It shouldn't be any surprise that the language of the World Wide Web is English. After all, the United States invented the internet in the first place, and English is currently the language of international commerce. Although the World Wide Web was invented in Switzerland and now spans the globe, it first went mainstream in the US, growing exponentially in size and popularity from there. This all but forced others to conform to the existing standard if they wanted to participate in the areas that had already been set up.

Fortunately, it seems that English is an extremely common second language for people to have these days. Everything2 is an English web site, and strongly encourages English contributions, or at least English translations of foreign language contributions. But in the attempt to standardize the flow of information such that all of the content here is available to the largest possible audience, it's easy to forget that many of our contributors are from non-English speaking countries.

The majority of the noderbase of Everything2 is from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. This is to be expected of course, as those countries make up the lion's share of most English-speaking websites, for reasons of common language, high living standard, and large populations. Although we have contributors from Germany, France, Finland, Denmark, Holland, Paraguay, Israel, and many other countries, it's very easy for a strong English as a Second Language speaker to go unnoticed in the crowd.

That's why I started this project. Our ESL noders have integrated themselves so seamlessly into the Everything2 community that it's easy to forget that they're even here, and the longer they stay at this highly language-oriented website, the better their English skills become. But so long as they're here and trying their best to fit in, we lose a great deal of background information. How is it they learned English in the first place? How often do they speak English in the real world? What web sites do they use in their native languages?

So I tracked down several of Everything2's more active ESL noders and asked them some questions. The answers were very enlightening! First a little on the nationalities and language backgrounds of our contributors:

A German living in New Zealand, Heisenberg has spent the last several years living and working in various English-speaking countries, and grew up watching English Sesame Street on television. Besides German and English, he also speaks French, Portuguese, Dutch, and Greek with various levels of proficiency.
LeoDV was born, raised, and lives in France, and taught himself English by watching television (who says TV is a barren wasteland with nothing of value to provide?). It's common to speak some English in France, what with all those British tourists and all, but not very common to be fluent.
Serial Number
A youngster living in Finland, Serial Number hasn't been to an English-speaking country yet, but is part of a new generation that is growing up with the Internet and its built-in English bias. Serial number also comes pre-installed with survival-level German and Swedish.
Our resident Sumo-loving Dane was raised on Swedish but moved to Denmark at age 9, and started learning English two years before that. English proficiency is considered to be a cool thing to have in Denmark, and is taught in elementary school. She also speaks some German.
Foreign languages are all over the place in ultra-liberal vacation hotspot Holland, so Sloebertje has a good background in English, French, and German, and some knowledge of Spanish, Greek, and Latin as well. Oddly enough, Sloebertje is one of the few respondents I got who speaks in English to other Dutch speakers from time to time, even when there aren't any native English speakers around. Sloebertje was interested enough in this project to write her own article, which can be found below this one, so I won't spend as much time on Holland as the other countries.
From the comparatively obscure South American country of Paraguay, Ancientsnow went to bilingual schools all her life and is fluent in English, with a basic understanding of Italian and French. This has led to the phenomenon explained in the code switching node, where she flips back and forth from Spanish to English with reckless abandon when speaking with others comfortable in both languages.
Russian, Hebrew, French, and English make up the linguistic arsenal of TheLady. Raised bilingual in Russian and Hebrew, she has lived in the former Soviet Union and Israel and is currently housed in England. English is very common in Israel, with the better educated and more privileged tending to be more fluent.

Some Universal Comments

I found several things to be fairly universal among E2's ESL population. For example most of them spend most of their Internet time on English web sites, with news and blogs making up the majority of their native-language browsing habits. They all write notes and drafts for their E2 articles in English as well, to avoid the hassle of translating anything for the final draft. They've all either learned English in school or by near-constant exposure to the all-pervasive touch of American media, which has overshadowed local entertainment in many countries with its huge budgets and enormous talent pool. And most of them have at least some basic knowledge of at least two languages, however it should be noted that this is basic survival skill in Europe.

