The world has become a much more open and multicultural place over the last little while. More people than ever are traveling the world, learning new languages, and communicating with each other in ways that are constantly adapting and changing.
When two linguistic cultures exist in the same place, sometimes there can be friction if one group cannot understand what the other is saying. Some people ask: Is it rude to speak another language in front of others? After all, you could be insulting somebody, or planning some kind of heinous act!
That being said, the world and the people inside of it are constantly in motion. New language learners have an especially particular enthusiasm for speaking their new language, which can be grating to others around them. In other contexts, it can simply be taken as a slight with no way of knowing what the other person has said about you.
Obviously it’s important to always be conscious and considerate of those around you, but the question still remains to be answered: Is it actually rude to speak another language in front of others?
How Language Makes Us Feel
Language is the backbone of our ties to each other. Without language, we would not be able to communicate with the efficacy that our society now demands of us. The subtleties that go into this intricate system of communication are immense, and ever-changing. Words that have one meaning today may have another meaning the next.
This phenomenon is driven largely by the interaction between different languages, where cultures interact with each other. As the two cultures mingle, they begin to understand some of the words that the other uses, and incorporate them into their own tongue.
One good example of this is how people will develop accents from a certain region if they vacation or stay there for a long enough period of time. Particularly susceptible individuals will even develop full-on accents. When the individual returns to their native land, it sometimes comes as a shock to their friends and family that they speak differently.
Language, and the different sounds and meanings that go into it, constitutes a large part of how we interact with each other and the world around us. As soon as any little thing is out of place, we notice immediately, and sometimes it bothers us. This is where the question of rudeness with second languages comes from.
We’ve probably all experienced an encounter with people speaking another language in the same room, and sometimes some of us are going to feel put off by that because it’s not something we’re familiar with. We know that they are saying things to each other, but we cannot understand what those things are, and that can be scary, even if it’s just on a small subconscious level.
Cultural exposure is becoming a more and more common thing in today’s world, as we’ve already stated. While it can sometimes be unpleasant, it’s an important part of the development of language and culture for different peoples to interact with each other. There are deep ties between the languages of the world that go back thousands of years and give us truly inspiring insights into how different cultures have influenced each other throughout human history.
The Japanese word for “bread” comes from the Portuguese. The English word “robot” comes from the Czech word for “forced labor”. Little interesting tidbits like this are scattered throughout every language in history. Many dialectical variants of languages across the globe are deeply affected by surrounding languages and intermingling cultures, (as is the case with Quebecois French or Mexican Spanish).
As we can see, there is actually a lot of value in being able to share the presence of foreign languages in our day to day lives, even if the people around you cannot understand them. Being able to communicate freely in any language you want is an important part of human communication as we know it.
The Lingua Franca
One hugely influential example of intermingling language is the emergence of lingua franca. These are languages that develop out of the common interactions of closely interacting groups of people. Lingua francas have been used throughout history, mostly for trade and diplomacy between two cultures with languages that constantly clash with each other.
A closely related phenomenon is known as pidgin. Pidgins are languages that are literally made up of grammatical and vocabulary components from two languages that interact closely with each other. While Pidgins are not considered to be truly independent languages within themselves, they exhibit many of the qualities of a traditional language, and can be a very interesting subject of study and debate. Good examples of Pidgin would be Jamaican Patois or Cajun Creole.
The term lingua franca actually comes from a specific language that developed from this kind of interaction. The Mediterranean Lingua Franca, or Sabir was a pidgin language that became popular in the Mediterranean Basin from the 11th all the way to the 19th century. The name literally means “Language of the Franks”, referring to the area of the western Mediterranean, where the shores of France are located. Interestingly enough, the language itself developed in the eastern Mediterranean, but the term “Frankish”, at the time, popularly referred to any western European culture within the Mediterranean.
This lingua franca allowed for cultures across the developed world to trade and do diplomacy with each other in a common tongue, which could not have developed without people speaking foreign languages in front of one another. There is an example of this language that survives today as a poem, in part of Moliere’s comedic play: Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The would-be noble).
“Se ti sabir
Se non sabir,
Mi star Mufti:
Ti qui star ti?
In English, the poem reads:
“If you know
If you do not know
Be silent, be silent
I am Mufti
Who are you ?
You do not hear,
Be silent, be silent”
Comedic context aside, this poem demonstrates a lot about how languages interacting with each other can form new ways of communication. Students of French will have noticed particular similarities in some of the words in the poem. Students of Latin, Portuguese, Catalan, Spanish, and many other languages should notice similarities as well. There are also obvious influences from Berber (North African), Turkish, Greek, and Arabic, although these may not stand out in the poem quoted above.
The point is that there is value in speaking foreign languages in front of others. In fact, one could argue that the development of language has been based significantly upon interactions of this type, in which case the importance of open multilingualism cannot be understated.
That Being Said…
One of the most important features of language is the ability to feel comfortable and understood among one another. The ability to differentiate people that are different from us stems from an evolutionary drive to preserve that which is familiar. Although this emotional reality may get in the way of many important cultural milestones, the legitimacy of its origins are undeniable.
Long story sort, it’s important to consider the emotional and cultural impact of our actions. For people that are fluent in multiple languages, sometimes it’s important to show solidarity by speaking in the common tongue. Although privacy and cultural heritage are important, cultural interaction can only happen through sharing.
There is also something to be said of cultural identity. In certain places, native languages can be completely overtaken by popular languages that are spoken in the region. In modern times, more often than not, English ends up as the lingua franca between cultures, which has a tendency to undermine local influence.
Just as language must interact to survive, certain aspects of language must also remain insular in order to survive.
So, Is It Rude To Speak Another Language In Front Of Others?
The topic is obviously very complex, and it can be difficult to decode an issue that is so dependent on different cultures and languages getting along with each other. For every example of good influence throughout history, we can easily draw up a negative example of overt cultural influence.
However, the spirit of human language necessarily subsists on interaction between cultures and languages. This fact is inescapable. The least we can do, as human beings, is to try our best to learn each others’ languages, and be open minded about the interactions we have with each other on a day-to-day basis.
The next time you worry about speaking another language in front of people that don’t understand it, simply take a moment to appreciate the cultural importance, and to consider the impact of your language. Communication is key. As long as we are steadfast in our resolve to understand and treat each other with respect, no prejudice of language or culture can possibly tear us apart.
In fact, they may just draw us together.