Open Phones: What Are Your Rules for Speaking a Language Other Than English?

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The NYPD has an English-only policy for conversations among cops, and the National Latino Officers Association says it's unfair. Last month, Whole Foods announced a change to their English-only policy after two employees were suspended for speaking Spanish and critics threatened a boycott. So what are your guidelines (both professionally and personally) for when it's appropriate to speak a language other than English, and are you concerned about excluding others - or being excluded? How do you handle it?

Bilingual listeners, English-only listeners: How do you handle language divides? Call 212-433-WNYC or leave your comment below.

Comments [45]

Neil Blonstein from New York, NY

I speak several languages and like to practive all of them, but understand that local anglo people are frequently offended by immigrants and tourists. One solution for easier communication is the easy, neutral SECOND language, Esperanto. The Esperanto Society of New York has a purpose to encourage the language, Esperanto, in its meetings twice a month for nearly 30 years. A few people periodically come to our meetings for other purposes than learning a foreign language (socializing in English) and I (and other members) did have to make a few personal negative comments. Esperanto meetings occur in most countries of the world and have different policies. In Brazil, where I lived a year, meetings are regularly held mostly in Portuguese. Esperanto is that easy that most speakers learn it independently, though formal courses exist around the world in community centers, churches and universities.

Jul. 03 2013 09:51 AM
McGill Anglophone from Montreal

The racist francophone ruling party (Parti Quebecois) when elected in Sept 2012 implemented silly French only rules even in break time in the workplace. In Montreal if you speak English on the bus you risk being assualted by the drivers. They can do it because in Quebec the union is strong

Jul. 02 2013 02:39 PM
Sredni Vashtar from the Shed Out Back

@Becky Having run across a lot of what you post at WNYC, I'm sure what you say is true. As the tone of your handle "The Truth from Becky" indicates, you're simply nasty to people's faces. Then again, I wouldn't put it past you to simply lie to score a point.

Jul. 02 2013 01:08 PM
carolita from NYC

@DYV from Park Slope, Brooklyn

the point is, often people speaking in another language about you in public are speaking a language you may have learned in school or even at home, and they're obviously basing their idea that you don't understand them on a prejudice. I've sat next to Spanish and French and German speakers and understood every word they've said while they said, thinking they were in their private little world. It's just rude to assume people can't hear you when you're right in front of them, even if they're not talking about you but about the person next to you. It's mean.

Jul. 02 2013 01:00 PM
carolita from NYC

Whenever I'm in a nail salon and the employees start talking in whatever language they all share and laugh, and then look at me (which I suppose is perfectly natural, since I'm there), I get nervous they're making fun of me. And I'm not the only one, I'm sure. Maybe I've watched too many Seinfeld episodes, but I don't think so. My mother used to make fun of people in Spanish to me, which was really foolish, given that most people take Spanish in school. But she used her language to make fun, or to be sneaky around English-speakers. It's common.
Isn't that enough to justify not speaking languages other than English in the workplace in front of clients?

Jul. 02 2013 12:56 PM
Michael from Brooklyn

As an American Irish Gaelic speaker (Conversational, not fluent), I take every opportunity to speak or listen to the language. My teacher is a neighbor and also an American speaker of Irish. He is fluent, so we converse every time we meet.

I greet every person with an Irish accent in Irish and sadly, they quickly change to english with the phrase "Your Irish is better then mine.", not excluding an RTE Television crew It is sad that after 800 years of English domination of Ireland with active suppression of Irish Gaelic by the English, that there was never a STRONG official effort to reclaim the language, not unlike the Israeli reclamation of Hebrew. Unfortunately, being English dominant allows the Irish government to export people when the economy is bad which is probably the main reason for this situation.

Anyway, with the Internet, I am able to listen/watch Radio Na Gaeltachta and TG4 (Irish Language Television) so that is fortunate. I will continue to use Irish every opportunity I get, because every now and then I meet an Irish person who is not ashamed of their native language and will converse with me. I feel it is important in the case of minority languages, including Native American languages for every speaker to use it as much as possible and to pass it on because every speaker counts even more then majority languages like Spanish or Italian.

Jul. 02 2013 11:58 AM
USCDADNYC from Queens NY

We are talking about the USA aren't we? We should use English whenever possible. You know the Saying: "When in Rome...". BTW Italy was recently debating whether to hold more College Courses in English (rather Than Italian). France, too was having this debate. Is there a Trend here? Being
TOO Politically Correct (in USA), may work to our Deteriment.

