April 25, 2010

LANGUAGE barriers?

This thought was inspired by a Facebook page I recently saw titled:
"YOU came to OUR Country. YOU learn OUR language."

Before I dive into the good stuff, I want to make clear that this post is NOT about illegal immigration. I am NOT in support of people coming to the United States without proper documentation. I am NOT trying to justify why people cross the border illegally. This post is my thoughts about the Facebook page. Period.

With that said....

In 2005, my husband, Dustin, and I vacationed in Montreal, Quebec on our honeymoon. It was my first time visiting the Eastern side of Canada and I was excited to see a new part of the world.

As most of you probably know, Quebec's first language is French. After living in Montreal for two years, studying French in school (which included a 3 week course in France), Dustin was prepared to speak the language. Of course, because French was not his first language, any Quebequoi would know right away he wasn't local because of his accent. Nevertheless, he was prepared and fully capable to communicate in French. Because I didn't speak French, however, when it was just the two of us talking to each other we, obviously, would speak English.

Our first evening in Montreal, we went to a restaurant near our hotel. When we were greeted by the hostess, out of habit I said "hello" to her. Her entire demeanor changed and, based on her facial expression, there was no denying she was utterly annoyed. I could just imagine her thinking "Ah, stupid Americans!" She began speaking English and walked us to our table. When our waiter arrived, she spoke to us in English despite Dustin's attempts to convert to French. The service was awful and I felt like I was such a bother to everyone.

We experienced the same type of reaction almost every place we went. The Quebequoi refused to speak French with Dustin. At dinner, our waiters only came to our table when they absolutely had to (to get our order, to give us our food and to give us our check), and never asked us how we were doing, if we needed anything else, etc. It was so frustrating and I couldn't believe how horribly we were treated just because people assumed we couldn't speak French.

One day, we were in Quebec City. We just so happened to be in the city on a busy day when some festival was going on. While driving around, we got to an intersection where a policewoman was directing traffic. Dustin apparently did something that upset her, so she came to our car to talk to him (in French, go figure). She realized he had an accent which only made matters worse. For the next 10 - 15 minutes (and I'm totally not exaggerating), she made us wait at this intersection while she let all other directions go multiple times. Only until there was a huge line of cars behind us did she finally let us proceed.

Overall, it was a great trip. Quebec is a beautiful area. The architecture was amazing, and in some areas it looked like Europe. The pros of the trip definitely outweighed the cons, but I'll never forget the way we were treated.

Some of you may be thinking that I'm too sensitive and interpreted things incorrectly. Maybe the people were trying to be nice by conversing with us in English? Had I not been there myself, I probably would've thought the same thing. But, in these few examples it was very obvious the people did not like us.

Up until this trip, I had never been treated with such disrespect based on my nationality and language. I was floored by the experience and not because I expected everyone to conform to me (after all, I was the one who was in another country), but because everyone assumed we were unable to communicate with them in their primary language.

I immediately thought about my experience in Quebec when I saw the aforementioned Facebook page (which, by the way, three of my "friends" are "fans" of. I'm sure they'll get a kick out of this post). I couldn't help but wonder how many Mexicans, Hispanics, Latinos, etc. (because, let's face it, that page isn't referring to Europeans or Asians) that appear not to speak English actually do.

Is being bilingual a thing of the past?

Is it possible we are too quick to judge?



  1. Em, I'm so glad you started this second blog!

    I believe when people move to a new country (ANY country) they should make an effort to be able to at least communicate the basics in the language of that country. I do admit to getting frustrated when people expect me to speak Spanish/Mandarin/Korean/etc because of where I live.

    However. I am also VERY tired of these types of groups and attitudes. For one thing, the United States doesn't even HAVE an official language. So how can we tell people they have to learn our language when we don't officially have one?

  2. I definitely agree with you, Karen. I'm glad you brought up the point of the fact that the US doesn't even have an official language.

    Thanks for being my first visitor, by the way.

  3. I agree with you on disagreeing with that facebook page. Awful. I use to think like that, but now why cant we just have more patience and try and figure things out?
    I was in Austria many years ago, and the main language is german, but most everyone speak english and they were so friendly and so nice about speaking english to me. it was very welcoming and i was surprised.
    I have alwasy wanted to speak another language and hopefully one day will. I do get frustrated sometimes when a non english speaker is in a position of customer service for and english speaking group because that just doesnt make sense but for the most part lets just try and get along. lol.

  4. Interesting topic.

    In my opinion, someone going on vacation and not being able to speak a language is a different matter than someone living in a country and not even making an effort to learn the language. And, perhaps many of the people I've met DID know how to speak English and I was jumping to conclusions, but I think not. I make a conscious effort not to be a jump-to-conclusions kind of person.

    When someone moves here and is making efforts to learn the language I would hope that they are treated with respect. When they aren't it is really sad. I'm sure there are many people who are treated the way you were in Quebec, and that is indeed something that should be remedied, if possible.

    I think our country, as a whole, enables the whole issue. Which could be good or bad, depending on your position. We always provide an interpreter. We always have written instructions in two languages. I think it's good for a transitional period for one who has recently moved here, but I happen to have personal experience with someone whom I know has lived in the U.S. for over 10 years and still couldn't speak English. Not even a little bit.

    I think that is where the enabling can be harmful. We make it totally unnecessary for someone to even try to learn the language unless they just have a personal desire to do so, which is hard to deal with. (again, speaking from my own personal experience.) And that's where I agree with some of the sentiments of that Facebook status, if not the attitude or the presentation thereof. I may share some of those opinions, but I like to spread sunshine, myself. Not anger, which is the feeling I get from a statement like "YOU came to OUR Country. YOU learn OUR language."


    So, there... that's my $0.02!


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