American’s Fear of Hearing Foreign Languages Is Nothing New

When I was reading today morning an article on RawStory This is why right-wingers are so threatened by hearing foreign languages in the Trump era, I honestly have thought to myself “Yes? And what else is new?”.

As some of you might recall from my comments in the past, I was in USA, twice, and I worked at Sun Valley resort in Idaho for the summer season as a laundry worker.

First time I and two of my friends have arrived at New York, with J-1 work and travel visa but without any specific plan as to where to go. We traveled by greyhound first to Atlantic City and after failing to find work and lodgings there one us stayed and two of us have split and traveled to Idaho. Again via greyhound.

In the greyhound we actually did not experience anything overtly unpleasant. Whenever we talked in Czech, the most that has happened was someone asking politely “Where are you guys from?” and after polite answer “From Czech Republic.” the matter was resolved and dropped. Nobody was pestering us (apart from two kids who kicked the back of my seat and their parents did not take them to task, aaargh!).

In retrospect, most of those polite people were Latinos and black. In retrospect the two of us stood out, with our pale skin and me with my blonde hair and blue-grey eyes.

It was only after we started to meet white “patriotic” Americans when we encountered some nastiness, some first hand, some second-hand.

There was a bunch of European workers at the resort for that season, a lot of Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Russians, a few Croats (and a lot of people from France because the catering manager was French and it wa seen as posh to have actual french waiters). Almost all these people were people with university degrees, at least Bachelor or higher. But a lot of us had rather basic English and with heavy accents – after all learning English was for many of us one of the reason for the travel.

Some of the white people, guests as well as workers, took this rather badly and it was not uncommon to meet the attitude “they are so stupid, they cannot even talk English properly”, sometimes covertly, sometimes overtly expressed. AFAIK always by people of lower education and with zero knowledge of the world outside USA. The people saying this were not hostile, but they were nasty.

One evening when we were drinking beer with one of the actually really friendly (and not only pretending to be so) Americans, the discussion steered towards this and he summed it up in a joke.

“How do you call someone who knows three languages?”


“How do you call someone who knows two languages?”


“How do you call someone who knows only one language?”


We all laughed, because it was true and therefore funny. He himself did not know second language, but he tried to learn Spanish and knew therefore that it is not an easy task. I only remember meeting one white American who actually really spoke second language (Spanish) with reasonable fluency.

When the season ended, I and my friend could either go straight home, or use the J-1 visa option and travel for one month to see a bit more of USA. We have decided to use that option and it was during this travel that we encountered actual overtly expressed hostility towards us.

The incident was very short, but it stuck in my mind. It was somewhere in California, and I do not remember whether it was in San Francisco or Santa Monica (probably the latter). We were just walking along the street, casually talking about something inconsequential when a smallish thin black-bearded man passing by shouted at us “You are in America, you should speak English!” with such force and venom in his voice, that we were startled and both paused. He gave us a scathing look and went on. We looked at each other and talked a bit about WTF just happened?

The stories that I am reading now about USA remind me of this incident and make me wonder whether it would turn out differently today. Whether today that man might feel bold enough not only to shout and give scathing looks, but to actually harm us.

Americans hate of foreigners is really nothing new. The “melting pot” was always a myth.


  1. Anton Mates says

    In 1952, President Truman said, “In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.” That appears to still be the case.

  2. says

    Imagine if an American tourist, enjoying the streee-life in Paris, walking down the Champs-élysees, was accosted by an angry Frenchman who told them they should speak French (and not that Canadian stuff!) or go home. Quelle shitfit!

  3. Saad says

    My wife and I were at a car maintenance place and she was speaking to her dad on the phone in Arabic. I looked around in the waiting area and I could see people shifting in their chairs. It was actually quite amusing seeing such a coordinated response. It was almost like they couldn’t help it. Part of me was also wondering how long before a patriotic American starts harassing us.

  4. cartomancer says

    We get a very mild version of it here in England, though it tends to be of the curtain-twitching, tut-tutting, grit the teeth and swear to yourself kind.

    One Christmas my brother was outside (we live in the middle of nowhere, so you can’t get mobile phone reception indoors), talking to his wife in Japanese. Someone called the police.

  5. says

    Most white Americans have a great deal in common with the concept of the Borg -- they are all about assimilation. If you can assimilate to the point you are either a pretend white american, or very servile and apologetic for not being white and speaking perfect English, then you’ll get a grudging okay.

  6. Kreator says

    I’m remember reading a story about an English person who chastised a stranger at a bus for speaking another language in Wales. The language that person was speaking? Welsh.

  7. lumipuna says


    One Christmas my brother was outside (we live in the middle of nowhere, so you can’t get mobile phone reception indoors), talking to his wife in Japanese. Someone called the police.

