Listening in the dark

My college’s Christian fellowship was quite diverse (in religious traditions, geographical origins, and race, among other aspects). We had a number of people who spoke various non-English languages, and no one seemed to sweat it except for this one guy who would always get really upset anytime anyone said anything in a non-English language. I sort of understand where he was coming from, especially since he didn’t grow up in a bilingual household. Even when I didn’t understand people talking in Tagalog or French or Korean, I could still understand the pleasure people got in being able to speak their native or inherited tongues. Not being able to understand what people are talking about can be frustrating sometimes, maybe even a little annoying, but it isn’t worth flying into a rage over.

Of course, sometimes this “secret” language is used for less than noble purposes—to make fun of people or to discuss what to do about a situation while the situation is occurring. The risk you run when trying to undertake a covert operation by speaking a language other than the common one (which, in most contexts I view, is English) is mistakenly assuming that the parties to be excluded actually are excluded. While you’re calling that person fat or ugly in ________ language, you may not realize that she actually understands ________ quite well.

There was one situation I encountered (in which I was the odd person out language-wise) where I enjoyed being left out. I was traveling Europe with a friend of mine, and we stayed with a French family she knew. The family, being French, spoke French fluently and also knew English functionally. My friend was American but spoke functional French. While at dinner, they would keep “checking” themselves when French slipped out and would make a point to speak in English for my sake. Their intentions were good, but I felt a little awkward, because I felt as if too much attention was being paid to me. Knowing that they were going out of their way to speak English prevented me from sinking into the background. Sometimes you want… not to be ignored, exactly, but to just be. I wanted to sit there and eat, have them ask me the occasional question in English, and listen to them all bantering in French, even though I didn’t know any French, but when I told them this, they just wrote it off as me being polite. We were fighting a politeness war, and I lost.

I haven’t had a chance to fully analyze this phenomenon, but I am intrigued by the ways—when left out of conversation linguistically—I react positively, negatively, or ambivalently, depending on the situation. Linguistic exclusion isn’t always good or always bad.

One reply on “Listening in the dark”

This is the reason why “linguae francae” were invented and are useful for, despite the ideas of some people: to build societies where anyone one knows the other can be trusted.

I live in Navarre, Spain (I’m argentinean) and here we have a Basque-speaking minority. I’m a philology student and think it’s great people can have the chance to preserve their ancestors’ language and save it from extinction (which would have occured if Basque would have been let alone). But, there are people that think anyone should speak Basque and don’t mind to exclude you because they think “Spanish people excluded Basque in past; now it’s time for revenge”… Being a foreigner here, I can speak from a bit more neutral position: I don’t mind on Basque… actually, I like it a lot and because of my studies, I enjoy sometimes trying to “crack the code” (just for hobby). But I see Spanish people increasingly show feelings against Basque (or Catalan)… and this undoubtly is fault of politics and separatism…

It’s sad: languages shouldn’t be used to exclude. The aim of languages is to communicate! I really would like to see Basque free from any political influence, so the Basque-speaking community can feel itself free and those who not, could not feel themself threatened (I can assure you that in Basque Country, there are constantly attacks against only-Spanish schools… and in Navarre too…).

Agh… For me, someone who loves languages it’s rather annoying how people can use languages only for showing their hate.

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