status as the partner of a Spaniard has given me the right to live and work, and I’ve picked up a new marketing job in—and it goes without saying-English teacher training.

Branded as a native speaker, this type of industry is inescapable—yet, on the walk to work across a 500-year-old bridge, Moorish-patterned turrets, the smell of burnt orange blossoms, and thickset gypsies offering me sprigs of rosemary—I’m thankful for my language privilege every day.

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Danika Wilkinson

Danika Wilkinson is a 20-something Australian journalist by trade, but traveller by nature. She currently lives in Seville, southern Spain, where (between tapas, siestas and sangria) she works in marketing and social media.

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