When I was getting my master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), we learned about a study–I wish I could remember the details, but it’s been more than 20 years, and I have forgotten–which measured the responses of people on a subway who spoke only English to a conversation taking place between a man and a woman speaking a language other than English. If I recall, one of the most common reactions the English-only speaking passengers had was to suspect that the couple was talking about them, or perhaps about Americans in general, and the assumption was almost always that whatever the couple had been saying, it couldn’t have been nice.
That kind of xenophobia, often mixed with racism, emerges quite commonly when discussions of linguistic pluralism or tolerance turn to the question of the degree to which United States society and culture can accommodate the public use, official and unofficial, of languages other than English. When my wife and I decided to raise our son to be bilingual, for example, and we chose to speak only, or at least predominantly, Persian to him for the first couple of years of his life, members of my family were very concerned that we were setting him up for ridicule, and even failure, because they were sure not only that he would learn to speak English with an Iranian accent, but that there was a good chance he would speak English ungrammatically. What bothered me, however, was not this practical concern my relatives had about whether or not my son would acquire English as a native speaker. Misplaced as that concern is–children are, after all, language sponges and can, if they start young enough, learn to speak multiple languages fluently, with the appropriate accent in each, without any trouble at all–I think it’s not an unreasonable one for people to have who have not yet thought closely about how children are socialized into their native language. No matter how exclusively my wife and I might have tried to speak only Persian with him, for example, he was immersed in the culture that is American English in almost every other aspect of his life. It would have been difficult, especially since English is my native language, for him not to have acquired English as a native speaker.
Rather, what troubled me about my relatives’ response was the anger, the tone of one who has been betrayed, that entered their voices, when they would tell me things like, “He’s never going to sound American, you know, and he’s going to hate you for that when he’s older.” Over time, despite the fact that we tried as much as possible to speak English to our son when people who didn’t speak Persian were around, it became clear that much of what some of my family members resented was that they couldn’t understand what my wife was saying to our son when she spoke to him in her language. Not that I don’t understand the discomfort that being unable to comprehend the language spoken by the people standing next to you can make you feel. In the late 1980s, I lived for about a year and a half in South Korea, and I neither spoke nor read a word of Korean when I got there. It was frightening. Moreover, unlike the people in the study I described above–who had no way of knowing what the conversations they were overhearing were about–I knew for a fact that a lot of the people I rode the train with every day, whose conversations I could not penetrate even the slightest fraction of an inch, or whom I passed in the street, or stood on line with at the bank, were often talking about me, and I knew this because they were not shy about pointing at me while they were saying whatever it was they had to say.
It was very hard at first not to assume that at least some of what they were saying was less than flattering, though I learned over time that most were probably just saying an adult version of what the kids in my Chamshil apartment complex would say every time I walked past, pointing and laughing with a delighted curiosity at the strangeness of my presence: Migook saram! Migook saram imnida! (An American! It’s an American!). Still, I have never understood the attitude, which I have only ever heard expressed by Americans, displayed so prominently by two guys from Chicago who were in Seoul for a medical conference of some sort. I know where they were from and why they were in Korea because my friends and I, all of us English teachers at the same school in Yoksam-Dong, overheard their conversation in the Pizza Inn (or maybe it was Pizza Hut, I am not sure) in the Samsung Building, which was one of the places we’d go for lunch when we had a craving for western food. These two men wanted whatever kind of overloaded pizza they were trying to order without one of the toppings on the menu, black olives, which they were trying without much success to explain to their waitress, whose English was not very good and who was very flustered at having to use it, especially as she could sense the rising frustration in her customer’s voices when it became clear to them that she wasn’t really understanding what they wanted. Finally, the waitress said, “Okay, okay!” as if she understood and went back into the kitchen. When she brought out their order a little while later, though, there were black olives on the pizza, and the guys from Chicago were furious. They didn’t exactly yell at the waitress, but their voices were raised as they demonstrated what they wanted by picking the olives off their food and setting them aside. This time the look on the waitress’ face confirmed that she had indeed understood what the men from Chicago wanted, and she took the incorrect order and went back into the kitchen.
I don’t remember why none of us tried to intervene, since there were those among us whose Korean was good enough to defuse the whole situation, but after the waitress had gone back into the kitchen, one of the guys leaned over the table and in a voice choked with anger and frustration said, “Why don’t these people learn to speak the fucking language!” His friend nodded, said, “Do you want to leave?” and they walked out.
Whenever I tell that story these days, I am reminded of a joke I read I-wish-I-could-remember-where:
An immigrant father is quizzing his daughter on her vocabulary. “What do you call someone who speaks two languages?” he asks her.
“Bilingual,” the girl answers.
“Someone who speaks three languages?”
