Aung Si writes:

How many of you have sat next to two or more people speaking in a language you didn’t understand, and thought to yourselves, “That’s like, SO rude!”?

As someone who speaks many languages, and actually enjoys doing so on a regular basis, I find this attitude rather mystifying. I suppose the real issue can be phrased along these lines – if people from other parts of the world come to live in an English-speaking country like Australia, and they are in a social situation with monolingual, English-speaking Australians (lets call them MESAs for short), the polite thing to do would be to stick exclusively to English, so that everyone gets to participate in the conversation.

Map indicating approximate distribution of the F#cking English dialect
Map indicating approximate distribution of the F#cking English dialect

Sounds pretty reasonable. Unfortunately I (and clearly all those overseas types who insist on speaking ‘foreign’ in the presence of MESAs) don’t quite share this view of what constitutes appropriate social etiquette. Here are a couple of hypotheses on why MESAs might feel the way they do, along with my reactions:

People speaking a foreign language might be talking about me/making fun of me. Yeah, sure, maybe. So what? Besides, you might react the same way to people talking in English, if they look in your direction, point at you, laugh, and so on. The foreignness of the language isn’t to blame for the feelings of insecurity the recipient of such attention might experience.

People might switch to a foreign language to exclude me from a conversation/hide information from me. Yeah, sure, maybe. Again, so what? Do you have a right to know what’s being said around you at all times? There are other ways to exclude people from a conversation, such as simply ignoring them, so it’s not really about the language, is it?

And now some reasons why people do sometimes use their mother tongue, even in the presence of MESAs:

1. If English is not your native language, it’s tiring to keep speaking it all the time. Sometimes you need a to have break, and slip into something more comfortable.

2. It just feels more natural to speak to a fellow native-language speaker in that language. Imagine being on a European holiday with your boy/girlfriend and having to say to him/her, “Also, was sollen wir machen heute?” instead of a quick “So what do you want to do today?”, simply because there were Germans around. Ah, but I forget – most Germans can speak English, right?

3. Because we can, and it makes life more interesting.

Another point to consider – the vast majority of people from non-native-English backgrounds either speak English already, or desperately want to learn it. This makes life quite easy for the average MESA, both at home and overseas, as finding someone who speaks some form of English in most parts of the world would be far easier than finding someone who speaks, any…Turkish? Burmese? Since globalisation has made the world so MESA-friendly, surely the least MESAs can do is to allow non-MESAs a little bit of freedom of expression every now and then?

Finally, some strategies that MESAs could try out to cope with non-English situations, in increasing order of difficulty:

✠  Learn a foreign language, and give those cocky foreigners a taste of their own medicine.

Start to believe that Australia is a multilingual, multicultural society, which means that people are bound to have different ways of thinking, talking and doing things.

Get over yourself.

Aung Si is a rude foreigner from Canberra, the capital of foreign