The Unjustified Condemnation of Foreign Language Use in the United States This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

February 28, 2017
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A few years ago, my family and I went to Cancun during my winter break. When we were at the airport and getting our passports stamped after landing in Detroit, my parents conversed with each other in Korean, talking about mundane things: do we have any groceries at home? Should we wash our clothes from the trip tonight, or wait the day after?

They were interrupted by the man stamping our passports, who told them that they shouldn’t talk in another language in front of him because it’s rude.

I never actually heard how he worded that phrase. I don’t know if he said it in a rude way or if he said it politely, but the way that my mom reacted suggested to me that he was perhaps a bit blunt and cold about it. Her voice rose in pitch the same way it does when she scolds me, and her eyebrows furrowed into a harsh “V” shape as she heatedly explained to him that she and my dad did not feel comfortable speaking English, and that because we are a Korean family, we speak to each other in Korean. The man peered down at her through his glasses in a calm, haughty way and told her that he understood, but still stood by his belief that my parents were being rude. When we left the airport, my mom was still angry about what had happened.

However, I did notice that after that incident, she became more hesitant about speaking Korean in front of non-Koreans, and would choose to speak English to me if we were in front of someone else. When we were at the mall, she asked me in English if I liked the clothes I had tried on. It felt incredibly awkward speaking to my mom in a language that I had never even associated with her, and when I asked her why she spoke in English, she replied, “because it’s rude to speak Korean in front of English-speaking people.” I wasn’t sure how to feel about the fact that my mom suddenly felt that she couldn’t speak Korean freely, and brushed it off at the time, but recently, I’ve revisited my feelings about it.

I broached the subject to my friends a few days ago, asking whether or not they felt that people speaking in a different language in front of them was rude. Three of the people automatically said that they thought it was rude, while another person said that it depended on the situation. I noticed that the three who were quick to respond were all monolingual, with native English speakers as parents. The man at the airport who had scolded my mom was white, and as far as I know, was also monolingual. My friend who took longer to respond is half-Mexican, and used to being around family members who are fluent only in Spanish.

My three friends who told me they didn’t like other people speaking another language in front of them told me that it made them feel uncomfortable, and they wondered whether or not the people were saying bad things about them. They were quick to specify, however, that they didn’t mind hearing foreign languages being spoken from far away out of earshot, such as at a restaurant or the grocery store. A setting that they mentioned it did bother them was the nail salon, because they felt as if when getting serviced, they shouldn’t be ignored. They mentioned that when they spoke to the people doing their nails, they seemed to speak English just fine, so they didn’t see any reason why the manicurists couldn’t use English when with native English speakers. My friends also informed me that when they hear foreign languages being spoken right in front of them, it makes them worry that people might be gossiping about them right in front of them, and they would never know.

I was admittedly a little surprised that in a town as liberal as mine, people still didn’t seem to understand just how difficult it is to completely immerse oneself in another language and culture. The fact that even people as incredibly liberal as my three friends, whom I frequently discussed social issues with, expressed displeasure with hearing foreign languages being spoken in front of them was baffling to me. They didn’t seem to understand that knowing how to ask what time someone’s appointment is or what color nail polish they want in English doesn’t prove fluency and control over a language, by any means. I then asked two of them, who had taken Spanish for several years, if they would be comfortable conversing with a non-English speaking native Spanish speaker, or with each other using only Spanish. They both laughed out loud, replying that they barely knew how to speak Spanish, even after years of studying it. When I told them that many foreigners in the U.S. felt the same way about English, they seemed to finally understand, at least as much as a native English speaker living in the U.S. possibly could.

There’s a simple reason as to why many monolingual English speaking Americans like my friends and the man at the airport are uncomfortable hearing foreign languages being spoken, and don’t understand: privilege.
The reason that the man at the airport felt that my parents were being rude is because he felt as if he had the right to know what they were saying, even though he had absolutely no part in the conversation whatsoever. He felt that because he is an American living in the United States, immigrants and foreigners should cater to his needs and make sure that he’s comfortable and understands everything that’s going on.

The same idea applies to my friends. They felt that because they were at the nail salon, the manicurists were obligated to “serve” them and make sure that they know exactly what they’re saying. They didn’t understand how privileged they already were for being a client at a nail salon instead of an employee, and for being fluent in English, which is considered the “main” language of the country.

But the need to know about everyone’s conversations stems back to a much darker, hateful time period of United States history. Monolingual English speakers’ vexation with not knowing what other people are saying stems back to laws that prevented slaves from learning to read and write. Just like slave owners did not want their slaves communicating without their knowledge, English speaking Americans don’t like the idea of not knowing what everyone is saying because they feel that they have the privilege to know about any type of communication that goes on in front of them. And while my friends are certainly not racist, and I don’t know about the man at the airport, they share the same mentality as the slave owners in that they feel entitled to know about conversations that don’t concern them in the slightest.

I believe that to let go of this mentality, monolingual English speakers might want to do a little soul-searching and question why it is they feel as if they should have the privilege of knowing everything. Why is it they believe that the reason people speak in a different language is to gossip? Is it because of their own insecurities about themselves, or because of a general distrust of people? Whatever the reason, it’s unfair, not to mention unnecessary, to automatically assume the worst out of people who speak a foreign language. While I’m certainly not saying that all non-English speaking people are saints incapable of being rude, the vast majority of them, when speaking in another language, converse about their own lives, just as my parents did at the airport.
It’s the same idea as when native English speakers go to foreign countries on vacations - Americans don’t automatically become fluent in the language of whatever country they visit and speak English when they’re there. In addition, most other countries are not as intolerant of other, unofficially recognized languages being spoken. Having visited South Korea numerous times as someone more comfortable speaking English than Korean, I can attest to the fact that everyone was always understanding of my preference of which language to speak. Just as English speaking Americans speak the language they’re fluent in when in foreign countries to be able to communicate comfortably, non-English speakers use foreign languages in the United States for the same reason. 
Immigrants are here to stay in the United States, and it’s inevitable that foreign languages will continue to be spoken in front of people who can only speak and understand English. Therefore, it is up to monolingual English speakers to be able to find the root of their fears and sense of entitlement when hearing foreign languages being spoken, and be understand that people do not speak foreign languages for the purpose of exclusion. Continuing on the path of doubting immigrants and foreigners and trying to force them to speak English will only lead to more prejudice and anger, and in a society where racism already runs rampant, it is vital for the future of the nation to work together to understand each other. Understanding and empathy do not require a mutually spoken language; it only requires an open mind.

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