My Language Policy

There is no "English Only" policy that I can't defy.   English only?  Haha.  There is no “English Only” policy that I won’t defy.  

Speak whatever you want.

I grew up as a monolingual person in a multilingual house, so I’ve always considered myself culturally multilingual, even though for a long time I only spoke English. I didn’t speak my parents’ languages, but I enjoyed hearing them.  I remember trying to figure out what they were speaking and why, and what were the rules that governed that behavior.

In parties, they would speak Tagalog.  Between each other and among their brothers and sisters, they usually spoke Pangasinan. Occasionally Ilocano speaking relatives and friends would visit the house, and my parents would switch to Ilocano.  Of course, to us kids they would speak English.

There was never an explicit language policy in my home. Often they defaulted to a “common denominator language,” but sometimes they didn’t… Sometimes they just let us kids play, and switched out of English into whatever was more comfortable to them. Sometimes they’d say something in Pangasinan to a non-Pangasinan speaker, and then immediately repeat it in Tagalog. Sometimes they would speak Tagalog, even though everyone in the room was a Pangasinan speaker.  Sometimes, a lot actually, they choose to speak English to each other, despite the availability of several Filipino options.

The de facto language policy of my family was this:  Speak whatever you want; speak whatever you can; get your point across, we’ll all be ok.  

Now I’m 41 and actually multilingual, and these are basically the rules I operate by.

I have some multilingual friends that operate by different rules, rules that seem culturally monolingual to me.  The most common the one where you MUST switch to the common denominator language abruptly when someone new walks into the room, like the language you had been speaking is some dirty secret that has to be hidden when Master arrives.  I don’t like the idea of my expression being dictated by someone else’s limitations and fears.

The monolingual fear, of course, is that they don’t understand the conversation and will feel left out.  What they don’t know is that we can graciously bring them into the conversation; we have the ability to transition naturally, if in fact bringing that person into the conversation is necessary at all.  Honestly, sometimes what we’re talking about doesn’t involve the new person, and we don’t have to prove it to you.

What if someone’s talking smack about me?

First of all, usually you can tell when someone’s talking smack; they get all shifty eyed and hushed.  Secondly, if it bothers you that much, then learn their language.  If that’s too much for you, then you can ban them from speaking their language, and violate their 1st Amendment rights, that’s certainly an option for you.  Remember on Bewitched how baffled we were when Darren always banned Samantha from using her magic?  Yah, when you ban someone from speaking a language just because you can’t speak it yourself, YOU BECOME DARREN.  There, I said it.

Also, here’s some feedback:  if everyone around you is speaking a language you don’t understand, remember you can still be a part of that conversation, regardless of whether you understand or not.  What I do is watch and listen, and actively guess what’s going down.  Sometimes I can catch a keyword, and I interrupt discreetly and ask what that keyword means.  Sometimes it’s enough to repeat it. Sometimes that brings me into the conversation… and I just made it into a learning opportunity.

What I DON’T do is start feeling all left out; I don’t shut down and go into invisible mode. That’s how you get zero information.  What’s the point of that?  I know watching and guessing a language you don’t understand is not everybody’s idea of fun, but is pouting invisible mode their idea of fun?  What does that get you?

If it turns out they are talking smack about you, no amount of invisible is going to help you. At least when you pay attention, you’re on the road to figuring it out.

Yes, people have talked smack about me in a language that I don’t understand, yes that’s happened to me, I have experienced that.  Once I figured that out, I eliminated those people from my life.  There, I win.

The English Bullies

Ok, so this is a crazy non-problem that some people have, but I want to address it because people act like this is a tragedy and it’s totally not.

Sometimes, whether I’m traveling in Europe, Asia, or Latin America, people will size me up and decide they will speak to me in English.  Actually this happens to me in the US as well; when I first moved to New York I would start a conversation or transaction in Spanish, and people would reply to me in English.

It’s a free country.  That’s their right.

Usually, I continued in Spanish and that’s just how it went down.  Who cares?  I don’t know if my Spanish changed after six months, but the last half of my time in NYC, people usually didn’t use English if I started in Spanish.

Now when this happens in Europe or Asia, when someone insists on speaking English to me, I usually think “that’s great, I speak English too.”  So we continue in English.  But I’ll be honest, I don’t travel to other countries just to speak English, so usually I continue in the target language.

Sometimes those people become adamant that I speak to them in English.  That’s kind of a turn off, but if I need something from them, I’ll acquiesce and speak English. It’s either acquiesce, end the conversation, or bully them back.

So how do I bully back someone is trying to bully me into speaking English?  Easy:  I squint my eyes at them, tilt my head 30 degrees, and say “Eh?!” as if their English baffles me.  That’s right, I ScoobyDo them. I’ve done this in Europe as well as in Asia.  If they try to slow talk super-enunciate in English to me, I just tell them in the target language that I don’t understand what they’re saying.  Why would I let anyone bully me?

In the end, they can speak any language they damn well please, but you know what?  So can I.  I’ll start speaking English to them at excited teenager speed.  Do you have any idea how quickly English bullies in China get rattled when I start dropping consonants and stop moving my jaw to speak?  Or I’ll speak to them in Filipino English.  Do you know how many French people understand Filipino English?  I’m not going to lose an English battle, children.  I’m not.

One last thing:  there are people I know who are deeply offended when others size them up and decide they will speak only English to them; they think that people are unfairly racially profiling them; that just because they’re white, they must not speak Chinese.  Or that just because they’re wearing basketball shorts and holding a water bottle and a camera, they can’t speak Italian.  Or that just because they’re wearing running shoes, they can’t speak French.  

I understand that language bullies can be annoying.  But let’s get some perspective: for a native speaker of English, being forced to speak English is not a form of oppression. Nobody likes to be misjudged, but seriously: if it’s not employment, housing, or education, I need you to not regale me of how you, also, experience discrimination. Come back to me with matters of life and liberty; there are greater offenses to be suffered than being forced to speak your own native language.

6 thoughts on “My Language Policy

    • Thanks Corey! As a language teacher I suppose I should disclose that I’m in the business of creating target language environments, so I have more experience than others in controlling other people’s expression. Also, I think I get less English bullying because of my brown face… although a Taiwanese friend told me that I had an American 气质… we have a way about us!


  1. I agree with your comments about turning invisible when you don’t understand another person’s language. I’ll definitely admit to turning invisible in lengthy conversations, long conversations amongst will sometimes make me sleepy and I go incognito. But this definitely brings that to light, and I’ll try not to do that. Hopefully I’m never pouty though…


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