Foreign Language Speakers in Our Midst

Olympics 2012 closing ceremony, photo courtesy

Do you think it’s rude when people converse in a foreign language right in front of you?  Because I’m bilingual, I know what it’s like to be on both sides of this conversation.

We live in a neighborhood where there are a lot of immigrants from numerous countries — China, Taiwan, Korea, Iran, India, Pakistan, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, etc. — and you constantly hear people speaking in different languages.  Although English is the common thread amongst all the residents here in Irvine, CA, a majority of the parents at my kids’ school speak it as a second language.  As I look around the room during a PTA meeting, I can see that most parents are straining to understand what the principal is saying.  I also notice that many of the principal’s jokes fall flat, not because she’s not funny but because the parents just don’t comprehend the words being spoken.  I help out by laughing extra loud for her.

If there is a Japanese parent in the room, I usually try to give them a synopsis of the dialogue at the podium by interpreting what was being said.  I grew up doing this for my own parents during junior high and high school.  It used to be a source of embarrassment to me as a teenager, but now I appreciate having acquired the ability to translate, because it has become a real marketable skill for me today.  But it took years to get to where I am now.

There were a few Japanese girls in my elementary school who were more proficient in English than I was, so when I had just arrived from Japan as a shy third grader, they were my lifeline at P.S. 24 in Bronx, NY.  They helped explain what was going on in the classroom, what my homework was, and why they served fish in the cafeteria on Fridays (for the Catholic students) and matzo bread during passover (for the Jewish friends).

Some insensitive classmates would be offended by us conversing in Japanese in the hallways and would cut in, “Hey, don’t you know we’re in America now?” and act like a clown, which was probably normal for prepubescent boys who secretly had a crush on one of us.  Other sweet friends would try to engage by speaking to us slowly and asking us how to say certain words in Japanese and try to learn from us.  Let’s just say that there was a spectrum of reactions from our classmates in this regard.

Fast forward several decades to now, in Irvine, where English is a second language to many residents.  One time, I walked into a bathroom at a restaurant where a couple of attractive Asian ladies were talking excitedly with each other in their own language.  After they walked out, I heard a couple of Caucasian ladies say to each other, “Wow, that was rude.  Don’t they realize that there are other people in here who don’t speak their language?” I had to bite my tongue.  Why should someone switch to a language they’re not very proficient at — English — just because you’re in the room? 

Perhaps people are paranoid of others talking about them.  I do see that happening so obviously at nail salons where the gals chatter away in their own language, laughing while glancing at a particular customer.  That, I do agree, is rude.  I do confess that I myself have switched to Japanese while hanging out with my sisters to subtly say something that we don’t want everyone around us to understand (“Over-Botoxed face at 3 o’clock!”).  It’s no different than friends giving signals, speaking in code, or using Pig Latin to try to be covert in their communication.

I am not making any statements here about officially declaring English as the national language or abolishing ESL classes at school.  I would agree with most of you that it is essential to learn English if you want to get ahead in academics and in your career.  I’m just talking about letting people speak in whatever tongue they prefer amongst their own family and friends, even in public.  Just let them be.  That’s what my kids do with all of their friends at school — some in Korean, some in Chinese, others in Japanese, but all of them bilingual students who float between languages just as easily as they float amongst different circles of friends.

Traveling abroad to foreign countries just might give you a little insight.  In fact, you might find yourself quoting with me, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)

3 thoughts on “Foreign Language Speakers in Our Midst

  1. Pingback: Foreign Language Speakers in Our Midst | Panda Mom Confessions | Learn A Foreign Language Now

  2. I personally can’t stand when people say “this is America, learn English!” Yes, this is America. The country that was built on the back of the immigrants who came from all over the world. I think rather than being annoyed with people who are speaking in their native tongue, we should be annoyed with ourselves for not making it more of a priority to become multilingual ourselves. Thanks for this post! I hope it brought another perspective to a lot of people who thought negatively about the subject.