Five Privileges of English Speakers, part 1

It’s very common today on progressive blogs to urge people to check their privilege.

Being an English speaker, native or non-native, is a privilege.

It’s not as often as discussed as other forms of privilege, such as white, male, cis, hetero, or rich privilege. The reason for this is simple: The world’s media is dominated by the English language. English-language movies are more popular in many countries than movies in these countries’ own languages, English-language news networks are quoted by the rest of the world, the world’s most popular social networks are based in the U.S. and are optimized for U.S. audiences, etc.

So, when English speakers discuss privilege among each other, English is not much of an issue, and they dedicate more time to race, gender, wealth, religion, and other factors that differentiate between people in English-speaking countries.

Despite this, I am not the first one to describe English as a privilege. A simple Google search for english language privilege will yield many interesting results.

What I do want to try to do in this series of posts is to list the particular nuances that make English such a privilege in as much detail as possible. I wanted to write this for a long time, but there are many such nuances, so I’ll just do it in batches of five, in no particular order:

1. Keyboard

If you speak English, congratulations: A keyboard on which your language can be written is available on all electronic devices.

All of them.

All desktops, laptops, phones, tablets, watches. The only notable exception I can think of is typewriters, which only makes the point more tragic: technology moved forward and made writing easier in English, but harder in many other languages, where local-language typewriters were replaced with computers with English-only keyboard.

At the very worst case, writing English on a computer will be slightly inconvenient in countries like Germany, France, or Turkey, where the placement of the Latin letters on the keys is slightly different from the U.S. and U.K. QWERTY standard. Oh, poor American tourists.

On a more serious note, though, even though a lot of languages use the Latin alphabet, a lot of them also use a lot of extra diacritics and special characters, and English is one of the very few that doesn’t. Of the top 100 world’s languages by native speakers, only Malay, Kinyarwanda, Somali, and Uzbek have standardized orthographies that can be written in the basic 26-letter Latin alphabet without any extra characters. We can also add Swahili, which has a large number of non-native speakers, but that’s it. With other languages you can get stuck and not be able to write your language at all (Hindi, Chinese, Russian, etc.), or you may have to write in a substandard orthography because you can’t type letters like é or ł (French, Vietnamese, Polish, etc.).

The above is just the teeny-tiny tip of the iceberg; the keyboard problem will be explored in more points later.

2. Spell-checking

English word morphology is laughably simple.

There’s -s for plurals and for third person present tense verbs, there’s -‘s for possession, and there are -ed and -ing verb forms. There are also some contractions (‘d, ‘s, ‘ll, ‘ve), and a long, but finite list of irregular verb forms, and an even shorter list of irregular plural noun forms. And that’s it.

Most languages aren’t like that. In most languages words change with prefixes, suffixes, infixes, clitics, and so on, according to their role in the sentence.

Beyond the fact that English writing is (arguably) easier for children and foreigners to learn, this means that software tools for processing a language are easy to develop for English and hard to develop for other languages.

The first simple example is spell-checking.

English has had not just spelling, but also grammar and style checkers built into common word processors for decades, and many languages of today don’t even have spelling checkers, not to mention grammar, or style, or convenient searching. (See below.)

So in English, when you type “kinh”, most word processors will suggest correcting it to “king”, but then, some of them may also suggest replacing this word with “monarch” to be more inclusive for women, and this is just one of the hundreds of style improvement suggestions that these tools can make. For a lot of other languages, even simple spell-checking of single words hasn’t been developed yet, and grammar checking is a barely-imaginable dream.

3. Autocompletion

Simpler morphology has many other effects.

Even though Russian is my first native language and I speak it more fluently than I speak English, I am much slower when I’m typing in Russian on my phone. In English, the autocompleting keyboard makes it possible to write just two or three letters of a word and let the software complete the rest. In Russian, the ending of the word must be typed, and autocompletion rarely guesses it correctly. Typing an incorrect ending will make a sentence convey incorrect information, or just make it completely ungrammatical.

4. Searching

A yet-another issue of the previous point, English’s very simple morphology makes searching easier.

For example word processors have a search and replace function. For English, it will likely find all forms of the word, because there are so few of them anyway. But in Hebrew and Arabic, letters are often inserted or changed in the middle of the word according to its grammatical state, and you need to search for each form, which is quite agonizing. It’s comparable to “man” vs. “men” in English, except that in English such changes are very rare, while in many other languages it happens in almost every word.

With search engines that must find words across thousands of documents it gets even harder. Google can easily figure out that if you’re searching for “drive”, you may also be interested in “driving”, “drove”, and “driven”, but Russian has dozens of other forms for this word. A few languages are lucky: special support was developed for them in search engines, and tasks of this kind are automated, but most languages our just out in the cold. But English barely needs extra support like this in the first place.