And that all-pervasive American media cannot be avoided. Depending on the country, subtitling or dubbing may be more common, but chances are good that the most popular movies will have been made in Hollywood and American sit-coms and soap operas can be found on the television. It's just too hard to compete with the huge talent pool and massive budgets from the US. Unfortunately, this means that the media in other countries is becoming heavily influenced by American entertainment, and there may be a danger of losing some of their own cultural uniqueness.

Finally, despite what Smala Sussie had me believing, it seems to be very unusual to speak English with one's ESL friends without a reason, for example if there is an English speaker nearby who shouldn't be excluded. Conversely, English is a very convenient common language for two ESL speakers with different primary languages, and reports indicate that the only factor involved for understandability is the level of English fluency of the speakers. It doesn't appear that any other cultural or linguistic baggage affects the conversation, save for a possible thick accent.

Language comparisons

English is simpler than German, but from all I've heard German is a very complex language. German and Dutch are excellent languages for swearing in, it's very satisfying to spout a Teutonic or Dutch curse or two when you need to blow off some steam. French of course has provided English with myriad loanwords, as it's very good at making the vulgar sound classy. Otherwise, English seems to have a larger variety of synonyms and ways to express yourself than many other languages, making it easier to speak precisely. This is not always a good thing, as it also makes English a bit more crude and less poetic.

Stereotypes and Prejudice

The most problematic stereotypes on the internet seem to be German, French, and Israeli. One of the benefits of the web's anonymity though is that nobody knows your nationality unless you bother to mention it. In general, people seem to assume everyone on the internet is American unless they have reason to believe otherwise. This can be a blessing or a curse. For one thing, it tends to cut down on the "outsider" status that might otherwise take effect, and it removes the stereotypes and prejudices. On the other hand, people are less forgiving of grammar and spelling mistakes and culture gaps than they might otherwise be.


It was good to discover that E2, being a very cosmopolitan website, is much more friendly and tolerant of other cultures, nationalities, and fluencies with English. It's one of the few places where people have a reason to advertise their nationality, and feel comfortable doing so. Furthermore, its focus on English writing, especially the technical aspects of grammar and spelling, is excellent practice with English fluency (in writing if not with speaking).

What's more, noders tend to be friendlier and nicer people than the internet population at large, which honestly probably isn't very difficult. There seems to be a genuine interest in what our eclectic mix of cultures can do for our community. International nodermeets seem to happen once or twice a year, I've even been to one myself in Mexico. All in all, being a community that loves to read and learn, there is a lot of interest here in learning about other countries from a first-hand source.

So if you're an ESL noder and are ever stuck for something to write, tell us a bit about your home country! We've got entirely too little information on non-English speaking lands for all the representation we have. I can't speak for everyone, but I'd love to read it.

Some time ago rootbeer277 asked us ESL noders to help him with a project, the result of which you can see above. He'd made a list of questions for us to answer and I guess most of the others just answered the questions... I thought it was a fascinating subject and something I'd like to write about at a bit more length. This is what came out. The piece is still mostly structured around the questions that were asked.

