Is bilingualism impolite?

I’m chatting in English to a medical student from Germany who is visiting Sydney, Australia, and we’ve already talked about how I lived in Germany for a while and speak German. In the middle of a chat about which part of Germany she’s from, my conversation partner turns to her friend and asks “How do you say Sachsen-Anhalt in English?” and I feel a little bit like I’ve become invisible. Why?

(a) Because I speak German.
(b) Because it’s a place name, so a translation is not going to make it any more meaningful.
(c) Because verdammt noch mal I speak German!

Issues of opportunity to practise come up a lot in a language classroom, and as an English language teacher I’ve done my fair share of encouraging learners to take every opportunity to practise their newly acquired language skills. I am guilty, however, of ignoring the politics of speaking different languages in different contexts and what using different ways of speaking means in different spaces. For a classroom of Mandarin speakers in Australia, asking them to speak English with their fellow students may in fact be asking them to ignore context-specific rules about what is appropriate language use. Different language ideologies come into play: how is each language valued in that space? What does it signify, to use English or Mandarin or another language to a fellow student?

In her article “Malays are expected to speak Malay”, Rajadurai describes a case study of a learner who went to great lengths to practise her second language, English, despite the social isolation she encountered as a direct result of what speaking English meant in many Malay-speaking contexts, where “promoting English is often regarded as a threat to the Malay identity and an erosion of Malay dominance” (Rajadurai, 2010, p. 94). Her efforts to use English were seen, not as an attempt to engage with dominant ideas about the value of English as a global language, but rather as an attempt to distance herself from her Malay identity and to criticise Malay culture as inferior.

In my case, I think that my new acquaintances were drawing on a their own ideas that speaking English was the appropriate thing to do in a space where there were non-German speakers present, while I was drawing on my identity as a second language speaker who was keen to become visible as such, not something I get to do very often in Sydney unfortunately. So while my conversation partner was no doubt responding to pressure from herself and her friends about the right thing to do, I was very disappointed that she didn’t pick up on what I actually wanted, which was to speak a bit of German! Interestingly, the one non-German speaker there was herself multilingual, so being in a multilingual environment would have been familiar. Despite the fact that everyone at the gathering was multilingual then, I felt that the language ideology which ‘ruled’ was a monolingual one, which privileged singularity over diversity. It would be interesting to explore these sorts of language contact events more thoroughly to see if my ideas about language ideologies actually hold.

Interestingly, when I complained to a friend of mine who counts German and English as part of her language repertoire she responded by assuring me that although she would make an effort to speak as much German with me as possible, it was in fact impolite to speak a language others around you do not understand.

In my Australian TESOL contexts this constitutes a powerful discourse of language control. Something I often heard in the staffroom was that it was impolite for Mandarin speakers (for example) to speak Mandarin if there were other language speakers in their group. This linguistic control is often cast as being in the best interests of the learners, rather than being about teacher exclusion from learner talk and the consequent loss of power over what is said to whom. Speaking another language in an ‘English-only’ classroom is thus constructed as being a bad student who is also a rude person. This is also an ideology learners themselves internalise, as I often found when I discussed “class rules” with learners. As language teachers and researchers, we need to be more aware of the ways in which our students really experience what we might think are ideal opportunities to practise, but which they may see and experience very differently.

ResearchBlogging.org Rajadurai, J. (2010). “Malays Are Expected To Speak Malay”: Community Ideologies, Language Use and the Negotiation of Identities Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 9 (2), 91-106 DOI: 10.1080/15348451003704776

About Hanna Torsh

Hanna Torsh is a PhD candidate at Macquarie University. Under the supervision of Prof. Ingrid Piller and Dr Agnes Terraschke her sociolinguistic research focuses on the experience of linguistic intermarriage in Australia between English speaking background Australians and migrants of other language backgrounds. She is also interested in language policy, multilingualism and second language learning and teaching. Hanna has a Masters Degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Technology Sydney and has a background in English Language teaching in Sydney and Germany.
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20 Responses to Is bilingualism impolite?

  1. I think it always depends on what you are trying to achieve. If your goal is raising bilingual children you might want to use the minority language with and around them as much as possible and worry less about whether that’s considered impolite by other people around you.

  2. Nadia says:

    This is tricky, because I’ve been on both sides of the divide. I don’t think slipping into a language others around you don’t speak is automatically rude. If you and another speaker are in public with strangers, why should you not speak any way you like? I think the affront that such private conversations cause to (often, but not always monoligual) speakers of the dominant language who happen to be listening is rooted in xenophobia, which is ultimately a function of privilege. When I hear ‘oh it’s rude to speak a language everyone around you can’t understand’, what I really hear is ‘How dare you funny-looking people speak in a way I can’t intrude into at random? This is my space!’ and also, ‘What are you hiding? Are you talking about me?’

