Sunday, May 9, 2010

how could you not notice?

I'm watching James Clavell's Shogun, which is an excellent book, though I've not yet seen the miniseries. As I remembered, a huge chunk of it is in un-subtitled Japanese, to give the flavor of what Blackthorne is experiencing with not knowing what's going on. Of course, the parts that are in English are dubbed in Spanish. But right now I'm not missing much.

(Reading tip: Blackthorne is based on the Englishman William Adams. Giles Milton's Samurai William is the fun book about him.)

It occurs to me as I watch this that I am constantly shocked that people act as though I speak their language, even when I tell them I don't, or when clearly I don't understand. This happens all the time:

Chris: [carefully enunciated, mid-speed Spanish]
Chilean: [blur of 50 words at high speed] mi hermano. ([something] my brother.)
Chris: Mas lento, por favor? No entiendo. (Slower, please? I don't understand.)
Chilean: HER-MA-NO. Entiendes "hermano"?

Yeah, thanks, the one word you took more than 4 milliseconds to say, the one I learned my third month in Spanish class, the one at the end of the sentence? I understood that one.

I wonder what causes the disconnect. And what do they see when I don't understand? Someone who's just not very bright? It's like they think I need repetition in order to understand them, rather than slower speech or simpler words. I don't get it.


  1. I took a class last year in the theater department called "interactive theater for social change". The class was awesome: we wrote and refined little vignettes about social/workplace issues (e.g. racism, ageism, etc), and at the end of the semester, we'd perform (I say "we", but I wasn't actually one of those folks) the vignettes for the campus community (staff and faculty mostly) and then facilitate discussions on them. Anyway, one of the issues that we wrote about was language discrimination. It can be a pretty big issue in the US. I think it's a subconscious thing, for the most part, but yeah, it often comes out as feeling/acting like the other person is less intelligent or capable.

    Anyway, just thought I'd share.

  2. When we lived in France, my mother was once accosted for directions by an American. He spoke with a raised voice, apparently using the adage that increased volume increases understanding. When she said spoke to him in English and said she was also American, he kept yelling at her.

  3. I heard a similar story from a hearing woman who went to Galludet for her PhD. She couldn't keep up with fluent ASL even though she had training, and constantly asked people to slow down.