Jul. 02 2013 11:46 AM
The Truth from Becky


Jul. 02 2013 11:41 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Thupanks Bupecky!

Jul. 02 2013 11:35 AM
The Truth from Becky

Throwing a stone @ MIKE aka Paula Deen

It is just plain rude - I have never done it.

Jul. 02 2013 11:35 AM
Cynthia from East Harlem

I am a first generation Greek-American (father's side) So not alot of times when I would be in a position to be speaking Greek in the work place. However while my father spoke fluent English there were time on the the phone when the Greek seemed to penetrate better - after all he thinks in that language. More often than not my co-workers thought it cool to hear me speak it.

Like your Lebanese caller I was more bi-lingual prior to Kindergarten when my father was encouraged to speak more English so as not to confuse me. When I then went to afternoon Greek School I was behind. 45 years ago a different understanding the kids are able to learn more than one language and also know who they can use it with.

Especially in NYC you should not say in another language that which you wouldn't say out loud in English. You never know who around you understands it. Rude is Rude no matter what the language.

The only time my 2nd language come out is at times of frustration when a word in Greek seems to express it best (to myself). Then its not a conscience thing.

Also, in this town you never know when that 2nd language is helpful, especially being a tourist town. All in all - never fear that 2nd (or more) language.

Jul. 02 2013 11:33 AM
Mike from the Other Side of the Tunnels

I'm with the people who are baffled by American monolingualism. I myself know English (native), as well as some Korean, French (used to be almost fluent), German, even classical Latin! And I'd love to learn more. I feel it broadens one's worldview if you can communicate in something other than one tongue. I know not everyone has the opportunity to learn - it costs time as well as money - but more often than not the sheer narrow-mindedness displayed by many English-only types comes across as ill-informed and sometimes even racist. The "melting pot" metaphor long ago made way for the "mosaic." That said, I do agree that a strong, stable civil society requires a common language.

Jul. 02 2013 11:33 AM
DYV from Park Slope, Brooklyn

One of the most beautiful things about New York City is that there are so many wonderful languages and dialects spoken here on a regular basis in normal conversation everywhere you go. You can sit in a cafe and hear Russian, German, Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, Yiddish and Arabic all being spoken around you in a gorgeous cacophony

I hope that never changes and I think it's sad that people feel they need to stop speaking in their mother tongue in public in deference to other people's paranoia.

Why would anyone care what strangers in a mall or a park or on the subway are saying about them anyway? So what? Who cares?

NYC is a salad, not a puree.

Jul. 02 2013 11:28 AM
Joanne from Princeton

In the workplace I think it is rude for people to speak other languages in the company of those who don't understand. For example, where I used to work a number of people were of Indian descent and a few would speak together in Indian in front of English-only speaking co-workers, before or after a meeting or when speaking with one another privately. Obviously by speaking in another language they wanted to exclude others from their conversations. The effect was not positive. A couple of my co-workers remarked to me that they were offended by this behavior and were not sure what to do. I wish that I had brought it to management's attention when I worked there.

Jul. 02 2013 11:28 AM
Rachel from New York, NY

If you need to choose between languages in order to communicate in a multi-lingual environment, then you are probably including some individuals while excluding others. I believe that companies should establish language policies for specific working environments, and then positively encourage those policies by promoting work-relevant vocabulary and jargon. From a customer service perspective, having a language policy just seems smart -- and most policies can be justified.

Personally, when I'm in an environment where those around me are speaking languages I can't understand, I'm either: observing, ignoring, or frustrated. Language exclusions can be unintentional, as speakers might naturally fall into speaking their common tongue. If it's important that you understand the conversation, it's worth taking the time to ask for another language, and to assert yourself if you feel excluded.

Jul. 02 2013 11:27 AM
Mike from the Other Side of the Tunnels

To those complaining about rude remarks in another language:

If you have never, ever lowered your voice or moved off a bit to gossip about someone nearby, you may cast the first stone.

Jul. 02 2013 11:25 AM
fuva from harlemworld

language is loaded

Jul. 02 2013 11:23 AM
TG from NYC

It's absolutely insane to believe that policy exists restricting people from speaking freely, no matter the language. While it's all about context-
If you want to be a part of the conversation-learn the language.

Jul. 02 2013 11:23 AM
JB from NJ

Sometimes they ARE talking about you. If my coworker has a confrontation with someone in the office, no doubt she will get on the phone moments after and call either her sister or husband and complain loudly in an eastern european language. Her animation, pitch and dramatics make it quite obvious that she is talking about people and complaining and it is VERY RUDE!

