Tuesday, April 26, 2016

You're saying something but I'm not getting it

In a frugality blog I read, the author talked about the immigrants/refugees who've been coming to her (English speaking) country. I read through the comments on her blog entry; while sometimes comments can be frustrating to read, it's also interesting to review them from a sociological perspective (and linguistic, too!).

One of the comments that really stuck out to me was from a British reader who really didn't like it when immigrants/refugees/those whom she classified as "others" would talk on their cell phones in their mother tongue while in public. For whatever reason, it skeezed her out.

I found this highly ironic and immediately thought of all the Brits who set up their enclaves in Spain, for example, and don't speak a word of Spanish. Do they ever consider that they might be creeping out the local Spanish people when the Brits speak English on their phones in public? Also, aren't these the same people whinging about immigrants not assimilating, yet they don't learn Spanish there?

And, before you think that I'm sparing my own country from scrutiny, can I say that I can't wrap my mind around Americans who live months, years, or even decades in Germany without learning the language? I've met quite a few retired military members who even have German spouses and have lived here for 20+ years and haven't learned German. I wonder if the commenters on the blog entry would think that the Americans who speak English in Germany might be causing Germans anxiety about speaking a foreign language in public? After all, they're fellow Anglos! (I have my tongue so firmly implanted in my cheek that I'm concerned that I won't have the ability to remove it.)

When I was preparing to move to Germany, I was trying to find a short-term apartment rental. I contacted one woman but had some misgivings. I knew that I definitely didn't want to rent from her when I made an off-handed comment that I would try to start learning German as soon as possible when I arrived. She quickly told me that she didn't allow people to speak foreign languages in her house because she didn't want people to talk about her behind her back. That was the final straw; I was not interested in staying with such a paranoid landlady and I thought the whole thing was preposterous. If people wanted to talk about her, they certainly didn't have to use a foreign language to do so. Also, why does she care so much what people think?

It's not only Britain where these ideas take root, nor is it even countries with such an Anglo-centric focus. However, it has happened to their Saxon cousins; Germany went through this with the CSU a couple of years ago. Representatives from the CSU, which is the conservative political party in Bavaria, proposed that immigrants should have to speak German both in public and at home too.

The proposal blew up in the party's face. See, the Bavarian dialect, which is the language of many of those who support the CSU, can sometimes sound unintelligible to those from other parts of Germany. Therefore, it might as well be a foreign language to those from other parts of Germany. Opponents were quick to say that should this proposal gain any traction, the Bavarians would have to speak "proper German" too. With this and other reasons, the CSU backed down on the issue.

This was a bit rambly, but the gist of it is: is it right to demonize someone merely because he is speaking a different language on the phone? I do think it's important for a society, and for the individual who moves there, to speak a common language. Immigrants need help learning the local language so they can take part in the community, ask for help, conduct official business, and learn their rights. However, I cannot agree that they should not be allowed to also speak their mother tongue, especially in their private lives. There is room for diversity.


  1. This is such a hot topic, and I find it very interesting! Americans are so critical of hearing two or more people conversing with each other in a foreign language, and many go off on the "Why do I have to press 1 for English?!" I usually assume these people haven't ever _learned_ (and by learned I don't mean attended a class for 2 years in high school) a foreign language and were never faced with having to communicate for real in a language other than English. [I won't go off here on the quality of their English, though native speakers...] If they had, they would understand that one normally chooses the most efficient language for communication. I am fluent enough in German, and my husband grew up bilingual German-English. Our language in the home is English, mainly because that's the language in which our friendship began nearly 30 years ago.

    Yes, I think people living in any country should learn the prominent language for day-to-day life and business. For anyone to really learn the language, though, they need to interact with the locals. Too many "locals" sit together grumbling about refugees/foreigners not integrating rather than reaching out and inviting them to integrate!

  2. I imagine that the people who are all worked up about people from other countries speaking in their mother tongues do not have anything better to do or somewhere better to focus their attention. When I go out to run errands or am riding the train, I might register that someone's speaking another language but I'm usually busy with my own thoughts or tasks. I'm not such a busybody that I care what language some strangers are speaking.

  3. Although I do have to admit that some guys from Africa on the train once had me really smiling. [Sorry, I'm not familiar enough with the languages there to be able to guess which language it was or which country was their homeplace.] They heard the announcement of the train station and kept saying the name of it in German, then something in their language, then giggling. The guys really got going and I wish I could have known what it was because they thought it was hilarious.

    1. I would have enjoyed that too, I'm sure. I love hearing people experimenting with language! When I listen to my students speak Arabic, it makes me want to learn it. When I hear foreign languages on the train, I can much more easily block it out and concentrate on my reading than when someone is speaking English or German. I get downright annoyed when I hear loud American English!