Service of Speaking the Same Language

January 4th, 2010

Categories: Arrogance, Attitude, Communications, Courtesy, Exclusion, Language, Responsiveness, Service, Speaking

I was looking for my favorite At-A-Glance monthly calendar at Staples when another customer mentioned how expensive all the agendas were, opening the path to conversation. I pointed out that in spite of electronic calendars on various devices I own, for me, there’s nothing like seeing the month on my traditional, lightweight At-A-Glance, where I add birthdays, anniversaries along with meetings and appointments. I noted that friends who depend on the calendars on their handhelds have been known to miss appointments.


The man–who was in his 50s–said he didn’t own a cell phone, a BlackBerry or a computer and on his behalf, I immediately revisited the feeling of panic I had when landing in Turkey for a two year stay speaking not a word of Turkish.

How could he possibly survive today without communications tools? I think you must be tremendously brave to venture into a country where you don’t speak the language, putting yourself in a vulnerable, scary spot. This stranger deliberately and similarly cut himself off.

Which brings me to what Claudia Chow wrote in the New York Times in the column “Complaint Box/And Another Thing,” December 27, 2009:  “As an Asian woman living in various Brooklyn neighborhoods for the last 13 years, I’ve experienced a lot of discriminatory behavior – from a man jumping in front of me yelling ‘Hi-yaa’ with karate hands to being called “chicken fried rice” on a subway platform. But what made me angry enough to write this was what I witnessed while waiting for the F train. It was late on a Sunday night and the F train, as usual, was under some sort of maintenance. If you could read the subway signs, you would follow the arrow pointing to the shuttle buses. But an Asian man could not understand the signs, so he approached an M.T.A. worker for help. Instead of showing him the way, she responded by yelling ‘Speak English, you’re in America!’ then proceeded to make funny sounds to mock his language before pointing the way to the shuttle bus.” Ms Chow continued “New York is an international city; not everyone is proficient in English. I find it disgraceful that a worker representing the city would behave in such a manner toward a non-English speaker. What happened to tolerance?”


Ms. Chow’s anecdote didn’t surprise me but it makes me cringe. I’ve been a tourist in foreign cities much of my life and I don’t recall ever being dismissed in this way.

My Dad came to this country speaking not a word of English at 36 and learned the language well enough to sail through the New York Times crossword puzzle and own and run an importing business here. But when he first arrived he must have stumbled in his attempts at communication until he became proficient in English, like millions of others.

I feel ashamed of Americans who treat people with such a lack of courtesy whether they live in an international city like New York or a tiny town in the Midwest. What part of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” don’t they understand?


What are your thoughts about this kind of behavior?








9 Responses to “Service of Speaking the Same Language”

  1. Nancy Farrell Said:

    People this shallow are missing out on part of what makes this city and this country great. My grandfather spoke at least 5 languages–few of them perfectly I’m sure and yet I was in awe of him as a child, thinking he had to be very smart. My 4 year old speaks Spanish without an accent (or so I’m told) because she is lucky enough to be learning Spanish and French from native speakers. She’s also lucky enough to live in a place where she can regularly practice these languages with native speakers and they are happy to help. They’ve given her confidence and now she’s trying a few words of Mandarin on her own.

    I, too, am embarrassed by such behavior but rest assured that Americans don’t have a monolopoly on having a limited world view. Several years ago I had an encounter in Italy. I was waiting outside a church for my friends to come out when a local man struck up a conversation. He looked friendly enough. He was holding his daughter’s hand and spinning her around. When asked about how I liked my trip so far, I told him that I loved the country and the people but that I’d just been accosted by two little girls whose parents seemed to be teaching them to steal. I managed to get away with all of my belongings and my passport and I was glad about that. The man nodded and gave me a knowing look and said, “Ah, yes. Gypsies. You know that they’re Slovaks, don’t you?” I smiled, thinking of my grandparents who had come to the US from Slovakia. For the record, my grandfather tried to teach me a bit of Hungarian and a bit of Slovakian but not once did he teach me to steal.

  2. Martha Takayama Said:

    I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed in this post about the boorish behavior of Americans towards those who speak other languages. Such behavior reflects an appalling ignorance and selfishness as well as a refusal to recognize that our country is composed of successive waves of immigrants, many of whom did not speak English upon arrival or, even if born here, when they first went to school.

    It would seem that this kind of astonishingly rude jingoism might be a contributing factor incurrent the vertiginous decline of our economy and standard of living. Americans have always been known for not being able to function in a second language, regardless of their level of education. Furthermore the dollar is no longer almighty. It no longer suffices for Americans to speak loudly in English and think that they will get what they demand, material or immaterial!

    Alienating, rejecting and mocking those who have difficulty orienting and expressing themselves in any language just further shrinks ones opportunities in all areas of life. And if the golden rule or empathy is not significant enough to deter such behavior, self interest should at least mitigate it.

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Why did I think of Bernie Madoff when I read your anecdote, Nancy, knowing that he probably didn’t have an ounce of Slovakian blood in him nor Gypsy blood for that matter–so what was his “excuse”?!

    I think labels help people feel that they have a grasp on unruly behavior—or on life. It also gives them someone to blame, so that they no longer need address a situation because in their minds, they’ve solved it. Why, we all know that so-and-so types act in this way and that the XYZ folks conduct themselves in that way–don’t we?.

    Martha, you brought up such a crucial point: Americans always seemed almost proud of NOT speaking other languages. How many times have I heard before taking a trip, “Oh, it doesn’t matter if you speak this or that language–everyone speaks English?”

    I wonder if the seeming success of Rosetta Stone, a foreign language learning system, reflects a reversal of this arrogant approach?

  4. Jeremiah Said:


    I think you are dealing with two subjects at the same time and that they are both important.