How I got to speak English

My mother tongue is Dutch. I started learning English when I was in the fourth grade of primary school (I was 9 years old). This was rather early, even for the Netherlands where everybody comes into contact with one or more foreign languages in school. English lessons in primary schools weren't standard then (perhaps they still aren't) and pupils would usually learn English in their two final years of primary school, i.e. in fifth and sixth grade. However, I was in a so-called combination class: half of the class was fourth grade, half was fifth grade. As the English lessons entailed watching a video series and also the actual speaking of English, it was almost impossible to give these lessons to only half of the class. So we fourth-graders got to join in. This meant that I had three years of English lessons in primary school. I don't recall how well I spoke English after that. I do know that in the summer holiday between primary and secondary school I went to England with my parents and received lots of compliments from sweet English ladies! But my guess is that they would have been ecstatic even if the only words I could say had been "thank you" or something similarly simple. When I went to secondary school, English lessons started from point zero again, as not everybody had already had English. Even worse, I wasn't allowed to use any trick I'd learnt up till then. We had this stupid exercise book to fill in, page after page full of sentences like "What is this? It is a book. What are these? They are books." and it wasn't allowed to put "it's" or "they're" because that hadn't been taught yet. I was bored out of my mind in those classes. In secondary school I also learned French, German, Latin and Greek. I dropped German as soon as was possible (horrid language!), and Latin when we had to choose one classic language to take our exams in. I kept English, French and Greek and did "eindexamen" (final exams) in those. At university I took Spanish classes for three months. Except for English, my knowledge of these foreign languages is now mostly passive: I can read them okay, speaking and understanding spoken language are rather hard, and writing them is very hard. Latin and Greek have all but disappeared from my memory (although I can still quote the first sentence of the Odyssey! Woohoo).

Most Dutch people learn at least one foreign language in school, usually English, but not all for the same amount of time and of course not everybody is actually good at it. This means that in the Netherlands almost everybody understands a little bit of English, but not everybody is competent (or comfortable) enough to actually be able to keep a conversation going or participate in an English website like Everything2. All of my friends speak English, some better than others, but they are all university educated. My parents and housemates are much less fluent or even prefer not to speak English if they can avoid it. I've been to England a few times for vacation and nodermeets and comments on my accent vary. I've been mistaken for a resident by an old lady in London (who thought I was living in her building and carrying the large backpack because I'd just been on holiday in Rotterdam) and I've also been told I have an accent (a cute one, apparently - although I personally never consider a recognizable Dutch accent cute. Hearing our prime ministers murder English makes me shudder). My dad once told me he couldn't understand my English because my accent was too British. So, I don't know. If you want to know, call me up and find out for yourself, I guess.

I find that I have conversations in English with my boyfriend often, even though we're both native Dutch speakers. Not only do we speak English to each other sometimes, we tend to do it in a silly French accent, for reasons that I haven't figured out yet. It seems that especially with difficult subjects, saying it in English is easier than saying it in Dutch, as Dutch feels more direct and in-your-face. Also, we're just intellectual snobs who like to show off.

English and the media in my country

Written media in the Netherlands (newspapers, books) are generally in Dutch, although many shops have a small selection of imported newspapers and magazines and English paperbacks. On television and in the cinemas we get many imported TV shows and movies - if we were to rely on the Dutch movie industry things would be dire indeed! Although, it must be admitted, Dutch movies are getting better. The majority of movies shown in Dutch cinemas are American though. Art house cinemas also feature foreign movies from other countries. Almost all TV shows and movies are shown in the original language and subtitled, with the exception of movies meant for children - those are often dubbed. There are some 10 national Dutch television channels now that you can receive over the cable (I remember there being only two), and apart from those the Dutch tend to receive Belgian, German and British television, as well some stuff like Discovery Channel, National Geographic and Animal Planet. The Dutch channels show a combination of Dutch shows (news, sitcoms, reality TV, game shows) and imported series and movies from England and America. Those are always subtitled. Speaking English well for me has the funny effect that I often find myself correcting the subtitles (especially the ones for Discovery Channel can contain really weird mistakes) or watching a movie and noticing halfway through that there are actually no subtitles.

One thing I do that is not all too common in the Netherlands, is that I read almost all of my books in English. There is a huge amount of translated literature available in the Netherlands, as well as Dutch literature of course, but I mostly prefer reading in English. There are several reasons for this. One is that at school I developed a distaste for Dutch literature. There are some famous Dutch writers that we were all but forced to read, and they tend to have a few themes in common: war, death, religion and sex. And most combinations thereof. I might be exaggerating a bit here, but that was the impression I was left with. To my great shame I have read very little of the famous Dutch writers. Most of my favourite writers are either British or American, and I prefer to read their words just as they wrote them, not translated. Terry Pratchett, for example, uses lots of puns and other language jokes that are almost impossible to translate properly. An added reason is that English translated into Dutch often results in Dutch that seems sort of stilted. It's hard to explain, but the language just feels wrong, unwieldy, when it's translated from English. The last reason to read in English is my reading speed! I read really fast, and reading in English used to be a good way to slow it down a bit so I don't have to get new books every week. Now that I've gotten used to it, the effect is less, but it is still there.

