Why am I seeing variants of this same story everywhere?

You know the one…the one where a white American thinks you’re only allowed to speak English.

Xiara Mercado walked into a Starbucks in Hawaii dressed in her Air Force uniform, ordered her drink, and was casually talking on the phone to someone in Spanish. As she left, a woman tapped her on the shoulder — not to thank her for her service, but to scold her for speaking a language other than English.

“You shouldn’t be speaking Spanish, that’s not what that uniform represents,” the woman said, telling Mercado that her choice to speak Spanish in public was “distasteful.”

Where is this coming from? I’m an out of touch ivory tower guy from a culture where we think it’s fabulous when people are fluent in multiple languages. This resentment against people with different backgrounds feels wrong, like there’s a side of America that doesn’t want to believe that they are not the definition of reality.

It’s also weird to see this kind of demand in Hawai’i, which has an indigenous population as well as a substantial Asian population in addition to us colonizers. Isn’t it wrong to be speaking English, or Japanese, or Spanish there with this kind of attitude?


  1. says

    Yeah it’s definitely weird. It’s an accomplishment to be multilingual. Estoy orgulloso de poder hablar español. There are actually people who oppose teaching languages in public schools. Basically they feel threatened by people who have an ability they don’t, I think is what this is about.

  2. says

    What’s that white lady gonna think when she finds out that the military will pay for your schooling to learn a language other than English? That they specifically employ language experts whose job requires them to constantly practice their Spanish and Urdu and, gasp!, Arabic? That they actually want their service members to talk to native speakers of those other languages and read books written in those other languages, even fancy academic books in those languages, even, gaspagain!, literature and holy books written in other languages so that they can learn and understand the contextual use of figures of speech and literary allusions?

    Who knows, maybe that coffee was paid for out of money taken from that white lady in taxes and given to Mercado in supplemental pay and/or tuition reimbursement specifically because of her language skills and classes?

    Clearly the world is terrible, and we must fire all the people who work in the military or the national security establishment who speak a language other than English, or might. Or maybe did a little in 8th grade Spanish class, before forgetting just about all of it.

    That’s obviously the best plan. No need to actually understand what’s going on in the world. How could that help RealAmericans™?

  3. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    Xenophobia and anti-intellectualism, two great tastes that taste like fascism.

  4. cartomancer says

    To be fair, that uniform does kind of represent imperialistic oppression and contempt for other cultures. She’s not entirely wrong there.

  5. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    excuse me, she objected to the language she was using not being consistent with the uniform. A variation of the weird mindset we’re noting. To think the enlisted can only speak English while in uniform is really bizarre way of “respecting” the uniform [scare quotes were deliberate].
    orrrr, I bet I’m falling for it. She really hates the people who don’t speak English and fabricated the explanation about the uniform.

    ALSO: To me, I find people in uniform speaking foreign language is a higher sign of respect than common English speakers. As it shows people dedicated to being part of this country the one they’ve adopted themselves.

    I simply can never understand why someone would object to a third person speaking their own language on the phone to a 4th person, or to one in a separate conversation. I don;t understand why people feel justified in butting into people like this.

    re #1:
    I agree, I think there is a hint of paranoia, that peole hear somene talking in a language they don;t understand , and think they may be talking about them in a secret code. “Speak in a language I understand so I can eavesdrop what you’re saying about me”

  6. kome says

    It’s selfish, is what it is. Speaking only one language and demanding other people only speak that same language around you is an entirely selfish expectation. It is about trying to control other people’s behavior to suit your needs, wants, and limitations in a way that diminishes their humanity.

    But even then, “selfish” is not entirely fair, because it’s far worse than just being selfish. It’s a specific kind of racist selfishness, a desire to not be reminded that other racial or ethnic categories of people exist. You don’t hear stories of people telling others to not speak French, after all. It’s always Spanish, an Asian language, or a Middle Eastern language. There are a lot of French-speaking people in the US, and an awful lot of people who claim “if you’re here you should speak English” and yet, there’s a relative absence of stories of people speaking French who are being harassed about speaking French in public.

