Editorial Rant Number Oh-I've-Lost-Count: Xenoglossophobia and Public Rudeness
I have written elsewhere about how to handle foreign languages in your writing. Here, I'm just ranting about public silliness.
I've just been on Twitter. I'm allowed: I'm (way) over 21, and it's part of my duties as an Editor to keep up a h2g2 presence on social media. I ran across one of those outrage videos they post occasionally: you know, where some person, usually middle-aged, white, and American, is ranting on in public and making a nuisance of him/herself. In this particular case, a middle-aged white American man was holding forth at length in a department store about 'Arabs' and 'Democrats' because one shop assistant had spoken to her colleague in Arabic in his presence.
The 'Democrats' part of the rant came because bystanders mobbed him like a bunch of woke mockingbirds bent on curbing a problematic cat. They staunchly defended the right of the young people to speak any language they chose, including Klingon, as long as they weren't directly addressing the customer. Quite right, too.
This person was obviously an ignoramus who did not know the grand multilingual history of our great republic. Did he know that the Declaration of Independence was originally printed in both English and German editions? No, he did not. Was he aware that this country has never had an official language, and that when the Founders discussed the subject, they suggested classical Greek? He did not. No, these things are not taught in schools.
Speaking a variety of languages in the land of immigrants is an ancient custom. I once had a summer job in a variety store where the application asked how many languages I knew. I asked them, 'Living or dead?' A university friend of mine said his uncles used to discuss pricing in their car dealership in front of the customers – in Yiddish. They couldn't pull off this trick with landsmen, I suspect. Other friends told that their parents and grandparents discussed ticklish subjects in the home language whenever they were around. This inspired some of them to acquire fluency in the grandparents' tongue, just to thwart this censorship.
My family was monolingual. Except for me and my sister. My mom instituted a rule: 'No German at the dinner table!' I became the family's go-to source for all things foreign. But my mother baffled me completely once when she disapproved of an overheard conversation in a restaurant.
'It's impolite to speak foreign languages in a restaurant,' she informed me. 'It's just a rule.'
'But what if the people at that table don't speak English?'
'Then they should be quiet.'
I felt exasperated. Whatever those people had to say to each other over a meal was none of our business. I suspect this 'rule' about not speaking foreign languages in public was really a leftover tactic from the Second World War, when 'loose lips sank ships' and the 'enemy had ears' everywhere. Because, as I said, we are a nation of immigrants. Frontiersman and legend Davy Crockett, the monolingual and barely literate great-grandson of a French palace guard1, writes (positively) about his German and Native American neighbours. There was more than one language heard in those hills along with the roar of the bear nation.
So the custom of not speaking 'foreign' in a public place might stem from the fear of being accused of plotting some nefarious scheme. Where does that come from?
Okay, it could come from reality, although no spy worth his/her salt would pull such a n00b move. I mean, when the middle-aged (white) American couple announced their opinion of Germany and all its pomps on the bus to Bad Godesberg, in English, everybody else on the bus exchanged amused looks. Then some kind person showed them how to validate their bus tickets, and they calmed down. And yes, I once hurried Elektra out of a Canadian duty-free shop because I was afraid the elderly ladies discussing their minor perfume-smuggling scheme in Yiddish might realise from my expression that I'd understood them. (Shocking behaviour, from Canadian old ladies, no less!)
In other words: don't ever try to keep a secret by switching languages. Somebody on the train will know that language. The kids will learn what that word means that Dad uses when he hits his thumb with a hammer. Not everybody's afraid of other languages.
That's what it's about: fear. The main reason people hate it when other people speak a language they don't understand is that they're afraid. Afraid the other people are talking about them in an unflattering way. Afraid they're missing out. Afraid of being the outsider. Which is why they try to assert their insider status by insisting, 'We don't do that here. Take your other language outside.'
That's what the obnoxious customer was doing. He was afraid of what he perceived as threatening changes around him. It didn't matter that those threats were illusory. The source and focus of his fears became even more obvious when he switched from complaining about foreign language speakers to berating the English speakers around him as 'Democrats'. Ah, there's the problem. He's become convinced that the rest of the world is out to get him because of his language, his demographic, his geographical location. Wonder where he got that? Please, sir. Turn off the television. Go outside more. Hear some other languages.
Ask them to teach you a few words. Guess what? They probably said, 'Could you get this gentleman a size 40?'