    Midsomer Yakuza Murders

  8. jrkrideau says

    I find this very weird. We might get something like it in very isolated rural areas in Canada but other than that nobody (Except the occasional drunk in Alberta? Or does the victim need to be wearing a hijab as well?) seems to notice much.

    Walking along a street in the downtown of my small Ontario city I think I heard Arabic, English, Hindi and Mandarin in one block. Admittedly for a small city we are fairly cosmopolitan but in small towns in the area I have never heard of anyone directly confront someone speaking a different language. That does not mean that some of our right wing rednecks are not muttering in the background.

    I just cannot grasp why anyone would care.

  9. jrkrideau says

    @ 2 Marcus
    From some comments by a couple of my francophone friends, you might be better off using English than Canadian French, especially Arcadian French in Paris.

  10. says

    I’ve heard the argument that someone speaking in a funny furrin language might be saying something nasty about ME, therefore they should speak English so I’ll know. Personally, if someone wants to say mean things about me in my hearing (and it’s happened), I prefer they do it in a language I don’t know.

  11. says

    Anne, I heard that a lot in SoCal -- people would get all pissy about anyone speaking Spanish because “they don’t live in Mexico anymore, and I can’t understand what they are talking about!” I used to respond with “if you want to know what they’re saying, learn Spanish.”

  12. avalus says

    Riding the bus to my work at the university today I heard: german (of course), japanese, korean, english from the japanese person, excusing themself to to korean person for speaking to them in japanese, russian, french, spanish and arabic.
    And nobody in the bus cared.

    Anything but this coexistence seems so alien to me and the hate you speak of breaks my heart.

  13. Ice Swimmer says

    An aside (I haven’t got much to add on the main points):

    Charly, how did you communicate with speakers of other Slavic languages on the trip? In English or did you speak your own languages to each other?

  14. says

    @Ice Swimmer, Czechs and Slovaks could speak in their own languages with each other, since those two languages are similar enough to be intelligible, especially for our generations who grew up in former Czechoslovakia with bilingual media.
    With Poles and Russians etc. we spoke English, because these languages are much more different, despite belonging to the same family.

  15. jrkrideau says

    @ 4 cartomancer
    We had a young woman from Brazil staying with us 2 years ago. Often when talking to her friends and relations she tended to shout “loudly”.

    Apparently one night she was in the back garden “talking ” to her sister. The next day my neighbour mentioned that she seemed to have a “bit” to drink an I laughed(She actually did not drink alcohol).

    No thought of calling the police for language use. I suppose if she had been doing this at 02:00 rather than 10:00 PM the police might have been called but not for language just noise.

  16. johnson catman says

    If two people are having a conversation between themselves in the US, and they are speaking a foreign language, why the fuck does anyone else think they have the right to expect them to speak english? Fuck those bigots. It is none of their business.

  17. Chris Whitehouse says

    I was recently fascinated to read about my Grandfather’s ENGLISH family and what they encountered after coming over from ENGLAND in 1881. The locals in Lorain, Ohio, were upset that the English immigrants seemed to be taking over their church and were especially outraged that my Great Grandmother was being put in charge of the church treasury. Because, after all, how would she be able to understand the American decimal money system?

  18. jrkrideau says

    Somewhat OT but what happens if someone flies a non-US flag?

    In Canada this is not all that unusual. Just around the corner from my regular grocery store there is an apartment balcony with the Canadian flag on one side and the Brazilian flag on the other.

    An old friend of mine, originally from Munich always flew the Canadian and Bavarian flags in his front yard. And for some unknown reason there is a Netherlands flag flying in a parking lot across from my favourite bakery in the downtown core.

  19. says

    jrkrideau @ 18, I think that depends on a number of factors. Here in nDakota, the state flag is always flown all over the place, along with others, such as the MIA flag from Vietnam and so forth. I don’t think that sort of thing is unusual, but at least here, you don’t see flags from other countries.

    I expect in the current regime, there would be one hell of a fuss over flying a different flag. Now I’m curious. I’ve never been a flag flyer, but I might have to experiment…

  20. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Here in Chiwaukee, the Mexican flag is displayed by people and cars around Cinco de Mayo.
    I fly a yellow flag on my car when I do ElderCare transports. It’s a signal to my clients when picking them up, and it makes my car easier to find in a strange parking lot full of small black cars. What’s sinister in transporting Senior Citizens to their medical appointments?

  21. jrkrideau says

    @ 19 Caine
    I’ve never been a flag flyer, but I might have to experiment…
    Avoid the Netherlands flag if you do. It is very, very close to the Russian flag which looks like an anemic Dutch flag.

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