English as a Compulsory Language

Knowing another language gives you another soul. You see the world in delightful new ways through the lens of language, which was why I was roaring with laughter in a well known shop in Whangarei a few years ago when I came across some Spanish speaking friends buying jeans. One of the women, with the classic Latin obsession with her derriere came out of the dressing room looking concerned and asked her friend “Does my bum look too small in this?”

Her friends reassured her that her magnificent behind looked sufficiently ample, with all the delicacy of a troupe of cabaret dancers. As I marvelled that I’d never hear the equivalent conversation in English, a furrow-browed harridan stormed over, reprimanding us ‘for being too loud’ and ‘for taking up space.’ She insisted my daughter stand beside my trolley and that it was ‘illegal’ for her to sit quietly on the bottom bar even though we were stationary. To be fair, we were being gregariously loud, but not anymore so than the woman swearing at her son in the next aisle, or the shop attendants blithering on about an unsavoury love affair as they sorted the unwanted clothes. The real crime that we seemed to have committed was unapologetically speaking another language in a public space. I informed her that if she had a problem with us spending our money in the store then perhaps we should go and discuss it with the manager. At which, she huffed off saying she hadn’t realised that we spoke English. As I tried to relocate my bottom jaw, my friend just shrugged and said ‘We get it quite often – it’s normal’.

Is it? I’d always associated the banning of languages with the paranoid - the mainstay of highly conservative or inward looking cultures making a power play. New Zealand, like many countries, once specialised in this. The only time I’ve been banned from speaking English was when arrested and thrown in jail in Cambodia in the early 1990s when Pol Pot and his lunatic band of merry henchmen were still wandering free. Apparently English was the language of the ‘running dogs of the West.’ Our captor also told us (in English!) that we were spies. It was difficult to take a guy in silky pyjama pants seriously even if he was carrying a machine gun, especially when we figured that Rambo was going to be really pissed off when he found out that pyjama-boy had knicked his bandana.

Feeling uncomfortable about being surrounded by another language should be the domain of the insecure or unhinged, not the problem of an equal opportunity employer like a supermarket or a bus company in New Zealand. Insisting on English in the staffroom as the Foodstuffs employer, New World did recently, is so… last century. There are no safety issues in chatting in what you please over a cup of tea. But it’s no wonder that English speakers are so strident about the need to speak English – in general it’s the only thing we can speak. While many kids abroad can take their pick of at least two languages to move through the world, most here have only got the one. Kiwis in general, don’t pick up more than how to order a beer in the language of the country they are living in. Of all the expat kiwis I’ve met working overseas, from bankers to tour bus drivers to Christian missionaries there have been very few who have learnt the language and instead have relied on the linguistic largesse of a talented group of locals who work with them – in English. Young kiwis at the Octoberfest are not famous for their fluency in German or their willingness to converse politely with the locals either.

Surely we should extend some of the tolerance we enjoy abroad to our own backyard.

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