Most websites I read are in English. In Dutch I read some news websites and, the Dutch version of Facebook. For work I use mostly Dutch websites, as the things I look for usually have to do with Dutch environmental laws.

In the United States, but also in other countries, the Netherlands have the reputation of being very broad-minded and very permissive and liberal with regards to things like drugs, abortion, euthanasia, sex education and so on. Whether this is seen as positive or negative mostly depends on the political views of the person talking about it. At festivals, where you find many young, liberal people, I find that people see the Netherlands as the shining example of how things should be everywhere. Recently I read a discussion about sex education on an American feminist blog, where the Dutch way of viewing things was held up as something to strive for. On the other hand, Dutch views on euthanasia are viewed with horror in many Catholic countries and our neighbouring countries generally aren't too happy about our drug policies. People I speak to generally have a positive view of Dutch ways, sometimes even too much so. It makes for repetitive conversation in any case, when everyone you meet wants to tell you how wonderful it is that in Holland you can buy marijuana everywhere.

How does English compare to my native language?

English seems to be a more efficient language, because when you translate it into Dutch the result tends to be much longer than the original text. Then again, that might be due to my non-professional translation skills. There are certainly some words in Dutch that have no direct English one-word equivalent. "Gezellig" comes to mind, also "lekker"... then again, the English-speaking world seems to manage quite well without them. English already has quite a few Dutch loanwords, like dike, spook, landscape and eigenvector. And apartheid. And I'm sure that English also has words that Dutch has no direct translation for, but the Dutch tend to mix quite a lot of English words into their language anyway. Anything computer-related is just copied as a term, for example.

In general though, expressing yourself in any language other than your mother tongue is comparatively hard. I find that although I speak English fairly well, I still express myself much better in Dutch. My knowledge of English is passive for a great part, which means that I have no trouble understanding what other people say or write, but coming up with the words myself is much harder to do. A great example is when someone asks me about my job. I really have to struggle to explain what it is that I do in English, simply because I need all kinds of words that I normally use only in Dutch. In a similar way, for me it is much harder to vary my writing style or make jokes in English than it is in Dutch, because my active vocabulary is smaller. Also, as a non-native speaker it is very easy to not know about or misunderstand the background behind certain expressions, and to get it really wrong when you try to use slang or wordplay.

English as a second language on Everything2

Everything2 requires more time and attention than most other sites (unless you just use the chatterbox). But after spending that time and effort, people tend to be more patient than elsewhere with pointing out typos and things that aren't as clear as they could be. This is very different from some discussion sites I go to, where the slightest mistake in writing exactly what you mean is immediately pounced upon. Holding a conversation with someone in English is always more difficult than holding it in Dutch, and it gets harder when the participants speak less English! I think the difference in language is not as important as differences in culture. People make assumptions about what you say, based on what they're used to. Not speaking your own language can worsen the confusion but doesn't necessarily cause it, I think. Unless all participants are really bad speakers of the common language, of course. I vividly remember trying to hold a conversation in French with a Moroccan guy... language was a problem there, but his world view being completely different from mine (and him knowing no place or culture but Morocco) was a much bigger one.

I draft my writeups in English. Dutch has a different sentence structure, so translating is more complicated than writing in English directly. Also, thinking in English makes writing easier, and thinking English while working with a Dutch draft is hopeless. I make notes in either Dutch or English, depending on the subject. But there also, translating is harder than just starting from the right language, so if I know the right words I tend to use English.

