What’s Spanish For “Hack”?

I love languages. I speak three of ’em passably enough not to get made as a Yank, and can order a drink, pay a tab or find a bathroom in a bunch more. If I could learn more full-time, I would. I’m a linguistics geek.

I’m probably an outlier among Americans at large – we’re a big mostly monolingual country, so most Americans don’t need to learn another language.

But the word “hatchet job” means the same thing in an amazing number of languages. That occurred to me while reading this, well, hatchet job from the WaPo, claiming that about half of Republicans get annoyed hearing other languages. According to Pew:

47 percent of such Republicans say it would bother them “some” or “a lot” to “hear people speak a language other than English in a public place.” Eighteen percent of white Democrats said they would be similarly bothered.
Aside from politics, age and education are the major predictors of linguistic discomfort. Eighteen percent of whites younger than 30 said they would be bothered by a foreign language being spoken, compared with 43 percent in the 50-to-64 age group, and 45 percent among those 65 and older.
Among all racial groups, whites (34 percent) are most likely to be bothered hearing foreign languages, followed by blacks (25 percent), Asians (24 percent) and Hispanics (13 percent). Among Americans overall, 70 percent put their level of unease at “not much” or “not at all.”

And this article is kinda hatchet-y. 

For starters, it doesn’t say *why* “half of white Republicans” have that reaction. Oh, the WaPo knows what it *wants* people to think – that’s why they included the utterly unrelated “High profile confrontations”. Racists!

And yet of those Republicans, the vast majority reported being “bothered” only a little bit – which doesn’t seem like it’d be a byproduct of hatred. It doesn’t go into motivations. 

I’m to postulate the vast majority of that isn’t racism, but people in a largely monolingual culture reacting to being excluded. Remember the question – they’re reacting to hearing people “speak a language other than English in a public place.” Language is an excluder; it’s a private club. It’s why my grandma never spoke her native Norwegian unless she was among fellow native speakers; it’s why I don’t talk in German or Norwegian in meetings with mostly Anglo co-workers. It’s kind of rude. 

The reaction is hardly limited to Americans, much less “white Republicans”. Check out how the French react to groups of Americans talking English sometime. 

I’m gonna strongly suspect most of the result comes from social annoyance rather than bigotry or provincialism. 

Men hva vet jeg?

12 thoughts on “What’s Spanish For “Hack”?

  1. Interesting piece, Mitch.

    I’m not usually bothered by hearing other languages being spoken around me, but, like you, I do get annoyed if people speak in one when they are in a group of primarily English speakers. Of course, except for translators.

    Perhaps it’s a holdover from my time in the military and either being stationed in or visiting other countries.

    In a somewhat related story, during a one week visit to Germany in 1974 courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, one of the ground crew members stationed there, a young lady from Pennsylvania, offered to show me around town. While we were eating lunch at a small restaurant, there was a group of people about our age, giggling and making side glances at us. It was obvious to both of us that they were making fun of us Americans. As we got u to leave, my companion stepped over to their table and in German, she cautioned them about making assumptions and making fun of people. The looks on their faces were priceless. Little did I know that she spoke fluent German, as she came from an American family with German roots.

  2. Si yo fuera un agente de ICE, las tiendas de identificación que tienen señalización en español.

  3. BossHoss, My buddy Ed is a big, cowboy boot wearing redneck from the FL panhandle who happens to speak fluent Mandarin.

    I can’t tell you how much fun we had with unsuspecting Chinese. He especially loved embarrassing women who were talking about us.

    He moved over there perminantly about 20 years ago, and I love to give him shit because now he speaks English like a chink!

    Here he is being characteristically humble about his Pro dart skills. (He still has the boots, but he had a lot more hair back in the day).


  4. Boss, when I worked for Target I heard a similar story. A female store assistant manager pulled the same thing on the cleaning crew. According to the story, the crew was playing dumb about having an English speaker present (which was a requirement of the contract) and proceeded to make several inappropriate comments about the manager right in front of her. She replied in perfect Spanish that if she ever heard that type of language again she would immediately terminate their contract.

  5. My daughter made a credible effort to learn Czech when she was living in Prague. It is a very complex language with very little overlap with English. Nevertheless, she managed it – much to the surprise of a young Czech man she was introduced to at a party. He thought he was safe by responding with a smile and a very, very vulgar suggestion. Turns out that the experience of having one’s lungs ripped out of his body is pretty much the same in any language.

    While there she had several Czechs compliment her on her use of the language, noting that she spoke with very little accent. Once she asked the person, “You can’t tell that I’m American?”

    “Oh,” he replied, “I know you’re American by the way that you walk.”

  6. I currently work retail in Maplewood. We constantly have customers speaking other languages and I regularly have to talk to 8-16 year olds in the group acting as translators for their family. It has never bothered me.
    I do get bothered when I know the customer is playing dumb about their English proficiency. It’s usually done to try to get something for a discount or a freebie.
    The only other issue is I sometimes have to remember other employees to speak English unless talking with a customer, especially in front of a customer that only speaks English.

  7. “I’m to postulate the vast majority of that isn’t racism, but people in a largely monolingual culture reacting to being excluded.”

    I’m one of the 47% of 45-62’ers that are bothered. Mr. Berg’s postulate is one of the reasons. In addition:

    1) The realization that I no longer have a home nor anywhere to flee to.
    2) At first having a few Spanish speakers at the Menard’s was cute and cuddly and they were deferential, like good guests normally are. Now the place is dominated by Spanish speakers and they are aggressive as if they’ve taken over the place.
    3) I value diversity and even though I speak Spanish, I long for a few conversations in Polish (or Austrian as President Obama noted) at the local Menard’s.
    4) As an American Patriot I recognize that flooding the country with Spanish speakers along with a sprinkling of Somalis is done in order to cripple the country.
    5) There are other reasons besides “racism” too numerous to mention.

  8. More of an urban-rural divide than a “white republican” thing.
    Tonight I shared my work space with two Italians and a Spaniard. I experienced no discomfort.

  9. Language is an excluder; it’s a private club.

    Very astute. My wife and I speak Danish when we’re in public for this very reason. If we want to talk about a product or what we want to order or, sometimes, about people. Danish, as written, is very similar to Norwegian, but the spoken is nearly incomprehensible to all other Scandis and completely so to everyone else. That said, however, there are just enough Danes around that a you need to be careful.

  10. Interesting, Tony. Where is this Menards of which you speak? My local one, Elk River, is still in the “cute and cuddly” stage.

  11. Swiftee, that’s funny! I’m betting that you did have fun, because the Chinese, especially the older generation, are easily shamed by gaffes they make.

    That video was funny, too!

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