Courtesy Language Switch and the Minority Mindset

I was recently thinking about code switching, language switching, and monolinguals.  I was re-reading this post from 2007 and I realized a couple things.  

I’ve been pretty sloppy about the term “code switching.”  Usually it means using the grammar and vocabulary of more than one language in the same paragraph or sentence for communicative effect.  Monolinguals often see this as an inability or a defect, since they fear what they don’t understand.  I’ve also been using the term “code switching” to cover a different phenomenon, which I’ll specify as “language switching.”  When I say “language switching” I mean holding a conversation exclusively in one language, and then swithing for some reason to speaking exclusively in another language.  

“Language switching” is something that I perpetrate on my students and collegues several times a day for thousands of different reasons.  It’s usually meant to be a seamless transition but I am hyperaware of it, just because I’m who I am, and my hypervigilence of language.  

So as I said in the post from 2007, I grew up in a house without the Courtesy Langauge Switch (CLS) ever directed toward me.  My elders did NOT swtich to English just because one of us kids walked into the room; it didn’t even occur to them.  When they did switch to English, it was to bring us into the exchange; not out of courtesy.  They did CLS for each other, but we kids were spared the CLS.  

I spent a huge amount of my childhood in rooms where people were not speaking a language that I understood, and as an adult, I’m still perfectly comfortable that way.  That pain some people feel when they don’t hear their language being spoken around them?  I don’t feel it.  And yes, even in that 1-in-10,000 situation where their eyes get shifty and I know they’re talking about me.  I don’t need langauge to manage that situation.  

So here’s the deal;  I don’t CLS for anyone.  ANYONE. If the First Lady of the United States waltzed into the room while I was in the middle of something in Spanish, I would either abruptly end my other conversation or graciously bring her into the conversation, maybe by switching or maybe with gestures and body langauge and touching.  However I wouldn’t automatically switch just out of COURTESY.  Gross.  

Why not?  Because speaking another language is not impolite.  It’s not a dirty secret we have to hide when Master shows up.  Maybe that other person is interrupting something, have you ever thought of that?  

This is a minority mindset; we weren’t doing anything wrong, and we don’t have to hide our non majority behavior, and if majority people have a problem with it, the problem belongs to them.  

Do I feel the same way, when the tables are turned?  YES.  I’m actually disgusted when people CLS just because I showed up. 

I had been talking English with some South African friends for a couple of hours, when I found out everyone was Afrikaans speakers.  I asked them if they had CLSed for my sake, and they said, yes of course.  Are you kidding, I said, I’VE NEVER HEARD AFRIKAANS IN PERSON BEFORE.  They were happy to switch, and I was enthralled to hear it.  I didn’t want to participate in the conversation anyway, it was about finding elemetary school work in Taiwan.  Later, I asked for clarificaiton, which is (hello) natural in monolingual conversations too, right?  

It happened again last summer with some German speakers at a bar in Taipei; they were having this gross ESL conversation all for my benefit, and if I were them, I would have thought “I hate having to speak English just because this dude is sitting next to me.”  I also hated all their ESL explaining; they would say something medium clever that took a second to say, and then proceed to rephrase, explain, and clarify their remark for the next ten minutes.  Once I had them dispense with the CLS, their conversation got much more natural.  I was part of the conversation whenever they brought me in, and I didn’t have to suffer through their awkward, bricky ESL.  

Here’s the deal; I would rather double translate, over-gesture, and have a NATURAL multilingual conversation with explanations and clarifications than have that forced courtesy langauge experience.  I would rather let stuff go by, or find something else to pay attention to for a few minutes, than have to fully participate in a Courtesy Langauge conversation I don’t care about.  If I care about participating fully in a conversation, I’ll start it, or people will swtich because they want to talk to me; not out of some “courtesy” meant to spare my feelings.  

I think people imagine that Courtesy Langauge conversations are civilized and pleasant, but just as often they are boring, or a pain in the ass, or unnecessary.  

That’s minority mindest.  I’m sure majority minded people find natural multilingual conversations to be frustrating and tiresome, painful sometimes.  Well, I’m here to tell you that I just don’t feel that pain.  I don’t believe it even is pain.  I think it’s just fear; fear that I’m not responsible for.  

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