    It’s not, and it really hasn’t ever been, specifically about the language. It’s about what the specific language represents, and an awful lot of white people are uncomfortable as hell with the fact that non-white people exist.

  7. jrkrideau says

    Very weird. I live in a small city in Canada. If I walk down the main street I expect to hear at least 10 or more languages.

    And if the military speak another language than English or French? So?

    Who knows what he or she speaks at home?

    As a friend of mine explained, his daughter did not understand me as she was only four and still only spoke Arabic.

    Sounded reasonable to me.

  8. siwuloki says

    The proper response to such a challenge is, “This is America, where we are free to speak any damn language we please.”

  9. robro says

    Those damn Native American “code talkers” speaking their various languages to transmit critical military information between units during WW I and WW II. What a disgrace to their uniform! They should have been required to speak only English.

  10. EigenSprocketUK says

    My favourite ironic example is the niqab-wearing person and daughter who were told by another bus passenger they should be talking to each other in English rather than a foreign language. Another person pointed out that the language was Welsh … and they were in Wales.
    The same could apply to much of North America too, I suppose.

  11. stroppy says

    When I was much younger I would occasionally run into people who thought foreign languages were just gibberish sounds made by monkey-people. I suppose there are still some of those out there.

    Politics of Fear (includes a lovely shutterstock photo of a spider).
    “When demagogues manage to get hold of our fear circuitry, we often regress to illogical, tribal and aggressive human animals, becoming weapons ourselves – weapons that politicians use for their own agenda.”

    “Real power is – I don’t even want to use the word – fear.”
    Donald Trump

  12. says


    I love that story. That’s excellent.

    Not the same, but it reminds me of a straight woman who went out on her birthday to a famous gay bar in Portland. Not long after arriving, she started asking loudly, in an annoyed and entitled tone, why none of the men were buying her any drinks when they were buying each other drinks and it was her birthday!

    Would that woman be a tosser, would you say? Or is that a gendered insult? I’m not up on my UK slang.

  13. blf says

    Very weird. I live in a small city in Canada. If I walk down the main street I expect to hear at least 10 or more languages.

    Broadly similar here. At this time of year, beside French (the local language), in no particular order, German, English, Spanish, Italian, and Arabic are all quite normal and unremarkable — from the local residents. (There’s also a few Hindu and oter language speakers.) The tourists / visitors add numerous other languages.

    (Then there’s the uniforned Foreign Legion…)

  14. blf says

    My own Welsh(? probably) story (which I’ve told before, sorry for the repeat): First(?) time in Wales. Rural pub for lunch. Two men at the bar. I could not understand, at all, what one of the gentleman was saying. Eventually, I asked (paraphrasing from memory), “Excuse me Sir, but I cannot understand you. I only know English.” (Probably awkwardly put, but at the time I was not as sensitive to linguistic issues as I am know.) The other gentleman mumbled sometime, which it took me awhile to decode (very heavy accent!), but which I eventually decided was essentially “He is speaking Welsh” — albeit, to this day, I’m not completely certain that was the difficulty.

    Quite friendly, but I had one helluva time understanding them… and, I suspect now in retrospect, didn’t handle the situation in the best possible manner.

  15. Ridana says

    You don’t hear stories of people telling others to not speak French, after all.

    Unless they’re in France. :)

  16. says

    I speak six languages, and everybody always comments on how amazing it must be to be able to communicate in so many languages (it really is amazing, I certainly enjoy being a polyglot). I have gotten only compliments; nobody has ever criticized me for not using {whatever} language in {whatever} situation. No native speaker has ever criticized me for butchering their language due to making grammar mistakes or having an accent. That being said, I live in Europe, and I have never traveled to any English speaking country.

    I suspect that this is a difference in attitude. People who speak languages other than English do not expect the rest of the world to know their native language. If I speak German language with somebody who lives in Germany, this person won’t take me knowing German for granted, instead they will feel happily surprised that somebody from another country has been interested in learning German language. Thus, instead of getting criticism for not knowing German perfectly, I will get compliments for knowing German so well.

