Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Listen to your mother

The other day I went to the Chinese store nearby to get some ingredients for a stir fry. I had translated the ingredients from Hongkongese to English to French. So when I got to the store and asked the teenage guy for help, I understandably stammered over my words what with the babblefished ingredient list and my general lack of brain power at the moment. The guy said to me, "Je parle français, vous savez," which woke me up from my hazey state. The way he said it wasn't aggressive or nasty, it was just a reassurance. I responded that of course I knew that and the problem was me since my list was lost in translation and so was my brain. He replied that it just seemed like I was speaking to him the way he speaks to his mother who doesn't speak French. And for some reason, I totally respected him and his reply.

This all got me thinking about the complications of being bilingual, the misconceptions people have and the perception this guy has of himself (a chip on his shoulder or not?) because being raised in a bilingual environment isn't easy and he probably has to deal with idiots all the time.

A couple days later, I was out with some friends and since we were speaking English, the waitress spoke to us in English. This instantly got my back up. I can't explain why, but this always annoys me. I become speechless and don't know if I should speak French or English. French to prove I can or English to make her feel good. Maybe she just wants to practice? Or maybe she's an idiot (since we all ordered our meals in perfect French)? I guess, like the young guy in the store, you get your back up because you think people are taking you for an idiot or doubting your ability to communicate, which just grates on your nerves after a while.

What it comes down to is that I hope my kids will be more like the guy in the Chinese store and less like me when confronted by people who don't know if they know how to communicate. These people are not questioning your intelligence but are merely trying to make life easier for you.
Do as I say, don't do as I do...

9 comments:

Emmy said...

I once got really cheesed off in a restaurant in brussels about this. While the waitress asked the french-speaking couple sitting next to our table if they wanted apéro, she merely spat out 'what would you like to order' on our English speaking table. So, English speaking people don't want a kir? Or nibbles? Language creates a lot of misconceptions.

I've never been able to come out with a good line to people who (regulary) insult my intelligence by thinking I don't understand or speak French. If anyone has a good oneliner that has worked for them I'd be very grateful!

Jan Exner said...

Hiya,

Do you want me to include this post in this months Carnival on Bilingualism?

Cheers,
Jan

P.S.: check http://www.bilingualforfun.com/about/blogging-carnival-on-bilingualism/ for more info on the carnival

Ksam said...

Waiters speaking to me in English is one of my main pet peeves too. Funnily enough though, t doesn't really bother me here in Paris since most people *are* tourists, but it really bothers me when I'm in the countryside. Especially since the people there tend to speak really terrible English. My solution has just been to just do it the French way, ie talk to them really loudly and slowly in French as if they were stupid. They usually back off after a sentence or two.

MM said...

I still don't get it...I'm sure I will ten years down the line...but i'm sure she was speaking English at me - to make me feel better (particularly as I was closest to her and my french is NOT perfect)...but I don't think she mean't to insult us but to be nice...
If it was in the UK i'm sure i'd speak French to practice...
And I DO think that if there is a group of people speaking a foreign language in a resto - I think your first thought would be to think they were tourists not residents - I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this one...Poor girl she looked terrified, prob wondered WTF...never play out your own insecurities on others....hmmmmm better said than done of course!! but yes ask me again in 10 years!! x

English Rider said...

Could you possibly preempt the situation with a big friendly "Bonjour Madame" to set the theme before any wait person has to make a guess at which language you prefer?

Reb said...

I don't get it either...I know she was probably being nice but I still get all worked up. I hope my kids will react more like the nice guy in Chinese store than me...

bloggingonbilingualism said...

This happens sometimes to me in the US when speaking French to my kids. People think I don't speak English (very weird to assume that in the US, I'd say). I have had the opposite happen in France too - similar to your stories. There English is usually way worse than my French. But, if it is better, I let it go....

bloggingonbilingualism said...

Typo above guess my (native) English is not that good after all (ha ha). "There" should be "their," of course! Oh, those homonyms!

Reb said...

Jan, sure include this on bilingual carnival! Thanks!

To everyone, thanks for the input. I know it's silly to think people speak in English to me because they doubt my french skills. When in actuality, it's only because they are being nice.

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