There are people whose first language is English all over the world – whether they live in the UK, the US, Canada, or elsewhere. However, some English speakers from every country all have one thing in common – they expect others to speak English when it isn’t their first language, too.
Tourism is the first thing on the list. When English speakers travel to other countries whose national language isn’t English, sometimes they try and speak the appropriate language/s, but if they don’t or this fails, they speak English and merely expect that the person they’re talking to will understand and respond in English. In fact, my family and I once met an English woman who had lived in Spain for over a decade and had not even attempted to learn anything beyond the most basic of Spanish, so she got by if the people there knew English.
Another place where people expect English to be spoken constantly is social media. Especially on Twitter, people have told me they’ve been unfollowed by others because they tweet in their native language, or that they’ve stopped speaking their native language on Twitter and speak English more instead because ‘more people speak it there’, or words to that effect.
Finally, if there are international conferences or other important business trips involving people of several nationalities or languages, the general pattern is for those speaking to speak in English.
Plenty of people whose first language is English wish to learn it and speak to other people with it, and that’s obviously something there’s no problem with; yet, somehow, the world has crossed the line to expecting everyone to speak English for them.
Personally, as a Spanish and German student, I talk to people online in Spanish as much as I can if that’s their first language (less so with German as I encounter German speakers less). There is not much room for me to do so otherwise, but if the situation arose that there was someone whose first language was one of the former languages, I would attempt to speak to them that way. However, evidently, not everyone holds the same attitude as I do.
Although this era of people was not the era to start the trend of the ‘English speaking expectation’, it is our responsibility to deal with it. First of all, if you go to a country where the national language is not English, it is not your choice whether you feel like picking up a phrase book… You would expect people to speak English in your English-speaking country, wouldn’t you? So why would Italy, China, Kenya be any different with their languages? Second, people never owe you your language on social media – it shocks me that I have to express the fact that it’s someone’s right to speak whatever language they want and to be received for it. There’s even a ‘Bing’ feature which instantly translates Tweets in languages other than the one your phone is set to – so why, really, is that a problem? Lastly, sometimes the common language among people from many country is English, but if it isn’t, you shouldn’t panic, because you’re not above learning other languages…
Some English speakers have gotten into the mind-set that people owe it to them to speak English, that the most important language is English and/or that it should also be the language businesspeople interact with around the world. There are more Spanish and Mandarin or Cantonese speakers in the world than there are English speakers, but I don’t see you picking up a Spanish dictionary… Although English is a significant, widely-spoken and culturally important (literature, music etc.) language, it’s time English speakers realise there are others.