We Need to Talk about Exophony


Up to this point, I am unsure if English is my second language or third. I openly admit that German and Chinese have never been my strength, particularly in expressing myself. Having gone through an identity crisis as a first generation German with Asian looks, I could never identify my native tongue, no matter how weird it may sound to you.

At the age of twelve, a whole new world began when I got English classes in school. I was better in English than anyone in my class. Other kids didn’t strike me like they enjoyed learning a second language.

My first English teacher was Mrs M. She would have us learn a new vocabulary list every day. To test our skills, she’d play a game with us involving two kids competing against each other. Mrs M. would throw in a German term and whoever translated it fast enough won. No one could beat me.

I was in a hurry to learn and master English. I felt a connection between that language and me. It was the ultimate language that would help me express myself and bolster my inadequacies—at least on paper.

Even today, as a professional writer, I need decent English to help others express their thoughts and feelings.

Moving to England at the age of eighteen was one of the best decisions I’d made. The goal was to develop my English skills (yet the accents were a learning curve). While I was verbally adapting well, I was probably nowhere near perfect in my written English. I think schools and universities have specific guidelines on how to mark ESL students. As long as the written content shows a fundamental understanding of the subject matter and the student provides relevant arguments, the examiners will go easy on the linguistics. This is how I passed university with upper-division and even merit. Sometimes it’s beyond my grasp how I passed higher education in the UK after knowing English for only eight to nine years. This doesn’t make me a language specialist. I just care about English.

Whenever I lack confidence, I think of my tutor, who once said that you could be an excellent writer who writes empty content. Or you have a meaningful story to tell but need guidance on how to put it down on paper. I’m grateful to be the latter and that he was my mentor. (What would John Keats have written without his mentor? Besides, Keats wasn’t an ESL student.)

No one ever really judged my written English even though I’d needed some handholding in the past. I should’ve taken some light advice more seriously, but English was the only thing I was ever really confident in. So, I often turned a blind eye to it. And it took me six months of meditation to realize where I’m at with my writing.

I haven’t had a writing mentor in years, and therefore, needed more time.

Overall, I did more than just study to become an expert in my subject.


The other day, I read a renowned freelance writer’s blog post in which she encouraged ESL writers not to pursue writing as a career if they didn’t excel in English. The comments in that blog were spiralling out of control; commenters accused the writer of racism, discrimination, etc. I understand that a high number of people reaching out to her were young aspiring ESL writers. Therefore, it wasn’t easy for her to post that blog. Yet, that blog was controversial and had caught me off guard. I still have mixed feelings about it but am doing my best to view it from many different angles.

Moreover, in a webinar with Flexjobs, someone asked her whether she’d recommend writers to use grammar tools. She said something along the lines that if you had to rely on these tools, how could you possibly be a good writer? She’s brutally honest and has her points. I do not doubt that some ESL writers who reach out to her are a huge burden because she can’t help them.

Sure, some past ESL writers have evolved to exophonic writers with success stories. However, you can’t hinge on them as life works differently for everyone. Luck is a factor too not just hard work. And talents are hard to come by these days (are you a Vladimir Nabokov or Joseph Conrad?).

I wonder what would’ve become of me if she had mentored me fifteen years ago. Would she have encouraged me to study and read more than I already did or told me straight to give up on writing? 

(It doesn’t matter. I’m glad I made Stephen King’s “On Writing” my bible.)

She encouraged low-skilled ESL writers to pursue writing in their native tongue. Ha, I couldn’t even write in German how I feel today without writing it in English first. Going back to expressing myself and having waited twelve years for English classes, I do not identify my emotions and thoughts with the German language (or Chinese). German and Chinese are a part of me, but they don’t define me as a whole.

Monolingual people admire bi- and trilingual speakers without understanding the identity crisis that some have to go through. It often leads you NOT to master any of the two or three languages that you speak. It makes language itself a skill. But are native English-speakers more superior than you? No.


Some of you may know that I’ve been looking for a full-time position due to some unexpected circumstances. In some ways, the pandemic has almost been a blessing, giving me time to re-evaluate my career. I’ve been learning and exploring more online skills to keep up with trends that I often find stupid, but no one wants to fall behind.

During my job-hunt, I have noticed the different ways employers seek and pick their writer candidates. Of course, the Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) are entirely resume-oriented while other companies directly test your skills by giving you a writing task. I prefer these along with surveys in which they aim to learn more about you and the way you write.

Remote writing positions are widely competitive these days. However, I don’t rule out the possibility that unconscious bias is sometimes evident when employers look at exophonic writers’ resumes. They might weed you out; they might not. I don’t know all about the legality, but employers have every right to indicate “native English speakers only.” I often prefer seeing those because I don’t even bother looking further into the job post description.

The English language has grown many branches, and it will continue to do so. There’s nothing you can do about it. If you try to stifle it, you’re rebelling against a linguistic revolution. Linguistic discrimination is all over the place these days.

When I was working in hospitality, I greeted a German guest in German. She asked me, “Where did you learn to speak German so fluently?” That’s an example of linguistic discrimination. In my eyes, anyway. But I didn’t take it personally at the time. She didn’t mean to offend me.

Though I believe that some employers are wired similarly, yet they can’t show that bias. As an exophonic writer[1], I sincerely hope that all employers will judge me by my writing ability, not my name or from where I come. If they do, they might as well remove the outlaw of discrimination against non-citizens in their job ads.

Some writers have told me that there’s lots of bad writing out there. And I fully understand it’s a negative sign. Content mills have certainly given writing a bad name and reputation, infuriating professional writers because they compete against lower-skilled freelancers who charge $.01 per word. Not only ESL or exophonic writers can produce bad writing—native English writers can do too. Yet it’s not their fault if employers hire them.

If you think it’s solely ESL or exophonic writers who write terrible content, my advice is, ignore that writing and focus on your own audience, customer, and client. If you have no capacity for learners, put on your horse blinders and focus on writing for your high-end client at $2 per word. It’s that easy.

My advice to ESL writers: Don’t give up. If you love this language as much as I do, you have every reason and right to improve it and stick with it. There is support out there. Please share your experiences with me; tell me how having English as a second language has affected you personally and career-wise as a writer.


The good news about all this? I have found my niche. I’ll tell you more about it soon. It’s time I take matters into my own hands, so should you.

[1] I prefer to call advanced writers “exophonic writers” and student writers “ESL writers.”

  4 comments for “We Need to Talk about Exophony

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