Recently I encountered something I had never thought about before, mostly because I never used another language. I knew a little Spanish from years of required schooling, but that was never conversational. (I always thought I was lucky if I could ask where the bathroom was let alone give someone else directions.) Still, the use of different languages around me that I couldn’t understand never made me think twice, except if I thought the language was cool and wished I knew what was said. From Hawaiʻi to New Mexico to a friend’s basement, I was used to hearing other languages I didn’t understand with no problems. That is, until recently, when I finally began to learn (and use) a secondary language myself.
Now, I should note that the language I am referring to is American Sign Language (ASL), but that doesn’t detract from the social issue. I have been confronted by a number of individuals who claim that the use of another language in the presence of those who only (or primarily) understand one language is considered rude. They tell me this multilingual behavior is exclusionary and makes others feel uncomfortable, concerned you might be using this opportunity to make negative remarks. I’ve even been told that multilingual behavior is perceived as arrogant, the perpetrator only performing it to show off in front of others.
I couldn’t understand this, given my previous experiences, so I talked to a variety of people and I found out one thing: this viewpoint seems to be primarily the purview of White Americans. I’ve talked to people from a variety of other cultures and even non-Caucasian Americans, and they don’t seem to equate multilingual behavior with rudeness. In fact, they find White Americas demands that everyone speak and act like them to be what’s actually rude. Long discussion on this topic has made me think about, and posit, a few points on this topic…
1) Exclusionary behavior does not require multilingual behavior, so why should using another language be considered the crux for rudeness? People will often gather into their specific groups to talk about what they want. If two friends wish to talk about their hobby or two co-workers in scientific jargon, how is that not as exclusionary as using another language? If someone understands them, and those talking wish to include them, they will… just like the use of a secondary language. It is not the language that excludes others but the demeanor of the person. If you’re speaking another language and constantly shooting looks, shifting your body away from others… that is exclusionary. That same body language is not contingent on another language, as you can do that even in the primary language; people who turn their back on others or simply leave the presence of those they wish to exclude. That is where the rudeness stems from not from the language or jargon being used.
2) Most of the proclaimed rudeness about multilingual behavior comes from the perceptions of those not participating rather than the actual act itself. This is not someone damaging property, causing a fight, or interrupting others; instead, people create a thought or belief about the behavior and then declare it rude from that psychological factor. “We think you’re talking bad about others” or “we feel we’re excluded” or “it looks like you’re just showing off” are the responses… regardless of the reason for the multilingualism and whether it involved others. Should we declare a behavior rude just based on our own perceptions of it? Such a response actually smacks of egocentrism, where the world revolves around your views and wants rather than others, and emulates the common negative perception of Americans as self-centered.
3) Some multicultural and foreign individuals theorize that this negative perception about multilingual behavior stems from a sense of insecurity and lack of control. The individuals transfer their own insecurities onto the behavior of others and cannot tolerate their own sense of exclusion, and thus react by declaring the other people rude regardless of the reality of the situation. Once more, this seems to be a very American viewpoint, with the predominant culture unable (and unwilling) to adapt its homogeneous and monolingual nature to the multiculturalism it claims to espouse. Instead of asking what is being said or trying to learn and join in, the quintessential American instead creates conflict and demands the acquiescence of others.
I mentioned the incident that spawned this was involving ASL, which does exacerbate the situation some. Whereas foreign words might have gone unnoticed in the din of a social gathering, ASL is a visual language and thus more likely to catch people’s notice. In addition, I’ve been informed that because ASL was a secondary language to those involved, that made the behavior appear more rude than individuals using their primary language. Sadly, I have to reiterate my first point in that perception should not influence the social acceptability of a behavior; it doesn’t matter if a language is subtle or noticeable, primary or secondary to the individuals, etc. so long as they’re not performing the behavior in conjunction with actual negative intent.
I finish with the note that I can understand why people think things are rude, but I believe that this perception is not appropriate in an intercultural and global society. The social unacceptability of multilingual behavior in monolingual gatherings seems to stem from personal and cultural bias, which has no place in a progressive and educated global society. People used to think the presence of minorities was rude and socially unacceptable, but we moved beyond that (or at least have progressed further). Sexuality and nudity were considered taboo but we have become much more tolerant over the decades, even if we lag behind other countries. Yet here we are, once more limiting others behavior because it makes us feel uncomfortable.
Once we become more accepting, we may find our perceptions change and we may no longer feel excluded; we may even learn from these interactions and evolve ourselves and our very society.