Jul. 02 2013 11:22 AM
William from Manhattan

People should NOT assume that what is said in a foreign language in a public space won't be understood by others.

My niece speaks good Mandarin, my sister has good Nepali and Hindi, my wife good Japanese, and I have decent Arabic. We all look fairly generically Anglo, and all of us have heard astoundingly rude/racist comments on busses, subways, and just on the street, that, if heard by someone else, could lead to immediate physical confrontation.

DON'T say things in public unless you want the public to know what you've said.

Jul. 02 2013 11:22 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

My mother always spoke Yiddish in the store, and even on the subway, and I was constantly embarrassed and begged her to speak English instead, but she always would respond that she was proud of it. I still believe it is wrong and rude to speak another language when in the midst of Americans or others who may say nothing but are resentful for it, and rightly so.

Jul. 02 2013 11:21 AM
Lisa from Washington Heights

I find the push for monolingualism in this country comical and provincial, especially when the rest of the world speaks more than one language. If I want to speak Spanish in the store to the clerk at the check-out and a customer behind me finds that rude or offensive, that's hardly my problem - ridiculous really.

When I lived in San Francisco at a hostel with many visitors from Switzerland, (who speak at least four languages), they'd often speak something other than English (even though they could), I never felt offended.

Ridiculous really.

Jul. 02 2013 11:21 AM
The Truth from Becky

Upif upou cupan rupead thupis huphave upa gupood dupay!

Jul. 02 2013 11:20 AM
ryan from Brooklyn

My Iranian mother mostly spoke English to me and saved the Persian for when she only wanted me to understand what she was saying in front of others. So I'm very good at staying things like "Did you wash your hands?" "That's not polite" and "You are not allowed to sleep over so don't ask."

Jul. 02 2013 11:20 AM

Recommend this short entertaining video by Bronx filmmaker Macdara Vallely on the insider use of the Irish language for bad...or good?

Jul. 02 2013 11:20 AM
William from Manhattan

Isn't this another area of social interaction where we've lost sight of basic polite behavior? If you are in a mixed group, try to speak the language that everyone has in common. In my experience, that's what people do around the world. If one person doesn't understand the language very well, the speaker or someone close by can just say "Do you understand?" and translate. It really isn't that difficult. To do otherwise is just rude.

Jul. 02 2013 11:19 AM
Mike from the Other Side of the Tunnels

Born and raised in the United States, I speak English almost all the time. (In fact, I *think* in English.) I don't speak Korean very well at all, but I understand a lot. (I call it one-way illiteracy.) My parents immigrated here in the late 1960s and speak English with me most of the time, but when I was younger especially, now and then in public the conversation would switch from English to Korean if the topic was "sensitive," private or about a non-Korean in the vicinity!

Jul. 02 2013 11:19 AM
Franci from NYC from NYC

I have gone into stores in NYC where the shopkeepers don't speak English when I ask them a question. It's very frustrating to be in the USA, in a central city to not be understood in the standard language!
I believe that when conducting business and serving the mostly English-speaking public, folks should speak English.
That being said, I work in a tourist information center and try to help tourists in their language when I know it.

Jul. 02 2013 11:19 AM
S from Brooklyn

In the realm of food service, I've encountered (male) kitchen workers in restaurants making sexually inappropriate comments in Spanish about the women who work there and about customers. This doesn't happen all the time, but when it does it's very uncomfortable. Not worth banning Spanish over, though.

Jul. 02 2013 11:18 AM
ivan obregon

What monolingual English-speakers fail to comprehend is that immigrants or second-language speakers are almost always forced to deal in environments where they are at a loss in language (and status, inclusion, empowerment, confidence, etc.) to those speaking the dominant English language ( at work, school, social situations, the police, the hospital, etc.)so it is an everyday reality for immigrants that infers no impropriety whatsoever except that of the challenge to need to learn English. Hence, it's little wonder that immigrants are surprised by the projected-paranoid reactions of monolinguals to situations where another language is directing the social encounter when it's a normal part of the immigrant ( and immigrant children's) experience.

Jul. 02 2013 11:18 AM
The Truth from Becky

The reason for the "uncomfortableness" is because you are usually speaking negatively ABOUT the non speaker(s) of the language.

Of course native language, as a part of their heritage should be spoken to children, speaking negatively of the non speaker of the language is just RUD

Jul. 02 2013 11:18 AM

I cannot believe you didn't correct the first caller...There's no such language as Haitian. We are Haitians that speak Creole or French...This coming from a physician no less...Unbelievable!