    However, I do think that in social situations where you’re supposed to be interacting with people who may or may not have your other language(s), it is probably best to stick with whatever the common language happens to be. Brief interactions in another language is still ok in my view, but completely breaking off into separate language islands implies that you would rather not interact with the group as a whole and, in social situations where the group matters, I would count that as rude.

  3. Nelson Burgos says:

    Bravo Hanna! Nice post!

  4. Hanna,
    Vielen Dank fuer deinen Blogpost. Habe selbst an genau dieselben Themen sehr viel gedacht — z.B. in diesem Blogpost — http://www.languageonthemove.com/multilingual-families/english-only-on-this-american-playground-please. Guess I’d better go into English to be “polite” ;-)

    On an everyday level in many contexts, there is a lot of social pressure to speak only in the language that is dominant in the context in which you are in. Take the little boy on an American playground who was recently trying to pressure me and my daughters to speak only English so that he could listen in on our conversation (see the link above). He definitely thought it was impolite for me to speak German to my daughters and they German back to me in a public context in the U.S.

    I generally think monolinguals are especially insecure about others speaking a language they don’t understand, and, yes, that’s a hit on monolinguals on my part. On the other hand, I’ll fess up that part of my motivation to speak German to my kids 100 percent of the time is to set myself, and them, apart from monolinguals and to actively challenge monolingual ideology by our very existence and counter-hegemonic practice. This type of approach is often seen as elitist, so I guess I’ll take a “hit” back from the other side here.

    Generally speaking, the tension between the desire to belong and to differentiate is a crucial, and complex, dynamic of human identity, and clearly language practice is a big part of this.

  5. Catherine says:

    It’s a tough one. I live in Italy and am bilingual. I was recently watching my son’s rugby match with other mums (both Italian and English-speaking). I wanted to organize something with one of the English speaking mums and, knowing that her Italian isn’t great, we spoke in English to make sure we got the details right. I almost felt like I should also explain in Italian what we were talking about – especially as we then started chatting in general and I wanted to include the others, but also felt awkward switching mid-conversation.

  6. Erin Gough says:

    This is a very interesting and well-written article. I look forward to reading more by Hanna Torsh.

  7. Fiona MacLeod-Green says:

    An interesting article – thank you. Bilingualism is not impolite. Good manners means that I will always do my best to ensure that people understand me e.g. English for current company – but if not talking directly to people, their language usage does not affect my choice of language one jot.

    I mainly use Japanese when speaking to my daughter. Her father uses English with her, and enjoys the bilingual arrangement. But I have already been pressured by acquaintances to “Speak English – she’ll be confused!” to which I reply “She’ll be fine. The confusion is yours.” Some have pressed the matter further, with the response “If I’m talking to you or about you, I’ll leave you in no doubt about what I have to say. Otherwise, my conversations with my child are my business. Any questions?” My bilingualism is not rude: my rights as a bilingual are compatible with my rights to express myself freely. Why would I deny my daughter wonderful tools of communication because of someone else’s insecurities?

    My mother was a native Gaelic speaker from Scotland, but I was raised in English – a reason given was that my Scots-Australian father was an English speaker, and it would have been rude to exclude him from family conversations. So I express my cultural identity in my “acquired” heritage language. I am convinced that a wee bit more “rudeness” on the part of Gaelic speakers would mean a lot less confusion about who Gaels are and where we are headed in this exciting global mix!

  8. Zandra Häfelin says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. Intercultural communication is more than speaking a target language. ‘Good manners’ might also mean different things depending on the cultural background of the dialog partners. I have found myself feeling as Hanna did, when someone used a language that I was not expecting, for instance, if I have started the conversation in a different common language. Intercultural communication is more complex than communicating in a monolingual and monocultural context and it is certainly a fascinating topic. Thank you for sharing your experience Hanna.

  9. Louis Irving says:

    With the greatest respect, the sign should read “Please Be Polite”.