    Besides, putting aside entitlement for a moment, pestering people who speak foreign languages in some public place is plain stupid—tourists should be welcomed everywhere, because they bring in money.

  17. lucifersbike says

    @Eigensprocket; I’ve heard about the Welsh Muslim lady, too. Unfortunately English half-wits have been complaining about Welsh people speaking Welsh in their own country since time immemorial; but the same people also seem to have trouble with long words, and any accent used by people who breath through their noses instead of their mouths.
    @Andreas Avestar. Chapeau! I speak a mere three languages; but I do use all three every day. In public.
    In the UK there has been an increase in the number of utter fuckwits who complain about people speaking to their children or their friends in languages other than English, or actually assault them. In the vast majority of cases, the victims of these obnoxious pricks are visibly Muslim, or obviously female, or elderly. Even though I go around speaking Foreign (German or Italian) to foreign people (clients, friends, family) in public in England, nobody has ever said anything to me about having to speak English in England. Funnily enough, I’m 6’1″ and weigh about 200lbs.

  18. leerudolph says

    jkrideau:”If I walk down the main street I expect to hear at least 10 or more languages.”

    I guess I could expect that in various places, but I honestly don’t think I could reliably identify “10 or more languages” just by hearing them.

    I’m between 1/3 and 2/3 as polyglot as Andreas Avester (in that I am a native speaker of American English and am somewhat fluent in French, and have studied/been exposed to enough Spanish and Italian that I have sometimes haltingly communicated in both), but without non-auditory c[l]ues (like being actually in Germany; or being in Boston, in a restaurant serving the cuisine of Nation X with staff who sufficiently appear to be, or be from, or to be descended from speakers of a national language of Nation X—thus, among my recent experiences, in a Vietnamese restaurant, a Nepali restaurant, a pizza parlor whose owners I know to be Greek, and a Mexican restaurant whose owners I know to be Yucatecan, who look like they might be Mayan, and who speak among themselves something that I can’t recognize as Spanish) I would hesitate to identify any other languages I might hear.

    With such clues, I could maybe make it to ten, but I wouldn’t stand by my guesses very strongly. For instance, in an Indian restaurant, or a Chinese restaurant, I’d be completely at sea as to which of many languages (if not English or French or Spanish…) the staff might be talking in, no matter what their visible appearances; on the street or in the subway, all the more so.

  19. stroppy says

    I see it this way, it’s not just about othering, it’s about conformity.

    I once attended one of those holy roller meetings with the people thrashing around on the floor and speaking in tongues. Man, the waves of hostility that were beamed at me when I refused to say that I was saved! The pressurized heat was palpable. Fortunately I could just walk out of there.

    I can’t help thinking about badges of shame and just how extreme the evil can get when it goes unchecked
    Something to keep in mind the next time you’re watching the throngs of chanting cowards at one of Trump’s tax-payer funded Nuremberg rallies.

  20. johnson catman says

    Seeing as the woman in uniform was not speaking to the bigot in the first place, the bigot has no say in whatever language the woman was using. IOW, the bigot should fuck right off.

  21. says

    Sometimes language skills come with other dubious bonuses, like being the designated babysitter for non-English-speaking violent dictators who’ve fled after a coup but before one’s own government has decided what to do about it. And being a handy commissioned officer on a military installation means it doesn’t create a diplomatic incident for a few days. I wonder how “Only speakee English in uniform” would have gone over for that?

    @LucifersBike: Funnily enough, as a relatively unathletic-looking 5’8″ man (I’ve aged away from athleticism!) I’ve never had anyone gripe at me about speaking various languages. But then, I’m one of those Air Force people who had Air Force sponsored language training (@CripDyke) in addition to other language training, and I still have that “I’m the CO, what’s all this then?” body language that keeps me relatively safe in all sorts of unsavoury circumstances… like being a white guy walking on the street and up to a residence door south of Hyde Park…

  22. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    thanl you tolerating this tangent:
    Didn’t Monty Python have a skit where some American tourists were complaining about all the people in Britain speaking British and not English?
    Along the lines of:
    An interviewer asks the disgruntled American tourist, “You mean, you think everyone in England should be speaking English?”

