Helene Combe

Through my journey as an English teacher and a language learner

No, I am not a native speaker

But English is my first language nonetheless. I read in English all the time, probably a lot more than most people; I speak in English every day; I watch documentaries, movies, information channels, pretty much everything actually in English; hell, I even text/tweet/Instagram in English.

Yet, today once again, someone was surprised when I said that my ultimate goal was to train teachers of English as a Second Language. Her reaction was actually quite extraordinary: “but you have to have a high level of English to do so!” That person being my dentist, I cannot exactly qualify her of being stupid so I answered that I was indeed bilingual.

“Yes,” she continued, “but are you originally from England, or another English speaking country?” I would love to explain to her that I don’t know half of my biological details but as I couldn’t (TMI already) I just said that since she wasn’t from the land of the Tooth Fairy but could manage to be a dentist, I would be just fine being an English teacher and teacher trainer despite having a French passport.

The year is 2019: we know that English is an International Language, we know that most conversations in English are between two non-natives, we know that bilingualism is real yet, when it comes to English, it seems necessary to prove that we are somehow related to an English speaking country.

An educated person once told me that I was good at English because my ancestors were probably from an English speaking country. As I am not exactly motivated to do a DNA test to prove these people wrong, I am just gonna say that I probably have Celtic origins, but I highly doubt it matters.

The thing is I am white, (fake) blond, tall woman. I am lucky if I compare myself to others, who every day have to face discrimination just because of their skin color (and it’s only one example). I face discrimination because I am not a native speaker, but hell, I can clap back as much as stupid people can ask dumb questions.

English is my first language, and I am proud of say so. My native language remains French, but I prefer to express myself in English, and now this is not something recent: I am sure I can dig up an old diary of mine from 2003 already in English. I chose to teach English because I love it, and honestly, I would be the worst French teacher ever. Literally, you should run away if you enter in a French as a Second Language class and see me.

So yeah, English is my first language, French is my native one, and I have to work twice as hard to make people understand that I am competent. I have nice certificates upon my walls, from Yale University, Cambridge University, and they are not only here to decorate, and I am far from being the only one who has to demonstrate her ability when she explains what she does for a living.

For the record, a lot of writers who are considered genius, such as Joseph Conrad or Jack Kerouac, had another native tongue than English. For some reasons, I highly doubt that it is impacting the book sales nowadays.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Helene,
    I can truly understand what you are struggling with. My native language is Turkish (both my biological parents are SO Turkish, unlike you I made research and found out that we fellas didn’t marry any single soul from a different ethnicity for centuries – not exaggerating) but I learned English at a very young age so I always considered myself as bilingual. Then I learned German in high school and moved to Berlin for uni. Now I am 20 and a fresman in TU of Berlin. I usually don’t care what people say about me at all but I agree, discrimination doesn’t make sense at all. You’re luckier than me tho, because people are really not fond of Middle Eastern people -neither do I but that’s not the point-. Especially Germans are not very into Turkish people so they are so willing to judge me for anything. They always say that I am trying to act like a white people (which I truly disagree) but for god’s sake I am just trying to speak their language, is that a problem? (Even if I do try you can’t say a word but whatever) I am so sick of these people, they somehow think that they have rights to say such a thing like that. Wow I didn’t realize that I had a lot to say about it. I was doing research online and really didn’t understand how I get here but I am glad I did. I loved your blog btw. Stay safe.

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