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« "Thank you for 1944" - from China | Main | The inimitable P.G. Wodehouse »

October 14, 2011


Ruchira, I have known some Americans who felt profoundly discomfited by furreners speaking other languages...when they were traveling in Central Asia! Which certainly left me wondering into the night. I realized that people who have led extremely insular lives have a very low tolerance for ambiguity. They aren't used to the idea that they don't always fully understand what's going on, quite apart from the issues of prejudice, imagined superiority, and nostalgia that are in the foreground with your neighbor.

Who knows? They might be talking about you!

Maybe with Halloween on the horizon, it's time to unpack my chador and get scary. :-)

Every once in a while we have to remind ourselves that we are a nation of indigenous peoples, immigrants, and descendants of slaves. I guess for some of our citizens it's not a reminder, but a surprise.

This is a double-edged sword, talking in languages unknown to others present. What happens if comments are made that are understood by a silent listener who may not show any apparent comprehension?

(I will admit to having done that more than once. Oh, the joys of understanding more than just English and one's native tongue!)

The exquisite irony here is that because she is fond of me, it did not occur to my friend that she was complaining to a benighted multi-lingual immigrant who may very well chatter in a foreign language in public.

Wow, that's pretty bad. I'm not exactly surprised that someone would think that, but I am surprised that someone would say it.

the only i think it's rude to speak a foreign language (non-english) in public is when the switch is pretty obviously motivated by wanting to talk about something around people who you wouldnou're 't want to knowing what you're talking about. it's rude in part because everyone sees the mannerisnms, and knows you're talking shit. otherwise, ppl need to get over themselves.

I wonder what your friend would have made of the following response to her comment on "Well, this is America. No one should be speaking a foreign language in public!"

"Well, this is America, Land of the Free. Why shouldn't anyone not speak in their language in public?"

i think the easiest thing is to wonder what language american tourists should speak in public in other countries....

Razib, see Zara's comment. She says that American tourists sometimes complain about natives speaking their own language in their own country! Perhaps, that is a bit of a rarity but I can see some really closed minded ones inadvertently getting irritated by something they don't understand, quite forgetting that "they" are in a "foreign" country.

Anyway, speaking of language, your previous comment was somewhat riddled with mistakes and I know you are a meticulous speller and grammarian. What happened? Were you typing with one finger and eyes closed?

I wonder if some part of your friend's response is related to the phenomenon of cell-phone irritation. We know that people react much more negatively to cell-phone conversations (where only one half is heard) than they do hearing two-person conversations at the same volume. Basically people dislike hearing thoughts they know to be intelligible but can't understand, and for a non-speaker that's what a language is.

In other words, most people feel some sense of irritation at not being able to make sense of a conversation. The less ethnically enlightened transfer that irritation to a sense of rage at groups they already are predisposed to dislike.

For a time, I had two clients -- they were French, and he was less adaptive as an anglophone than she. Quite often, very low and fast, she would translate, to keep him in the picture -- business was conducted in English. My very rusty French was not up to making that our business language -- alas. Had it been, I would have been able to stay on top of a problem that emerged: she always mistranslated crucially for him, so that he never knew the real score. He knew only what she told him. Neither of them had any idea my French was up to more arduous tasks than reading a menu, although I told them very intently that I understood better than they knew. This sad situation gave me a superb view of how duplicitous and controlling she was -- lying IS about control, after all -- and I was able to usher them both out of my business life without misgivings. I have always wondered whether, had my French been good enough to use rather than spy with, the same deceptiveness would have manifested in another "hidden in plain sight" place. What a fine post on the presumption that language is a complete cloak.

That's so interesting, Elatia. I thought your French (and Italian) is rather good.

Speaking of languages, I have signed up for a Spanish class. Let's see how far that takes me into being able to spy on some people at the mall. That is, if I ever go there.

Ruchira, my accent is good in several languages -- that had more brain-stickiness than grammar and vocabulary. I could still get out of or into an emergency in those languages, however. For me, fluency follows need. Spanish????? Something to take to Ladakh....

I think it's a weird thing with the way the brain adapts to learning different languages. Spoken fluency is best achieved when younger, but comprehension takes the major part of the cake when older. Ruchira, like Elatia and her French, you might find that you will follow Spanish and understand it way better than you are willing to speak it. Several movies later,I can say the same about my understanding of colloquial Bengali now.

Sujatha, I suspect exactly the same thing - that I will probably do quite well with vocabulary and comprehension quite quickly. But I have doubts about becoming fluent in the language in the near future. I am hoping that being in Houston where Spanish is the first language of a large portion of the population, may help. Although she didn't say, I suspect that the "chatter" in the mall that my friend objected to is mostly Spanish.

Yes, I should also begin watching more Spanish language movies. Not hard to do, thanks to Netflix.

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