Monday, April 28, 2008

Habla Inglese?

Let me start this post with a disclaimer: I am not a language snob. I do not insist that people speak English whenever I am within earshot, nor do I consider anyone who speaks with an accent unable to speak English. (This is one of my pet peeves. Just because someone speaks with an accent does not mean they don't speak English!) My family are recent enough immigrants that I remember many of them speaking with an accent. When someone complains that immigrants don't learn the language fast enough, I often ask them if their own ancestors got off the boat speaking fluent English. Unless they are of English or Irish descent, this is very rarely the case. (Although, in the case of my own Italian grandmother, she did, in fact, speak fluent English before she ever came to America, having been schooled in Scotland.) But I digress...

There is one instance, however, where not speaking English really does rub me the wrong way. That is when people in public service positions (cashiers, fast food workers, etc) speak to each other in a language other than English, say, oh, i don't know....Spanish, for example. And even that is not so bad as when they speak to Spanish speaking customers in Spanish in front of me. It's not as if these workers or the customers are not perfectly bilingual, flipping easily back in to English to wait on me. It just seems rude. And, in the case of representing a national chain, not right. Does this ever happen to you? Does it bother you? Or am I turning into Lou Dobbs?



At 10:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was going to write a blog entry about the very same thing! I agree with you completely. I have classmates that switch back and forth between English and Bosnian. They do their homework out loud in English, but when they want to giggle about something they switch to Bosnian. I find it very rude to everyone involved. We also have a group of Spanish students that think speaking in Spanish is equivalent of saying nothing, because they'll converse in full voice in Spanish in the middle of a lecture. It drives me insane!

At 7:08 AM, Blogger Mike said...

I work with two guys from PR who go out of their way to switch from Spanish back to English if someone is within earshot. Though I understand it is easier for them, THEY are the ones that consider it rude (not to switch).

So, it doesn't bother me so much. Unless I'm at the VA clinic and the clerk's accent is so thick I can't understand him/her. That's when I try to remember how long ago the Spanish American War was.

At 8:07 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

LOL! Have they taken the measurements for your Minuteman uniform yet? ;-) (Just teasing!)

Coming from the officially sanctioned multi-cultural mosaic that is Canada, this really wouldn't bother me at all. As long as the workers were able and willing to speak to me in English (or French).

I often go to a little corner grocery store that's owned and run by a Chinese mom and pop team. They speak Chinese amongst themselves and to other customers as I poke around the store. I'm not offended by that at all. I make an effort to say "thank you" and "see you later" in Mandarin (which I had previously asked them how to pronounce). They always smile broadly and appreciate my efforts.

And, if the shoe were on the other foot, if, for example, I was working at a fast food joint in Moscow, I would LOVE it when some English-speaking ex-pats came in so I could speak in my mother tongue. It would surely be an exquisite release when living and working in a minority environment. Again though, this would be predicated on my ability and willingness to speak Russian to the natives.

Sorry if I'm not making a lot of sense. It's early y necesito otro café! :-)

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Y | O | Y said...

This reminds me of the Seinfeld episode with the Korean-speaking manicurists.

At 4:14 PM, Blogger wondermachine said...

This doesn't bother me in the least. I actually love it when someone speaks in Spanish in front of me so I can join in on the fun. But when I hear someone speaking another language, like Korean or, well any other language I don't understand I think, "hmm... are they talking about me? What's that about?" And then I think of my mother. My mother who I love and who came to this country as a young woman with advanced degrees but didn't know the language. Who struggled to raise two small kids (my older siblings) in a strange place with a strange new language (Chicago in the early 1960s) and I think about how easier it would've been for her to have other around her who could answer her questions in a language she knew. How much of a help it would've been to her.

She's now a retired schoolteacher having spent over 25 years teaching kids from dozens of countries how to learn English as an ESL teacher.

The strange can be intimidating, even aggravating at first. But I just take it as a challenge to move beyond my discomfort and see these people as human beings trying to make their way through what is probably not the most exciting kind of work.

My two cents.

At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh you've waded into language politics, and no other country in North America, including the US, is more versed in that, especially after serveral referendums for Quebec to separate etc.

Statistically speaking, Toronto has slightly more residents born outside of the country that New York, we don't have the same relationship with Spanish, which is a completely different context.

Having just come back from Montreal, everytime I engage with somoene there is the language dance, english or french. There is an assesment everytime I go to speak how the conversation will go.

If I were not bilingual they'd be speaking french at the counters to each other. Context is everything. There are times when it is considered very rude, at least here in Canada.

In Toronto where there are over 110 mother tongues spoken, I come across this a lot with small specialty stores, and I'm not bothered at all about it.

What I find different in New York is that Spanish seems to integrated into all the business with hispaniphones (sp?). Where in Canada, you cross the provincial border into Quebec and then the language changes. So it's completely different dance.

My verdict, yes when serving someone do not switch to another language to talk about something and then return to English. I gives the feeling that something is being said that they don't want you to understand, even if it's just easier for them to exchange words in their own language.

It's rather ironic, I'm planning on going either to Spain or Cuba (are my American friends clutching their pearls at the tought of that) to learn Spanish.

At 3:00 AM, Blogger T said...

it actually doesn't really bother me that much.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger den81164 said...

me either! unless you're really dense, you can tell when someone is talking about you. and if they're not talking about you, it's NUNYA.
americans are very self-centered...this is probably one of the few educated nations in the world where people with brains don't speak more than one language at least moderately well. we have canada to the north (mostly english), mexico to the south (doesn't really count or matter) and two oceans to our east and west....why bother??
and yes, i do think if you are living here you need to be as fluent in english as you can be...but did you ever notice that the people griping about non-english speakers really can't speak english that well either (and they were born here)?


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