Why don't I write more about my own country? That question presupposes a few things. First, that I don't write enough about my country. Second, that I consider my country to be an interesting subject. I do, but not more so than many other subjects. Added to that is the fact that my country seems normal to me, so things that are interesting to an outsider might not be to me and I might not even consider them as writeup subjects (so if you're interested in any specific aspect of the Netherlands, let me know and I'll see what I can do!). Even more important is the fact that what seems normal to me, might require a lot of explanation for others, making the already long process of writing a good writeup even longer. An example: I've been meaning to write about a famous Dutch singer for a while now. For a Dutch audience, a description of his life might be enough. But for a non-Dutch audience I also need to explain the sort of music he made, what position and reputation that sort of music has in the Netherlands and why, and so on and so forth. Just saying people loved him because he was such a normal guy is useless if I don't explain that "staying normal" is one of the biggest compliments the Dutch can give a famous Dutch person, and that crowing about your achievements and "getting above your station" is a big no-no in Dutch society. Of course, this is not a reason not to write the writeup, but the longer the writeup needs to be, the slimmer the chances that I will actually take the time to write it. I still might get around to it.

Thanks to rootbeer277 for asking interesting questions that made me think more about this subject!

The Swede and the Nine Million Turnips
being, in a form verbose,
another tale of taking the English

West, Across the Ocean Sea

I was five years old when we moved to America, the formative event of my life, I guess. It was at or near the new year; I became six shortly afterwards. I got started in kindergarten pretty much right away, halfway through that school year, I guess. I didn't know a word of English, of course, so my mother wrote notes for me to take with me to kindergarten, that I would show the teacher if I needed anything. I don't remember how the notes looked exactly (I do remember using them), but I suppose she had written the same thing in Swedish on the other side, or some such. I remember asking for a new note in the first week or so, that I could use to ask if I could play with the toy dinosaurs. I also remember this because when I brought that note to kindergarten, and used it, another boy came up to me and asked, »Can I play too?« That was the first sentence I worked out in the English language.

Here's how it is: you mayn't believe it, but I remember it vividly. I remember the room, I remember the carpet (I was unused to carpeted floors; in Sweden we had none of them, in America they were everywhere. I remember liking the basement of our house because it was floored with stone tiles; I could play with my toy cars properly only there in the whole house), I remember the corner where the clear plastic bin with the toy dinosaurs was; hedged in by a shelf of some sort, which made me feel safe. And I remember the boy coming up to me — in my memory he's sort of timid, but I think he must have seen how scared I was, and careful for my sake. And I remember most of all, the blazing nail that fixes the rest of it in my mind, hearing and understanding. I believe — something I've thought about often — that I must have recognized the main part of the sentence from my note, »Can I play with the dinosaurs?«. You see? That leaves one word, and parsing the speech. (You know how it is when you first begin to learn a language: you hear garble with tiny snatches of intelligible word. I remember that too, although I don't need to: it's an experience I still have frequently.)

I said, »Okay«. I did this because people say that in Sweden too, so it was a word I could already say, and I knew it worked in English, because my mother had taught me that along with Yes and No, before I started in kindergarten. We played together mutely, not even making dinosaur noises: I because I didn't know how they sounded in English, and he, I suppose, so as not to scare me, still. (And I think he was the same sort of child I was, that quiet kind which really does not agree with a roomful of five-year-olds.) That boy became the best friend I had in America, for two and a half years, until we moved back.

So that's how I began.

Voyage Autour De Ma Chambre

Supposedly I did quite well on the standardized English tests and so on in school, after the first six months, but then, those were for primary school children. Nevertheless I never had to attend any English classes in school for the rest of my life, or not until I reached university, and those classes too were meant for such simpletons that I learnt nothing but how dim my classmates were. In consequence, whatever hold I have upon the English language is a product of my own efforts by other means, a procedure of events which has not been without its side effects: as anyone who's read part of my small and deformed nodeshare knows, my diction is essentially irreparably ruined. This is owing to my having learned and maintained large parts of the language by means of old books, after the age of eight. That isn't so much my fault, since the large majority of everything written since World War I is complete garbage, especially anything with a register above »comic book«, and so with a few notable exceptions I was left to the old, but the result is still the same: archaic vocabulary and phrasing in the hands of someone far too dumb to wield them, along with a good dose of »Gawrsh, Mick!«-level cartoonisms.

