Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bilingual Doesn't Make You Stupid or Blind

In my daughter's preschool class of eleven, there are three students whose parents speak something other than English at home. My daughter, a little boy who speaks Afrikaans, and a little girl who speaks Chinese.

I find this to be a huge advantage for my daughter and her classmates. It brings a sense of normalcy to hearing something other than English come from someone's mouth. There is no fear or paranoia, the kids simply go about their business of play as if nothing were out of the ordinary.

The parents could learn a lesson from their children.

In this hall this afternoon, I was speaking to the Chinese-speaking mother. She is very nice, very enthusiastic. Her English? Not all that great. She speaks rapidly and has a heavy accent. She is intelligible, but one must listen carefully. We talked about getting our girls to play together outside of school.

Enter non-bilingual mom. We joined her in our conversation because both of our daughters have mentioned how much they like playing with her daughter.

Watching this mom listen to the Chinese-speaking mom infuriated me. This was her expression. I took a picture of myself to illustrate.

When listening to a non-native speaker, it is not necessary to squint your eyes at them. Neither is it necessary to bare your teeth and slacken your jaw. It quite unbecoming. You may as well walk around with an ear trumpet and staple a sign to your forehead to warn people.

This woman obviously needed a lesson in interpersonal communication. Let's get schooled, NATUI-style.

How do I put this delicately? The mom who spoke Chinese? She isn't stupid, and you aren't deaf. Take care of your facial expressions. They can be hurtful and tell much more of your personality than you care to let on.

When listening, show interest when people speak to you. It is respectful and shows good breeding, or lack thereof in this case.

And finally, to include my daughter in on a future playdate and intentionally exclude the person standing next to you is rude beyond measure.

I hope the Chinese-speaking mom didn't hear the other mom intentionally exclude her daughter. I hope she missed it, but I don't think she did. Bilingual doesn't mean stupid. And she surely isn't blind.

As a parent and decent fucking human being, all I can do is steer my kids clear of this kind of behavior through teaching them to be kind. It is my small way of making the world a better place.

Which means the NATUI clan has a Chinese playdate this week. Ni hao.


A Free Man said...


I've got to admit though, as someone who works with and teaches a lot of ESL folks, that I've been guilty of the same things - lack of patience, frustration and the same assumption that daft woman made. Good reminder for me!

SSG said...

hahahha nice photo! dont you wish you could just tell her right there and then that she was being a moron, of given HER that face?

PS I hate when Afreeman says Goodonya. it sounds weird.

tysdaddy said...

As someone fluent in only one language (and fretting greatly at taking my second hear of university Spanish so I can finally quit adding majors and minors and get the hell outta there,) I admit to doing more than my share of "huh? Can you repeat that?" when talking to someone whose first language is not the "Magnificent Bastard Tongue" that is the English language.

And yet, I do so in a way that betrays my own ignorance, and not the speaker's. I want to understand what they are saying, being a conversationalist at heart, and so engaging takes time and patience on my part. Very often, the other person isn't offended at all.

Great post.

RiverPoet said...

We're very xenophobic in this country, aren't we? It's strange, but we seem to want everyone to immediately speak like us when they come here.

I do have trouble understanding some accents, though. There is a girl at work, a native Hindi speaker, whom I can't understand. She speaks English very rapidly and in a high monotone. Soon it is all running together and I miss half of what she says. She can't see me over the phone, straining hard to understand her. In my defense, lots of people have trouble understanding her. If she would only take it down just a tad...*sigh*

But I think the woman acted very badly, particularly in leaving out the woman and her little girl from the play date. Bad form!

Peace - D

Gypsy said...

My fiance has a friend whose only language is English, and I can't understand a damn thing he says. I'm sure I look like that woman when I try to listen to him. But seriously -- really can't understand a word. And it's his native (and only!) tongue!

But yeah. Bad form of that other mom. Tremendously bad form.

Not Afraid to Use It said...

@A Free Man: And that's the main thing. To be conscious.

@SSG: I think the whole goodonya is a Southern thing. I never really heard it until I moved to the Bible Belt. You oughta try it out, though. It's a bit better of a way to say kudos.

@Tysdaddy: It sounds like you do it completely right. Being engaged in the conversation and asking people to repeat themselves in a respectful way. Goodonya. :)

@RiverPoet: The difference of an accent on the phone is so much greater than being able to see the facial expressions and body language. It sounds like you are doing your best.

@Gypsy: I have had many experiences like that as well. Isn't that crazy? How even dialects in your own language can through you for a loop.

K-Mom said...

Here! Here! Excellent post!

Rude people suck.

Bluestreak said...

wow. that picture. I have seen that face a million times over here in Spain when I´m trying to speak Spanish. And I want to hit people.