5. Very little gender

A lot can be said about gendered language, but as far as basic grammar goes, English has very little in the area of gender. “He” and “She”, and that’s about it. There are also man/woman, actor/actress, boy/girl, etc., but these distinctions are rarely relevant in technology.

In many other languages gender is far more pervasive. In Semitic and Slavic languages, a lot of verb forms have gender. In English, the verb “retweeted” is the same in “Helen retweeted you” and “Michael retweeted you”, but in Hebrew the verb is different. Because Twitter doesn’t know that Helen needs a different verb, it uses the masculine verb there, which sounds silly to Hebrew speakers.

I asked Twitter developers about this many times, and they always replied that there’s no field for gender in the user profile. It becomes more and more amusing lately, now that it has become so common —and for good reasons!— to mention what one’s preferred pronouns are in the Twitter profile bio. So people see it, but computers don’t.

On a more practical note, in the relatively rare cases when third person pronouns must be used in software strings, English will often use the singular “they” instead of “he” or “she”. So English-speaking developers do notice it, but not as often as they should, and when they do, they just use the lazy singular-they solution, which is socially acceptable and doesn’t require any extra coding. If only they’d notice it more often, using their software in other languages would be much more convenient for people of all genders.

The only software packages that I know that have reasonably good support for grammatical gender are MediaWiki and Facebook’s software. I once read that Diaspora had a very progressive solution for that, but I don’t know anybody who actually uses it. There may be other software packages that do, but probably very few.

These are just the first five examples of English-language privilege I can think of. There will be many, many more. Stay tuned, and send me your ideas!


13 thoughts on “Five Privileges of English Speakers, part 1

  1. Another issue is troubleshooting. Try search a solution for a problem, quoting a localized error message… You have to switch to English and recreate the conditions leading to the error message; or have a look at the localization files… 😉

  2. Thanks 🙂

    It’s easier to install a non-English keyboard support, on most devices, than it is to build a typewriter for a specific language… It *is* a move foreward, especially when considering complex scripts (Indic, Arabic, etc) or scripts with many letters (Chinese and Japanese, and Korean if you count blocks as characters). Unicode makes it easy to use many languages on the same device. Things aren’t perfect, but they are better…

    1. Yes, it’s easy, but the problem is that people don’t actually do it, even though it’s easy.

      I was shocked the first time I went to India and had to show somebody how to enable Marathi typing on the laptop she already owned. I thought that it’s just that one young woman. But almost everybody I met in India didn’t know how to type in their language, even though it had been possible since Windows NT 4 or so.

      Hindi, and even the more complicated Malayalam, were used on typewriters for decades! I didn’t research this deeply, but I strongly suspect that when computers came along, it became easier to type them potentially, but harder in practice.

      I’m thinking of ways to fix it. Yes, I have big ideas :)

      1. This is weird; don’t they use computers in their native language?
        Why aren’t the systems come with native language support pre-installed, like is the case with Hebrew in Israel? Is it because there are many languages with several different writing systems?

        Good luck with your ideas :-). Would you like to share them?

        1. No, most use it in English!

          And yes, I’ll share the ideas in subsequent posts, stay tuned :)

  3. have you tried Swifkey? I have it in Welsh (my most frequent language for texting, twitter, Fb etc) English and then German and Breton which I sometimes use to type some words. It helps in making sure my German words are also spelt correctly!

    1. Thanks. I’m familiar with the solutions. What I’m trying to say is that English is the only language that always has typing support on all computers, without having to install or configure anything.

  4. This entirely reminds me of when I saw on my iPhone that iOS 9 was launching the possibility to have your phone “in” Tigrinya — and then I realized it’s literally just dates and the most basic parts of the phone’s displays. And even then, to make it work you had to download a 3rd-party keyboard for the Ge’ez script to make it work. And even then, the script is limited to the standard Amharic-Tigrinya form of Ge’ez, so someone who reads say Bilin or Sebat Bet wouldn’t be able to use the keyboard in their respective languages.
    I entirely see what you’re saying in this post, because literally people who just speak English don’t even readily realize how much of a personal thing it can be to be able to read in your own ethnic language on a computer.

    1. Yep. They don’t realize. And American media won’t write about it, not because it’s a conspiracy theory, but because nobody there even sees the problem.

      1. I remember how long it took to get a Unicode assortment for Old South Arabian, and even then it won’t show up on most phones or computers so it’s redundant to use it in papers. Same with the Old North Arabian script… and like 85% of the scripts for other Semitic languages. But that’s okay, most Americans assume I speak bastardized Arabic half the time so even if you bring up the Unicode issue on software, it’s irrelevant because they can’t tell the difference.

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