On Expecting Natives to Speak Your Language When in a Foreign Country

I’m sitting here at Mike’s Grill, a rather low-lit, unpretentious bar that caters to both locals and gringos here in Boquete, Panama.  A popular, but usually quiet place on a weeknight, where one can watch the football game of a Monday evening, or else hook up to the wi-fi and not be bothered much. And as I type this, the waitress, a petite woman who knows me (and my fondness for their sangria), is trying to take the order of a rowdy group of tourists who just walked in.  She’s smiling politely and cocking her head to show that she’s listening, but they’re not getting through.

Why? Because one of these tourists seems to be writing a companion Meg Ryan script in rapid English that I can barely follow.

“I want crackers – not cookies, CRACKERS. If you have saltine crackers, that’d be fine.  If you have soda crackers, that’d be even better.  And I don’t want Ritz crackers. I didn’t come all this way for Ritz crackers. So I want crackers.  And remember, not cookies, crackers. Soda crackers if you have it, saltines if for some inexplicable reason you don’t.”

The waitress smiles nervously and says, “I’m so sorry. A little more slowly, please?”

Now I don’t know where this man and his friends were raised, but clearly they believe “please slow down, your language is not my first language” is another way of saying, “I’m an idiot and I need you to speak to me like an idiot.  Like a child if you can.  Or like a moron if some inexplicable reason you can’t.  So say it again, not just slower, but also simpler.  One word at a time.  Because English not being my first language means I’m a f-ing moron.”

Hearing this message, the main complied. “IIIII WWAAAANNNNTTTT CRRRAACCKKEERRSS.  That’s CCCCC – RRRRR – AAAAA – CCCCCC – KKKKKK – EEEEEEE – RRRRRR – SSSSSS.  As I said, not cookies.  No cookies.  Crackers. Ya undertand me? Crackers.”

Let’s start with something up front, first and foremost.  In the Spanish language, there’s no real difference between cookies and crackers.  Galletas is the word for both cookies and crackers, so even if this man had that word up front, that and that alone would not have been much help to him.

But even beyond that, what I don’t understand is the expectation of Americans that everyone in the world either does or should speak fluent English.  And not just be conversational or proficient, but be 100% fluent enough to understand slang, muttering, and the ocasional guy who saunters into your bar to be a jerk and rant and rave about his need for crackers.

Children Playing

This sort of behavior seems to me nothing if not childish.  Children are not born with the inherent understanding that people are different from them.  That just because they like apple juice, doesn’t mean that their friend likes apple juice.  That just because they want to go to the park, doesn’t mean mommy or daddy wants to go to the park.  Learning – really learning – that other people can have different feelings, emotions, opinions, and experiences from those that you have is one of the key milestones to developing as a child.

And not just learning that other people aren’t the same as you, but recognizing that your wants/needs/experiences/desire/opinions are not necessarily any more or less valuable than anyone else’s.  Parading in to someone else’s space – their home and their world – and not just expecting, but demanding, that they mold themselves to your and your experiences and world isn’t just ethnocentric and self-centered.  It’s childish.

Mike’s is a fairly simple place – just one of the many reasons I like it.  True to its international claim, its menu is varied, albeit never-changing.  Falafel, orange chicken, pad thai, hamburgers, and fish and chips are the sorts of things it’s used to providing, along with a range of beers and liquors for the crowd that comes in of a night to watch a game of something or other, and maybe even forget about life for a while, as the song goes.

Mike's

And so maybe these tourists didn’t expect it here.  Maybe they expected to be able to be abrupt and caustic and obnoxious and still get the meals they wanted, exactly as they wanted them.  And yet, this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered this attitude.  This non-apologetic, ethnocentric, egotistical attitude that despite that fact that a newcomer is in a foreign country, the most important thing happening right now is the fact that this foreigner is now here, and ergo the world and everyone in it should revolve around him or her.  Tourists – even much of the retired population that has flocked here from the U.S. – seem to have little compunction about their presumption that everyone should speak their language, instead of the other way around.

I’m not in any way saying one needs to be fluent to retire in another country, or to travel.  But there’s something to be said for trying. For acknowledging that this is someone else’s – another peoples’ – space that you are entering into, and that you wouldn’t be here but for the generosity and grace of these, your hosts.  You are a guest.

Try.

Pick up a phrase book.  Attempt at the accent.  And if you really don’t speak a word, apologize first.  Or at least ask – “is there any chance you speak English? Any English?”  And if not, be apologetic in your demeanor if not just in your words.  It is not their responsibility to cater to you – to ensure you’re able to order the type of crackers or cookies you want.  It’s your job.  You’re here, in their space, and it’s up to you to mold yourself and be flexible.  You may even learn something.

Most of the people I meet while traveling impress me.  They’re intelligent and curious, open-minded and brave.  They want to learn about other cultures, they want to meet local people, they want to expand their horizons.  They know how terrible a place the world would be if everyone were exactly like them.

Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone has learned that lesson.  If you’re one of them, please, stay out of the sandbox.

Photo Credit: KordiAnn via Creative Commons

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One Response to On Expecting Natives to Speak Your Language When in a Foreign Country

  1. Recently, I was traveling through Mexico and observed similar interactions. Often times, I found myself apologizing for those people to wait staff and barkeeps. It is very presumptuous for Americans to assume they can go anywhere without adapting to local customs or learning to communicate with locals– a little bit of cultural awareness could go along way. – Tenga buen viaje (One of the few Spanish phrases I learned on my last trip).

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