Furthermore, as those noders who have met me know, my accent is A) ludicrous, B) patchwork and C) subconsciously stolen from whomever I am talking to. A and B are to some extent caused by my attempts to curtail C, which latter behavior I have been exhibiting since I was a tiny individual. I have embarrassing stories about this from age 6 to age now, which you will never, ever hear.

When I was at university, I shared a flat with two friends, J. and J., and we would code-switch like mad, although hardly noticing; normally as soon as one of us ran up against a word he remembered in the other language before he could think of it in the one we were in, he would shift gears and the others would just follow along in that language. In general I think we conversed as much in English as we did in Swedish, if not more, for which I must take partial responsibility so as to avoid all of it. Since then I've uprooted and live in a country of English-speakers again, and so of course there is much less mixing these days.

So that's where I am now.

The Worst Place On Earth

A Swedish person of my generation will typically tell you that Swedes are good at English, partially out of an unrestrained vanity and partially because he has been taught that this is so. (He has also been taught the vanity.) This is a bald-faced, unqualified lie, although made up by someone else; most Swedes are dreadful at English, they're just happy to believe they're great. There are exceptions, of course, but those people have worked up their proficiency against the tide of a smug culture and an abysmal school system, one which is not just ineffective but actively hates excelling: it is no surprise, then, that most of them will have a background in some way similar to mine, whereby they've had a better avenue of learning.

The Swedish accent is a thing of ugliness absolute. It has one sole redeeming feature: it makes a person sound like an idiot hick. Swedes, by and large, are idiot hicks; thus this circumstance of the accent forces upon them an honesty which they are otherwise congenitally incapable of.

Here is how you recognize a person from The Worst Place On Earth by their speech:

  • They cannot pronounce þ or ð, so they pronounce them as t and d instead. Often, they will actually retroflect the sounds instead, a positively criminal act making them sound as though they suffered natal oxygen deprivation. (In case you're unfamiliar with the characters þ and ð, they represent the th-sounds in through and the, respectively. So it's not like they're incredibly common or anything.)
  • They are unable to cope with the results of the great vowel shift, and will typically ignore it about half the time.
  • The other half of the time, they will use vowel sounds that English does not even have, because apparently the reasonable procedure when uncertain is to go with something definitely wrong.

So that's where I was before, and maybe you can tell why that's a situation that doesn't persist.

And Now, Your Dénouement

So, this whole interminable screed has led up to this point (and dear Lord, if you made it this far, I don't know whether to praise you or gently suggest you have yourself committed!), where I was supposed to say a few words in the relevant context about our present venue, the website where you are reading this, Everything2. Unfortunately, I don't really have much to say about it. It's in English, yes. I write in English on it, yes, because drafting in another language seems absurdly clumsy and ineffective — I'd end up with fistfuls of phrases that work well in the draft language but are clunky in English. I haven't written more about my own country because I was going to hammer out one writeup on it and wash my hands of the subject forever, but that writeup has proven difficult because it bloats out every time I have a go at it, pressing against its seams with masses of invective like the rant you just read but on every possible topic.

I suppose the most sensible thing I can say is this: you probably never noticed, but I've been here for a long time, and this site, which is to say many of you, personally, have been a vital part of keeping my English alive, such as it is, and pointing me to other things also worth reading.

One of you, I forget whom, has or had a note on your homenode saying something like »Some people here seem to believe that they have given more to the site than it has given them; I cannot fathom that notion.«

I am not one of those people.

Thank you.

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