22/09/2016 5:29 AM AEST | Updated 22/09/2016 5:36 AM AEST

Hold Your Tongue If You Don't Like Others Holding Theirs

If someone says something you don't understand, just tune out.

"Last week, my nail technician apologised for speaking Vietnamese to her colleague in front of me."
Getty Images/Flickr RF
"Last week, my nail technician apologised for speaking Vietnamese to her colleague in front of me."

There are a few things I don't understand about human nature; Donald Trump's popularity, bushy hipster beards, and the Kardashian obsession. And I've never understood why it's such a big deal if people speak in their native tongue in front of others.

Last week, my nail technician apologised for speaking Vietnamese to her colleague in front of me. (I'm not reinforcing a stereotype here -- the lady doing my nails and her workmate just happened to be of Vietnamese descent). When I laughed in response, she became very serious and explained an incident from earlier in the day.

She'd had a customer ask her: "What country do you come from?"


"And what country are you in?"


"Here we speak Australian. We speak English. You are being very rude and I won't ever come here if you do it again."

And then she continued in a tight-lipped whine, "I don't like it. Please explain. And get that Halal snack pack away from me." (Not really -- that's just how it went in my head.)

In all seriousness though, the client's rude objection, which I know is made around Australia every day, makes no sense to me. The nail technicians could speak some English, but they are recent immigrants, who are still learning. So naturally, when they need to communicate quickly, they fall into their familiar tongue, where they can better express themselves and be better understood. That is all.

My parents, two GPs who worked in the same practice, often needed to communicate about care quickly -- and so would speak in Hindi to each other. It's easier, it's familiar, and there's less room for misunderstanding.

Admittedly, I can relate to an extent. Everyone in my family is a doctor (très convenient, I know) so there is a lot of doctor speak which I don't really understand. But do you know what I do, rather than complain and make threats? I just tune out momentarily. Why shouldn't my family talk about their work with each other? Contrary to what my sisters would say, I genuinely don't feel the need for every conversation that happens around me to be about me. It's definitely a reflection of peoples' insecurity. Anyone who can actually speak another language apart from English would not be so bothered by it that they would presume to be able to dictate how conversations not involving them should be conducted.

Ultimately, I think we need to ask ourselves; do we want people to feel comfortable by being allowed to speak to others in their native tongues, or do we want them to feel like perpetual strangers until they are fluent in English? Are they supposed to entirely eradicate everything they've known when they enter Australian air space?

If you need a reason other than compassion or logical thinking to get this, then let me put it this way; we need to allow immigrants to feel like they are at home, rather than like they are vilified intruders, otherwise they may retaliate by acting like vilified intruders.

The other thing to consider is that we are speaking a foreign language every time we say "croissant", ask for Stoli at the the bottle shop, order Thai takeaway and Yum Cha, name an item from IKEA, or talk about our Mitsubishi. It's 2016 -- language is more fluent between cultures than ever. You may argue that in these situations we at least know the meaning of the words, but I argue that initially, we didn't. There was a point when we wanted what the word represented, and henceforth didn't think of rejecting it as a foreign word. Trust me, when I tried my first lemon Stoli mixer 20 years ago, I didn't know or care what the name meant or where it came from; I simply enthusiastically adopted it into my vocabulary as the drink of my university days. My point is; open your mind and you may learn something.

The lady doing my nails visibly relaxed when I dismissed her apology for speaking in her native tongue. And then she asked me if I'd like a Cà phê đá -- a Vietnamese iced coffee -- which was so good it has now been adopted into my vocabulary as my favourite dessert drink.