“And what do you call someone who speaks more than three languages?”
“Good job!” the father smiles. “Now, what do you call someone who speaks only one language?”
The truth that sits at the center of the stereotype this joke pokes fun at is one I have spent much of my professional life fighting to change, and so it was with no small sense of irony that I found myself thinking when I walked a couple of nights ago out of the new Bravo supermarket around the corner from where I live not, “Why don’t they learn to speak the fucking language?” but something close to it: “If they know the language, why don’t they fucking speak it?”
My neighborhood is one of the most diverse in the United States. I don’t remember the precise numbers, but the people who live here either come from 60 or so different countries and speak 80 or so different languages, or it’s the other way around: 80 or so different countries and 60 or so different languages. You can walk down the main avenue and hear Spanish, Italian, Persian, Russian, Arabic, French, Polish, Yiddish, Chinese, Korean, Urdu, Hindi, Thai, Vietnamese and more. As you might imagine, the businesses here that are most successful have managed to navigate the politics of language that inevitably emerge in such a polyglot place in ways that strive to make everyone feel welcome, from putting signs in different languages up in their stores to trying to hire a range of people to represent the range of languages in the community; and I have seen store keepers greeting regular customers in their own languages, nothing more than a simple hello and goodbye, and maybe How are you?, but that little bit goes a long way towards making these customers feel welcome, and it contributes to the sense of neighborhood that exists here.
There are, of course, times when the person who is behind the counter, or taking your order in a restaurant, is a new immigrant to whom the boss has given a job, maybe the newcomer’s first in this country, and whose English is correspondingly poor. Frustrating as those situations can be, though, in my experience anyway, the manager or store owner, whose English is usually quite good, has always been there to help. The other night, however, it was the manager who was the problem. Here’s what happened: One of my neighbors was on line ahead of me. When the cashier rang up a can of peanuts my neighbor wanted to buy, something strange must have come up on the register because she called the manager, and the two of them started to speak in Spanish about whatever was coming up on the register each time they tried to ring up the peanuts. After about a half a minute, my neighbor, who does not speak Spanish, asked in English, “What’s wrong?” The manager ignored her and continued to to talk to the cashier in Spanish, gesturing at the price on the register and swiping his manager’s card a couple of times. This went on for another thirty seconds or so, and my neighbor, with some real exasperation in her voice, said, “Look, the can is marked $0.99.” The manager glanced at her and went back to speaking Spanish with the cashier. My neighbor repeated what she said about the price marked on the can, the rising anger in her voice making it clear that she would not allow herself to be so easily put off again. The manager stopped talking, said, “Okay.” Then he pushed some buttons on the register; my neighbor was charged $0.99; the cashier bagged my neighbor’s purchase and turned to begin ringing up the next customer.
Including that next person, there were three people on line ahead of me, and it became quite apparent as I watched them interact with the cashier, that the cashier spoke English pretty well. Just as she was finished ringing me up, I noticed that my neighbor was still standing near the register examining her receipt. She went up to the manager, pointed to her receipt and said, “Wait a minute! Are these peanuts supposed to be 3/$2.00?”
The manager answered, “Yes.”
“But that means,” my neighbor continued, “I should have been charged only $0.66 or $0.67 for the can I bought, right?”
“Well, you said you wanted me to charge you $0.99,” the manager responded. “So that’s what I charged you.”
At this point, my purchase was complete and I started walking towards the door. I wanted to stick around in case my neighbor needed any support, but I couldn’t. The last thing I heard as I left the store was my neighbor saying, “Listen, I want to be charged the right price,” and when I turned around, I saw the manager was walking with her back to the register, so I assumed he was going to refund her the $0.33 she’d been overcharged.
I walked home angry in a way I don’t think I have ever been angry before. I was, of course, indignant on my neighbor’s behalf. Since both the manager and the cashier clearly spoke English well enough, the initial conversation about the overcharge did not have to take place in Spanish, which had the effect of excluding my neighbor from knowing what was going on with her own purchase. More than that, though, I thought about the fact that this Bravo supermarket is replacing a Met Food that had been in the neighborhood, if I remember correctly, for nearly 30 years. In the twelve years that I shopped at that Met Food, I don’t think I saw a single person working there who was not bilingual. Yet, I also never saw store employees do what the Bravo employees did, exclude a customer from a conversation about her or his purchase by speaking a language the customer did not understand. I haven’t seen my neighbor since this happened, and so I don’t know what took place after I left the store. I do know, however, that I will be paying close attention, closer than I normally might, to how Bravo’s employees deal with the politics of language in this neighborhood they are trying to do business in, and this is new for me: that how someone uses her or his non-English, native language might be a factor in whether or not I decide to give that person my business.
Cross posted on It’s All Connected.
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