Language Wars: Don’t talk about people in your language assuming they don’t understand

I cut a several inches off my hair, which means the volume is kind of high. So I was sitting on the train. Two youths who clearly were followers of the hyphey movement (dreads and gold fronts and all) passed by with a lame pick up line, “Oh, damn, Erica Badu!” One goaded the other to try to holla, but I guess they thought wisely against it. The signs were all there that both were likely to get shut down because I had that granola-organic-natural-positive-sistah vibe. I don’t really buy it, cause maybe it was just San Francisco and the fog blew out my flat iron. Anyways, that wasn’t the point of the story. The point of the story is about languages and the assumption that people don’t understand.

So, a few stops down. Two Mexican-American men. I’m not sure if they received the hyphen and were naturalized citizens. But they passed by. My Spanish is rusty, but I understood much of what they said. “Where are we going to sit?” “Here! Here! Behind the Black girl!” “She has a lot of hair.” “She’s pretty” They made a few more comments about my hair and giggled like school girls.

During my first week as a waitress years back, I remember one of the bussers asking our co-worker “Te gustas la morena?” (Do you like the dark girl). Our co-worker responded, “No.” For the year that I worked there, I was La Morena. And when my friend came to work there, they were stumped to find her a name because she was black to. I didn’t tell them right away that I spoke some Spanish. The guys used to cuss us out in Spanish and smile in our face. I understood the foulness coming out of their mouth and at first pretended to ignore them. Then I began the wordplay and mind games in the kitchen language that was a blend between English and Spanish.

It seems as if many Spanish speakers forget that Spanish is taught in high schools. Some of us picked up Spanish from friends and caretakers. In California, Mexican Americans seem to assume that if you are black you can’t possibly know Spanish. I guess it escapes them that there are Panamanians and Dominicans who are black. Besides, sometimes even when you don’t understand what people are saying, you can often detect that they are talking about you.

Middle Easterners should take heed. For example, more and more Americans are learning Arabic. Even though I only know limited colloquial Arabic, I often know enough to know if an Arab is talking about me. My Turkish boss told me that one time, he and a friend were talking about an American woman in Turkish. The woman then told them off in Turkish. She learned Turkish because she had married a Turk. They learned their lesson to assume that a blond haired blue eyed, Northern European looking woman could not understand the lewdness that was spewing from their mouths.

Asians are not immune. They often talk about us Black folks right in front of us. One of my friends returned a video at DeAnza college. Two Vietnamese girls working at the desk cracked some jokes about the guy. He then told them in perfect Vietnamese that his mother was Vietnamese. He then told them, they never tell by someone’s looks if they know Vietnamese and that it was rude to talk about someone in front of them.

I have traveled abroad where few people spoke English. One time in Morocco, a bunch of us girls were chatting in a packed taxi with other passengers. One Moroccan young man told us to shut up. Maybe we were annoying and loud. But perhaps there was an anxiety that we were talking about him and the other Moroccan men. I admit that the anxiety comes from a real place. But, I have never said condescending statements, objectified someone, or ridiculed a non-English speaker in English right in front of their faces. It’s rude and disrespectful and widens the gaps that divide us all.

18 thoughts on “Language Wars: Don’t talk about people in your language assuming they don’t understand

  1. Good points. I have gotten that here as well. I am married to an Arab lady and I speak pretty good Arabic. I have heard Arabs talk about my tattoos before thinking I didnt have a clue. Other times I have heard Arab couples saying stuff to each other you know they wouldnt have been if they knew someone could understand them.

    Sometimes I ignore it, but like one time whilst standing in line listening to two Lebanese guys talk about my tattoos, I say something.

    The look on their faces was PRICELESS when I turned around and said “Intu min Lubnan sa7?” Meaning “You are from Lebanon correct?”


  2. “They learned their lesson to assume that a blond haired blue eyed, Northern European looking woman could not understand the lewdness that was spewing from their mouths.”

    this reminds me of my mom! she always says, “shukran” and things like that to the guys at the gas station, and they are so baffled by it.

    it is hard to resist that temptation to say whatever you want when you’re in another country, or in an area where it’s easy to assume that people won’t understand you. my mom and i frequently use arabic codewords (like “majnoon” or “kharra”, haha) when we’re out in public. i guess we should probably check that soon, because you’re right, so many americans are learning arabic now (ahem, so that they can get jobs helping the government kill arabs).


  3. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    There are actually books on how to insult people and their mothers in various languages. There is a book you can buy in any large bookshop called “Street Spanish: the Best of Naughty Spanish”, which lists insults referring to people’s mothers’ or sisters’ private parts and that sort of thing. I’ve even seen a book on insults in different European languages, containing such phrases as “your country sucks”, “your football team sucks” and that sort of thing. So if you use a well-known insult, that’s the most likely thing someone will understand.


  4. aaah the joy of insulting…

    This extends beyond languages. I have an old college buddy named Eric. He’s Puerto Rican but doesn’t look like a “typical” Puerto Rican, he can easily pass for white and deny all traces of his latin heritage. He used to complain about folks saying things about latinos back in the day not realizing he’s one of them, as they are, like Arabs, are diverse in hues (very light and very dark). THe same happens with my brother in Law, he’s Dominican but folks assume he’s Black (African American).

    I have to laugh, last Ramadan one Palestian sister was saying something bad about this Yemeni sister. The Yemeni girl didn’t respond, but the Palestian’s girl mother said, “Mom, she knows what you are saying.”


  5. Bint Will,

    My wife and I had a similar issue like that recently. We were at Walmart in line and she was talking to me in Arabic about a conversation she had had with someone she knew.