  10. shiva says:

    Fascinating post! Thanks Hanna!
    Sorry for being so verbose! I had to divide my post into parts (the spaces count though! ;-)
    I’m not sure if we can generalise and say all Germans, Persians or whatever, believe in the appropriateness/inappropriateness of using one’s own language when other non-speakers of that language are present. In part, I believe, it can be subject to personal attitudes and morals. A friend of mine in Sydney, a Persian man, has a French girlfriend. Sometimes, she is the only non-Persian speaker in our gatherings where, at times, speaking Persian seems unavoidable. In these situations, I always try to translate what’s going on for her to avoid her feeling “excluded”. In one of the occasions, in response to my concern about her getting annoyed or bored, my friend (her boyfriend) noted that I shouldn’t have been worried as she was used to that kind of situation. He noted that they (she and her family) had used to do the same (i.e. speaking in French) when he’d been staying with them in France. This is not only limited to intercultural communication, but can also happen within a country, like Iran, with diverse people speaking a variety of dialects and languages. (…continued)

    • shiva says:

      (part 2)
      Persian is the official language; however, there are many people whose home languages are different, say Turkish or Kurdish. It is alleged that when they come together, no matter who else from what background would be there, they start speaking in their own languages to each other. I believe, however, this is not always the case; although I have experienced the unpleasant sense of “being left out” in some situations.
      Recently, I have noticed that many Persians in Sydney when they come together in a multilingual gathering –no matter who is around- occasionally use Persian. This is contrary to my previous assumptions about Persians –whom I thought would stick to a common language in a gathering. Although not being told directly, I assume one reason could be their avoidance of being –or being judged by other Persians as –gharbzadeh or ‘Westernized’ in a negative sense. (…continued)

      • shiva says:

        (part 3/3) :-)
        Thinking about which language to choose in a specific context, my very recent experience comes to mind. In the Japanese-on-The-Move launch, some confusing moments happened to me –whether to greet/speak in Persian to Persian friends or the common language “English”! At times, this ambivalence caused me to greet back/speak very short in Persian and then apologise for switching into English while justifying the use of a lingua franca in that context (with a sense of humour though, to redress my bewilderment). Ruminating on this, I find this reason: I don’t want them “to feel excluded”. So, instead of using “politeness/impoliteness/rudeness” of using a specific language, I would like to think about its fairness/unfairness in some contexts.
        Best,
        Shiva

        • Angela Turzynski-Azimi says:

          Hello Shiva
          I found your views very interesting. I have noticed that when I am in the company of Persians and I am the only non-Persian speaking person present they almost invariably speak English to one another. I am not sure why but I feel quite uncomfortable and even embarrassed that my presence makes them feel that they have to do this. As for feeling “bored”, I am perfectly happy to enjoy the poetic rhythms of the language without necessarily understanding more than a few words!
          Angela

  11. I really enjoyed this post and the comments – thanks!
    What I wanted to add is that I think one should make a difference here between private and public spaces, as it is one thing to exclude individual people from communication and something different if the use of a language symbolises ‘otherness’ in public or semi-public space and is for this reason perceived to be impolite. I have also thought that it might be interesting to do cross-national comparative research into ideologies of individual language choice in public spaces, as it seems that different cultural contexts treat the use of non-dominant language differently e.g. on playgrounds, in public transport, on the streets, etc. In the data I collected in Sydney, for example, there were several people telling me that they only used English as soon as they left their home, even if another (European prestige) language was their common first language, as in their environment, it was perceived to be highly impolite and also almost like a political symbol of the unwillingness to respect ‘Australia’ (whatever it means). Yet, in Germany, this depends very much of the language that is used, where English, unsurprisingly, meets with positive attitudes, and Turkish not so much… So the socio-political discourses of contexts have a deep influence on this, obviously, and the political and historical ideologies that are interwoven with language ideologies may give us a deeper insight into the reasons for the ‘politeness’ trouble.

  12. Rioliza says:

    Hi Hanna,

    I find your article interesting. I am from the Philippines. I have a daughter who has been trained since infancy to speak English. Yes, she can speak English very well and has quite a hard time understanding our local language. However, I don’t find it impolite if she answers in English to a question asked in native language. I am cooking up a study for my PhD and I am very keen to research related to this area. Kudos!

  13. Pingback: Is bilingualism impolite? | Language on the Move | exportcomms

  14. SueD says:

    An interesting observation regarding ESL classes:

    When students at very low level of English proficiency request bilingual support, course providers would come up with the excuse that having first language support would hinder progress in the second language. ” You get enough of your first language at home – you are here to learn English”. The true reason would be the high cost of providing bilingual support to a variety of first language groups.

    But where a critical mass of students becomes available to make money from ( eg the Chinese), the same providers would bend over backwards to source bilingual teachers!

    This is how sound educational practice loses to economic rationalism! Looks like some dollar notes are more valuable than others.

  15. Pingback: “Speak English or Die!” | Language on the Move

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