  23. unclefrogy says

    I was in the supper market a few weeks ago in the produce section when i was startled to hear a man in uniform speaking what sounded like french to a women he was with. I was kind of surprised when I saw it was a U.S. army uniform I was too shy to make a comment I just smiled and said excuse me when I reached around to get some chilies. Alas I am not gifted in learning foreign languages, and find myself with foreign speakers often but it is not them who has a problem. I felt some how happy to have sen them in the store that day gave me hope that maybe ………….
    uncle frogy

  24. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @25
    Thank you for tolerating this tangent

  25. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Like people angry about people speaking Spanish in a Mexican restaurant in Texas. SMH

  26. blf says

    people angry about people speaking Spanish in a Mexican restaurant

    Makes sense. Mexico is in Latin American. So they should be speaking Latin, the same language as the State’s traditional motto (E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one”). </snark>

    (The official motto adds In god we trust.)

  27. Rich Woods says

    @Crip Dyke #14:

    Would that woman be a tosser, would you say?

    Definitely. She was obnoxious and inconsiderate; that or being a loudmouth or a show-off would fit. It’s a synonym for wanker (though wanker is slightly ruder) but you can decide for yourself whether it would be considered gendered. The origin of toss is probably from male masturbation but I’ve never thought of the insult tosser to be applicable to men only; someone of a different generation than mine or from a different part of the UK might have a different opinion.

  28. thirdmill301 says

    This is not a new problem. Back in the 1930s, the Texas legislature passed a bill making Texas schools bilingual, English and Spanish. The governor vetoed it. Her rationale was that when she opened her King James version of the Bible, she saw Jesus and the disciples having conversations in English, and if English was good enough for Jesus and the disciples, then it’s good enough for Texas schoolchildren. That someone that stupid can be elected governor does not inspire confidence.

  29. whheydt says

    Re: stroppy @ #22…
    My wife–BA in Linguistics, UC Berkeley–once had a chance to watch a group “speaking in tongues.” Her take away was that it was random phonemes from English and nothing more.

  30. whheydt says

    A fact and some anecdotes…

    New Mexico has (or had…I haven’t lived there since the mid-1950s) two official state languages: English and Spanish.

    Prior to WW2, the Navy arranged to send promising young officers (fresh out of Annapolis) to Japan as Naval Attaches. Part of their orders was “learn the language.” Several of them later wound up in the code breaking group working on Japanese codes. (There Japanese figured that, even if their codes got broken, nobody would be able to read the Japanese plaintext. They were wrong.)

    When my mother was a child, her parents only spoke their native language–Danish–at home because the didn’t want their kids to learn poor English. When I knew them, a great many years later, their English was pretty good. Accented, but good.

  31. blf says

    [The Texas governer’s] rationale was that when she opened her King James version of the Bible, she saw Jesus and the disciples having conversations in English, and if English was good enough for Jesus and the disciples, then it’s good enough for Texas schoolchildren.

    That story seems to be apocryphal, Ma Ferguson, the apocryphal know-nothing (Language Log), and Miriam A. Ferguson (Wikiquotes).

    Quick searches have been unable to verify or refute Ms Ferguson ever vetoed a bilingual education bill.

  32. whheydt says

    Ha.. Just remembered the third anecdote I had in mind…

    A friend of ours was a Lieutenant in the MPs. She was sent for a tour in Somalia. The language tapes for her unit weren’t ready when they were about to be shipped out, so she was asked what she wanted on the first tape (which would be ready). She told them the first thing that should be on the tape was, “Put down your weapon.” She described Somali as sounding like Klingon.

  33. jrkrideau says

    @ 15 blf

    For some reason we do not hear much Spanish, I live in an “English Speaking” military town but we tend to hear a lot of Cantonese and Mandarin. I do not speak the languages but, “usually” can tell them apart.