    As someone who was born, lived abroad and traveled abroad for many years, I know a little about language barriers.

    It’s one thing not to be able to speak languages, whether they are foreign or computer jargon. Zenophobia or prejudice is quite another. What happened to Ms. Chow smacks to me of prejudice. I’ve had it happen to me both here and abroad, and it is not pleasant. However, it had little to do with language. In my experience, I spoke the language involved, although not the dialect or argot spoken by the attackers, and it made no difference.

    On the other hand, I’ve found, with the exception of certain under-developed countries, people are usually helpful if you don’t speak the language and nearly always helpful if you make an effort to try to speak even a little of it, including computerese.

    To end on a positive note, I have a little story: A few years back, a friend and I were walking down Main Street in Rhinebeck, a small upstate New York town, when a nicely, but casually dressed, young woman in her twenties or thirties approached us and asked us in fluent, educated Italian where she could find an oculist. My friend who speaks the language better than I do, answered her without hesitation in near flawless Italian as if it was routine to be asked questions in Italian in rural New York. After a brief conversation, she said, “Grazie,” and went on her way. Afterwards, we both wondered if she ever realized how extraordinary it was that she had bumped into two Italian speakers the way she did when there were probably no more that two or three more of them within a 10 mile radius of where we were walking.


  5. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I chuckled while I read your Rhinebeck anecdote because the Italian woman’s reaction to the two of you speaking Italian in the middle of nowhere was no different than an American tourist’s expectation that everyone speak in English, regardless of where they are–small town or large city. Good story!

    There will no doubt be an initiative in NYC to fire people with sour attitudes as it’s bad for tourism, which is one of the only things that we “make” anymore. Can’t you see the giant suggestion box in Times Square, or on line, where you can place names of candidates for the “three grumps and you’re out” program?

  6. NenaghGal Said:

    During the many years I lived in New York, I off course witnessed prejudices but in general found many people were pretty accepting of different cultures as NY was such a melting pot – and personally I never exprienced any prejudice. Moving to Ireland was a a big change – the country has been very isolated and protected for many years until the Celtic Tiger and you just don’t see many non-Irish – then the influx of ‘foreign nationals’ e.g. Polish, Latvian etc. people who came to Ireland to work. The Irish can be tremendously prejudice and are very open about it and as someone who was so used to being surrounded by so many different cultures it was alarming how directly open they were about it – they are definitely not PC. And soon after I arrived here I made an appointment with a local company to potentially do some writing for them – I admit I was a bit overly enthusiastic bringing my big NY ideas in with me (it was very early days after I moved, and I have since softened from my agressive NY attitude) but the man definitely did not take to me and in fact said to me – “well in all fairness, we are all Paddy’s here and you being an American…..” – blatant prejudice that I had never felt before in my life and it gave me a real shock and made me realize how awful it would be to be faced with that every day just because of where you come from or the colour of your skin – it gave me a real rattling but it has opened my eyes to how I am possibly being perceived here in Ireland. I have thankfully not experienced that again but as a “blow-in” as new comers or anyone outside the immediate town that they grew up in is referred to…you have to pay your dues and earn peoples trust and confidence in a way that is totally different to NY.

    It is true that many Americans are not tolerant of non-English speaking people – I have been lucky enough to travel and have friendships with many non-americans so have been more exposed and therefore have a very high tolerance – I used to be delighted to run into an Italian to help with directions.Perhaps it is that many Americans have not travelled much outside of their comfort zone to non-English speaking countries where they can then see what it is like to try and communicate – that kind of travel totally changes your attitude and outlook and I think more of us should do it – start early with our children to build tolerance and acceptance!! Sorry to ramble on…….Happy New Year.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Wow, what fabulous perspective you add to this discussion. Thank you.

    Part of the problem is fear of the unknown combined with ignorance—an attitude of “if you speak a different language or look or act in a different way, you can’t be anything like me. You couldn’t feel pain or loss the way I do, etc. And don’t bother me with the facts. I know what I know.”

    Another part is that Americans see themselves as some star high school football players see themselves, continuing to swagger down hallways even though their teen stardom was the highlight of their life and now that they are 50 and maybe not doing so well in the accomplishment department, nobody wants to hear about the big game anymore. Like the aging football star, as a country we need to continue to earn international respect, we don’t get it automatically. We can’t take it for granted or rest on old laurels.

    And the third part others have alluded to here, prejudice that encourages disrespect. It makes some people feel better about their lot if they put others down. Don’t think anyone has figured out how to fix this.

  8. Jeremiah Said:


    Thanks to Nenaghal’s fascinating post, I feel I must write again because of my own experience on a ten day vacation trip to Ireland a few years ago. Having spent a lifetime living and traveling in all sorts of foreign countries and working for, with and over all sorts of foreigners, I know something about how many people feel about Americans. Never once driving on our own around Ireland did my wife or I ever experience anything but the most cordial, thoughtful and courteous treatment – even as we spun about a round-about going in the wrong way. Truck drivers just roared with laughter and then helped get us sorted out. Granted occasionally the Irish may have seemed a bit reserved, but they were nowhere as near as reserved as I am when I meet strangers.

    I have wanted to go back ever since we left, and my background is definitely not “green.” Worse, it’s “orange.”


  9. NenaghGal Said:

    Jeremiah – thank you for your great post about the Irish – in addition to my previous post I’d just like to let people know that other than that one odd instant of prejudice – I have otherwise felt completely welcomed here. The Irish are a wonderful people – defininitely quite open and friendly ont the outside – although it takes longer to get invited into their homes – which I have long last acccomplished! And the stories they tell and the expressions ! Constantly keep me smiling …..I usually pick up one new one every day. NenaghGal

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