Jul. 02 2013 11:16 AM
Dorothy from Manhattan

For many years I've had a fantasy: When I hear people on the bus, talking loudly, who seem to be making fun of others on the bus, I wish that as I get off the bus, I could say (in Polish, Spanish, Russian, or whatever) "You have a lot of nerve making fun of others when you're wearing clothes (or whatever) appropriate for a clown."

I know. That's nasty and I should work on being more accepting. But it's not going to happen. ;-)

Jul. 02 2013 11:16 AM
Nick from UWS

Since most adults in the US have the mentality of 12-year-olds, especially women, and have the infantile high school paranoia that "they might be talking about me", it's a shame that they can't get beyond that into adulthood and instead learn a little foreign language themselves and expand their minds. But that's not what's happening here...we're going backwards intellectually.

Jul. 02 2013 11:15 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

I think it is VERY important to speak one's native language to one's children. Language is SO important and difficult to learn after puberty, and the more languages a child learns before age seven, the better.

Both of my parents had the opportunity to learn other languages when they were young, but they only spoke another language in our home when they DIDN'T want us to understand what they were saying, so we suffered from not having learned another language.

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, Parents, make sure your children speak your native language. The more languages they speak when they get to school, the easier it will be for them to learn other languages later in life.

Jul. 02 2013 11:15 AM
Dana from NYC

I think the only reason the commissioner made those comments, about people feeling cops are not there to assist if they're speaking another language, is because he, like many others, assume that if you speak another language then you don't speak English.

I think it's sad that so many Americans are intimidated/insulted by people speaking another language. In Europe, EVERYONE is multi-lingual. It's not a big deal. It's not rude. You simply politely ask your question.

Jul. 02 2013 11:15 AM

my parents used Japanese to speak to each other privately. They were traveling abroad and were discussing whether or not the price offered at a store was good or not, but oddly enough, the store owner spoke fluent Japanese, as well as English and their native language.

Jul. 02 2013 11:15 AM
Sylvain from NYC

In Quebec when I was a kid, anglo-canadians used to tell us to "speak white."

Jul. 02 2013 11:14 AM
IC from Montreal/NY

We are a multilingual family, where only the children can understand all the languages. I think when it's a personal situation in private it's not of anyone's business. But if there are others present unable to understand, one should exercise some restraint in terms of respect for others. As for public, esp. service and safety is concerned, there should definitely be a predominant language rule in place for the benefit of everyone, but translation should always be available for necessary situations.

Jul. 02 2013 11:14 AM
John from office

Americans speak english. A police officer is held to a higher standard. If you don't want to follow orders don't be a cop.

I am so tired of the hispanic who has been here 40 years and cannot speak a word of english, so frustrating. I am latino, before I am called a racist.

Jul. 02 2013 11:13 AM

I had a boss who was perfectly fine when Spanish-speaking employees spoke Spanish in the office, but she lectured the Arabic-speaking staff on speaking a foreign language at work.

Jul. 02 2013 11:13 AM
alistair from Manhattan

I speak Swedish as well as English and seeing how there are only 9.2 million people that speak it, it effectively works as code language. It just so happens in my job, one of my colleagues is a Swede and speaking the language acts as a short hand in order to be more effective.

At home, I speak English to our child and my wife speaks Swedish. I think limiting people's right to speak a language is silly, especially when it's Spanish and more Americans should understand some Spanish at this point.

Jul. 02 2013 11:11 AM
The Truth from Becky

I wonder if they are debating this in other Countries...Italy, Mexico, China?

Jul. 02 2013 11:10 AM

I used to work in a sewing shop where many of the workers spoke Chinese and Vietnamese. The supervisor (who was German) came down hard on them for speaking their own language in the shop. Then another German started working there. And the both of them started speaking in German. Unfortunately they didn't realize that I knew a little German and I caught them making disparaging remarks about the Asians...

When foreign workers who speak English begin to use their 'mother tongue', it sets a suspicious atmosphere in the workplace.

Jul. 02 2013 11:09 AM
Dan from Greenpoint, BK

Huge can of worms potential, but there does not seem to be a basic standard for English speaking in industries where communications are vital (i.e. food service, livery/cab drivers).

...or any other business where people have to convey their needs and get the blank stare...

I'm speaking about American-born people as well. The pathetic standard for English speaking/understanding in schools. It's only getting worse.

Jul. 02 2013 10:54 AM

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