Wednesday, July 06, 2011

How Do You Choose What Language to Speak?

You are a functionally bilingual person living in a city which is dominated by one language (which is not your L1) but includes a large number of speakers of many others (including and especially your L1). You are in a restaurant conversing with a friend in your L1, which you share. The staff of the restaurant are communicating in your L1 (which is also their L1) to each other, but they are communicating with their customers in the dominant local language.

What language do you speak to the waitress and why?


monsterpants said...

I'd choose my L1 to communicate with the wait staff. Two main reasons for this:
1) It's easier for me.
2) I would see it might actually be a relief for them to not have to speak the other language with me, since my L1 is clearly one they favour amongst themselves anyway.

And I'd say my reasoning would be about 90% the first, and 10% the latter.

So, please note that even if the wait staff was speaking the dominant language amongst each other, most days I'd still probably try my L1 first. This is where different personalities come into the equation. On my really good days where I'm feeling confident and productive, speaking the dominant language is not hard for me, or I feel more sure in myself. On my average days though, I usually trust their "my-L1" better than my "their-L1."

Then yo've got these people who are always confident in their ability to communicate in either language, regardless of good-day/ bad-day scenarios.

Joel said...

Thanks for your answer! This is based on something I witnessed yesterday and I really wanted to discuss it. Like you, I would have expected that to be the answer, and I would think I'd choose it to. And I wonder how much the relative status/power of the language has to do with it. (Whenever we talk about these questions we kind of have to make an allowance for English usually having a higher status, although it depends on the context.)

So here's what I saw yesterday. I was at my favorite sushi restaurant where all the staff communicate in Mandarin. (Actually I don't know if it's their L1, but they all use it with each other.) Invariably they talk to the customers in English. Next to me there were a couple of women speaking Mandarin to each other. I assumed that when the waitress came, they would speak Mandarin to her to order.

But they didn't, and that surprised me. I wonder if it has something to do with how the staff choose to approach the customers, if English is the default "language of ordering food" or whatever. (To complicate things, it's a Japanese restaurant, so a lot of the words used for the food are "English" in the sense that they're Japanese loanwords pronounced Englishly.) Another time I was in there I saw a waitress try to communicate something fairly simple to an older Chinese man in English 4 or 5 times, which he wasn't getting, before switching to Mandarin.

Without going too crazy here (too late), I'm inclined to assume this has something to do with "English dominance" in Vancouver, which has recently (in the last 5-10 years) embraced a symbolic interest in Chinese if not an actual one. It could be that English is just the default language you're supposed to be speaking. I have several friends who are fluent in various dialects of Chinese but would usually choose English to start with, no matter who they're talking to.

On the OTHER hand (oh man), if I speak Chinese in a Chinese restaurant, I win a freaking gold medal because I'm a white person and Chinese is coming out of my mouth.

BUT, not in a Japanese restaurant in a white neighborhood, where if I speak Chinese to the Chinese-speaking waitress it gets ignored.

So to sum up, it all has to do with language ideologies and race, maybe. Maybe.