    There was a young lady in front of us with her mother. The girl was in her late teens. When we walked up my wife was saying something to me about “tight pants” in regards to this conversation she had. When the teenager heard my wife say “tight pants” she turned around and look at my wife and I.

    I am sure she thought we were talking about her, but we werent, although she was wearing tight pants, lol. We often talk in Arabic in public so people dont know what we are saying.

    It isnt that we are talking about people, it is more than we can say things and have conversations that we wouldnt normally do in English in public. There is a sort of privacy in it.

    Like one poster said, more and more Americans are learning Arabic, although not always for the reasons they said. I know many Americans that have learned some Arabic because they are interested in the Middle East and or to show solidarity.

    Not every white American who knows Arabic does so because they want to kill Arabs or Muslims.

    I get this all of the time. Speak Arabic with an Arab and if you happen to be a white guy they assume you work with teh FBI,CIA or military. I guess it didnt help me that I work in DC and used to be 1 1/2 miles from the Pentagon.


  6. Exactly abu Sinan regarding Americans learning Arabic. Sometimes we ignore the hundreds of nonMuslim Arabs helping the goverment harrass/murder Muslims OR those who have left Islam (because they don’t know the difference between Arab Culture and Islam according the guidance in the Quran and Sunnah), so spare me the nonsense, besides we have more than enough Muslims killing Muslims via the shia-sunni conflicts and other infighting in the Middle East.

    Anyway, I understand about the privacy issue. I’ve also noticed some prefer to speak in their native tongues because it’s easier for them to communicate, and this I can respect.


  7. “Not every white American who knows Arabic does so because they want to kill Arabs or Muslims.”

    i didn’t mean to imply that this was always the case, but it is often the case that people study arabic in school now so that they can get jobs working for the government. i graduated from a school with a strong near eastern studies department, and i met SO many people in near eastern studies classes who’s end goal was to work for the government or military. i shouldn’t have made such a totalizing statement as “more americans are learning arabic so that they can kill arabs,” as i don’t want to discount genuine interest in arab culture or islam, but it would be disengenous to pretend that the recent spike in non-arab interest in the arabic language has nothing to do with american military actions against arab countries.


  8. Salaams,

    This happens to me a lot with Jamaicans and other Caribbean people. Since I’m in hijab they assume I’m Indian, Arab or some other nationality. They never think that I speak or understand patwa. Oh how I love to shock them by responding!


  9. I understand your point and tend to agree with you. The only concern I have is that people take their languages as a private space in public. The freedom to say what they want when they want is very liberating. People who only speak English have it the worst – their language is pretty much understood everywhere. suckers.


  10. Well, creatng a private space in publis can be liberating. It is empowering. But that power can be misused, especially when it is used to deride, exploit, and trick working class and poor Americans. For the most part, Americans (and especially Black Americans) do not have the opportunity to learn another language. But we can easily pick up the derogatory names that immigrants call Black people. As a young child, I was fully aware of how most immigrants look down on us. It made social situations awkward because someone could talk badly about you without you knowing. It also builds resentment and distrust between groups in the same socio-economic situation. All I’m saying is that if you are going to speak in your own language, do so respectfully and do not talk badly about someone in front of them. That can go a long way in building bridges.


  11. great post. unfortunately, this happens all too often. i speak/understand spanish and french and have been insulted more times that i care to count by folks who assumed that i could not understand them. usually, i just let them finish and then tell them in “their” language that
    [they] should be more careful because [they] never know who spaeks [their] langauge…”. after the shock register, some apologize, others just stare in shock and say nothing.


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  13. very interesting post,i’m just said that well educated people never speak in your own language in front of who can’t`s a sign of bad manners.i hate who do that.
    i’m spanish speakers and i’m practicing coloquial english here,i apologize if my grammar is incorrect.


  14. salaams! this has happened to me and alhamdulillah it was never a real insult LOL! I have often had the opposite happen to me too where people will come up to me a speak to me in a language i don’t understand and then get irritate if i can’t reply. LOL


  15. Eduardo,

    I have to disagree, that is not bad manners. It appears that your comment is reactionary. I do not mind if people speak in their own language in front of others who do not understand. But my argument is that people should not talk about other people in front of them in another language. It is not a sign of bad manners in America if you speak your own language in public. There are many immigrants who cannot speak English and I am not insulted if they speak to their friends and family in the language that is most comfortable to them. It would be bigoted and counter to all the traditions in America if Americans tried to enforce an English only rule. Same goes for those who have college education or learn regional dialects that is more reflective of “proper” English. When I travel to some places in the United States, I do not always know the colloquial local dialect. It would be unfair to ask me to speak in a way that I am not accostomed to. In addition, for the most part many people in America would understand if I was insulting them regardless of the level of sophistication in my vocabulary and grammatical consistencies.


  16. Margari and Hijabi,

    I catch your point,boths of yoy are right but I wrote that above thinking in a particular case.I’ve some German family from my neighborhood,perfectly fluent in Spanish all of they who when speak with me in spanish ,talk each other in German and that is very irritating.
    You know, differents countries ,differents customs.Here in Argentina pass one generation all people learn and talk Spanish,even between.Not by force,naturaly.We have not language guethos in the big citys.Some importants areas still keep his Native American language.
    I agree with you and understand your point.I’m not a reactionary or some bigoted man,I love diversity.

    I hope all above meant what I try to said.


  17. I understand what you are saying Eduardo. I think I was a bit too abrasive in my assessment of your statement. As an American abroad in Morocco, I have seen rude Americans who can speak French or Arabic refuse to communicate in French or Arabic to Moroccans. They speak English in front of them and do not try to translate parts of the conversation. It shows that they really don’t have an interest in bridging cultures. Sometimes I see it as laziness.


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