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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

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Tongues of Confusion
"He sometimes works in the pet shop next door," I said to my Japanese teacher, referring to the man who had approached us in the cafe where we were sitting to say hello. "We got to know each other a bit because we came to the same cafe quite often."

"It's a good job you said that in Japanese," she replied (because I had). "What if he overheard you?"

I don't think he would have cared, frankly - his work as a part-time pet shop assistant is hardly a secret - but it got us talking about the way lesser-known languages are sometimes used as a secret code. My teacher's daughter, for example, has been known to make personal remarks about the appearance of people in the street, safe in the knowledge that she won't be "overheard" because she's making them in Japanese.

I can certainly see the appeal of using a language this way, but it's not something an English monoglot can ever do, given how widely English is understood. Even in Japanese it's a risk: who knows whether the person whose big behind you've just dissed may not also be studying for her JLPT1? Even if you're prepared to take the risk with Japanese, what about, say, German or Italian? How obscure would a language have to be for you to be publicly catty in it?

My friend Miho once told me how she and her husband were on a train in central Europe, going to a language conference. The only other person in the compartment was a European man, travelling alone. She and Hiroshi chatted in Japanese, naturally; but when they came to their destination, their companion surprised and (more interestingly) shocked them by making a polite remark in perfect Japanese as they disembarked.

What interests me about the story isn't that Miho was a little retrospectively embarrassed at being understood (though, knowing her, I don't suppose she had been poking fun at their companion), but that she felt quite strongly that the man should have made it clear that he could understand them much earlier. Apparently he felt it too, because later at the conference (where it turned out he too was a delegate) he found her and apologised for not speaking sooner.

To be honest, I find that quite hard to get my head round - but then, it would never occur to me to assume that no one could understand my native tongue.

Hm, that does seem a bit odd! It's not as if Japanese is that uncommon a language, even in Europe (I concede that where I live it's one of the more widespread ones, so that's probably my perspective), but even if it were, I'm not sure how one is obligated to disclose their language fluency to strangers on a train! I'm from such a diverse area that have tried not to do this in general, though some of us did use Welsh while in Paris once, to discuss whether we intended to stay at a restaurant or not.

Outside Britain and Argentina, I think Welsh is probably fairly safe.

You might think! But the emigration rate of native Welsh speakers does mean they can turn up anywhere. ;)

Indeed! G and I were staying in London a few years ago and the people sitting next to us at breakfast were conversing in Welsh, probably not realising that we could understand them. I've also heard people speaking Welsh at Manchester airport, so even abroad, you never know who might be listening.

probably not realising that we could understand them.

Did you feel that you ought to tell them?

I didn't at the time. They weren't saying anything about the people around them, just talking about work or similar, as far as I can recall.

Now I'm a much more fluent and confident speaker of Welsh, if I found myself in a similar situation I might say something to see if I could have a quick chat, but I wouldn't feel obliged to let them know I spoke the same language.

In the neighborhood where I live here in Chicago -- or any part of Chicago, probably -- no language is safe to be "secret." Out on the street, I hear things I know come every continent, even if I couldn't name the exact language. That's part of what makes this neighborhood wonderful.

I suppose in the specific situation of being the only 3 people, perhaps Miho felt “safe” in her language and even if she wasn’t speaking about the other man, could have been talking about personal things she wouldn’t have, had she known he could understand her. Her realization she wasn’t in a bubble probably really unnerved her, and the man obviously noticed.

That said, I don’t think he actually was obligated to do so and shouldn’t have felt compelled to apologize to her... if anything, she should have checked with him beforehand if she cared so much! It’s probably much safer to just assume people can understand you than assume they can’t.

English is the worst language to cuss in mostly due to Eddie Murphy. I had a carriage of Yanks in Budapest. They whined for 10 mins, as we got to the station I said in pukka RP tones "Would you mind? Trying to get out of the door". Had a **** boring chap in Firenze/Florence say cheers in Gaelic. "I bet you don't know dat language" he shouted. I replied, questioning his parentage.