Saturday, March 26, 2011

Being an Unexpected Speaker


I was only a declared linguitstics major at the University of Florida for one semester. I moved on to other ideas, finally graduating with a degree in Spanish. But I´ve never lost my interest, especially in sociolinguistics. I have noticed a phenomenon that doesn´t seem to have a name. Maybe if I had at least minored in linguistics I would know if it has ever been studied or not. It is best described with a story:

A few years ago in New Orleans, I drove out to Kenner to speak with the pastor of a Brazilian church. The front door was locked, so I went to the back where I saw a woman in the kitchen. «Está o pastor?» I asked. Is the pastor here?

She looked at me with a startled expression and said «I no speak English.»
«Tá bom, falo português» It´s ok, I speak Portuguese, I said in Portuguese. «Está o pastor?» I asked again.

She looked at me without any comprehension and repeated «I no speak English, only Portuguese.»

Now I was frustrated. Was my Portuguese not good enough? Was my accent that bad? Why didn´t she understand that 1. I was speaking to her in Portuguese and 2. I wanted to know if the pastor was there.

Finally the pastor walked in and greeted me warmly. As we exchanged greetings, the lady looked on in total shock. But, you speak Portuguese! she said.

It is my theory that the reason she didn´t understand my Portuguese was that she didn´t expect me to speak Portuguese. She knew I was American and not Brazilian. She expected me to speak English to her and she preemptively told me she wasn´t going to understand what I was saying. She was so worried about me speaking English to her she did not hear or understand my Portuguese until someone else entered the room and shook things up.

Another time this happened was in Suriname, and it was ever stranger. Suriname is a Dutch speaking country. There aren´t a lot of Dutch living there anymore, but there are a few and while I was there many people thought I was Dutch until I told them I wasn´t and couldn´t speak Dutch at all.

My coworker was Brazilian and we spoke with each other in Portuguese. One day her eight year old daughter came to visit the clinic. When my coworker introduced us, I spoke to her in Portuguese but she responded in Dutch. She was bilingual, but really she only spoke Portuguese with her mother. She spoke Dutch at school and with her father´s side of the family. I told her, in Portuguese, that I didn´t speak Dutch and that she could speak to me in Portuguese, but she didn´t believe me.

She asked me several times, in Dutch, if I wasn´t Dutch. I told her several times, in Portuguese that I was not Dutch, couldn´t speak Dutch and that she could speak to me in Portuguese or English, if she knew any. She turned to her mother, who confirmed that I did not speak Dutch.

Again, my theory is that the little girl couldn´t understand me for the first five minutes, because she so deeply expected me to speak Dutch, because of my appearance. She seemed reluctant to speak to me in Portuguese because she did not really believe that I would understand her. Once she got over this initial misunderstanding, we got along just fine.

Does anyone know if there is a name for this? When someone cannot understand you, not because you don´t speak their language, but because they don´t expect to you to speak their language. Has this ever happened to anyone in English?

1 comment:

Heather Leila said...

And it has already happened to me again, here in Angola! At the Shoprite I asked an employee if they had coconut milk (in Portuguese). He looked at me and said I don´t speak English (in English). I shook my head and said, I didn´t speak to you in English (in Portuguese). Then he understood and smiled and began to listen. I think he meets so many foreigners, every day, that do not speak Portuguese that when he saw me approach, he had already made up his mind that he wasn´t going to understand - so he didn´t even listen!