Language Outsider (i)

Andrei Marks · June 9, 2008

Sunday night I went out with some friends to ç°‹è¡— for dinner. ç°‹è¡— is a great place, essentially a long street of restaurants, lots of 火锅,串儿等等. Red lanterns hanging all over the place, people waiting and talking outside, just tons of atmosphere. The restaurant we went to was great, it was really packed so we didn’t get to partake in any 重庆火锅, but the restaurant still had some great food. Crayfish, eel, frog, chicken (spicy!), beef, dofu, carp, etc. おいしいですね! And lots of 干杯!

Anyway, one of my Aussie friends brought along a Chinese friend, a Tsinghua student, which got me thinking about lopsided language dynamics. Out of six he was the only one who wouldn’t be comfortable with conversational English. He mentioned my 口音 wasn’t a problem to understand (Midlands accent!), but the Australian, southern, and non-native English accents were pretty much 听不懂. He spoke hardly more than a word of English the whole night.

Groups like this generally tend to gravitate towards English. Even though I try to accommodate the non-English speaker with Chinese as often as possible because it is great practice, the pull of the group’s lingua franca is pretty powerful. I always try to check that at the very least someone else is engaging the language outsider. Inevitably I end up feeling pretty bad for them. Language, or lack thereof, can be pretty alienating, and I always feel like I’m not being as polite as I should be. Worse, I imagine that the language outsider might leave the night feeling a little down, which is unfortunate. It is pretty incredible how fundamental communication, and therefore language, is to the human condition. I’ve been in the language outsider seat before, and it’s definitely not the most enjoyable experience.


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