    My old boss, whose {first ?) language was Cantonese was helpful.

    I still laugh at the response I got from him (I was a cook at the time). A very nice person from Disney Corp. asked for “Chinese Sriracha Sauce. This was a long time ago and we had never heard of it.

    I still laugh at the response I got from him (I was a cook at the time). It was a long time ago and we had never heard of it.
    He said “It does not exist in the four Chinese languages I speak”

  34. blf says

    [WW II] Japanese figured that, even if their codes got broken, nobody would be able to read the Japanese plaintext. They were wrong.

    Going entirely from memory of David Kahn’s The Codebreakers (original edition), the Japanese forces of the time were amazingly careless with their cryptography. For instance, once William Friedman broke Purple (broadly, the equivalent of the European nazi’s Enigma) — he suffered a temporary mental breakdown from the stress of the effort — the States cryptographers had a relatively easy job (in contrast to Turing et al.) because, as I recall, they never changed the rotor or plugboard settings! From memory, there were mostly two problems: Working out what locations the various codewords meant, and breaking the monthly supercipher which encrypted the Purple-encrypted messages. (From memory, the supercipher was a “simple” translation cipher, so the cryptologists usually broke it in a day or three.)

    The States forces didn’t always use the gathered intelligence sensibly — the very famous example was not acting quickly on the warning of the forthcoming Pearl Harbor attack. (From memory, and as shown in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, the warning was sent to Pearl Harbor at ordinary cable priority (delaying it for many hours), and didn’t reach the base until the attack was in progress.) The cryptographers called both the location (despite having to guess at the codeword) and probable date correctly, and in adequate time, but then the rest of the system fecked it up.

  35. davidc1 says

    @14 “Would that woman be a tosser, ” Jo Brand ,an English comedian has suggested the term “Gusset Typist ” as the female version .

  36. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @40:

    Like the recent story of a Native American being told to go back to the country, he came from?

    re faux bilingual Texas:
    when I was in elementary, in Florida, in the early ’60’s, there was quite an official effort to teach us Spanish along with all the other elementary classes. Might have something to do with our proximity, slightly north, of Miami, which was strongly Cuban refugees.
    I only lasted there through 3rd grade before being hauled up to Long Island. I retain very little of the Spanish, only the numbers from one to twenty.

    In High School I avoided the very popular Spanish classes, and took French, to be different,

    College summer working in Hamburg, Germany. I was astounded the German techs I worked with all spoke fluent English, all with British accents. Of course, we realized when they told us, their English (ESL) teachers were all from Britain and they used them to model their pronunciation of this second language, Nowhere did we see any Germans speaking English with the strereotypical German accent, most had British accents

  37. Akira MacKenzie says

    It’s racist paranoia, pure and simple.

    The darker heard woman is speaking some language I don’t understand. What is she saying? Is she plotting against our country? Is she one of those Mexican illegals who brought the Muslim prayer rugs? If she we’re a patriotic Merican, she talk Merican like the rest of us!

  38. unclefrogy says

    It’s racist paranoia, pure and simple.

    magnified and cultivated by cultural isolation both deliberate self imposed and/or de-facto enforced by forces out of the individuals awareness or control leading to the unconscious belief that they are the only people who are real or that count as important.
    the function of paranoia is to make oneself or see oneself as supremely important or else why would “they” be out to get me!
    uncle frogy

  39. PaulBC says

    I don’t have anything cogent to add except a sudden flashback to college in the mid-1980s. I was at a large state university with many international students, including from China (how common was that back then? at least one was Taiwanese). An acquaintance of mine started railing against Chinese students talking to each other in Chinese except when they needed a term from computer science like “heap” or “binary search.” It wasn’t just that he found it amusing. He was upset about it. I was too young and foolish to call him out on it, but I like to think there was at least something in my head going “So what?” There does seem to be a tendency among certain people to take it as a personal affront if you use another language in their presence–and I guess it takes to a whole other level of insecurity when you start telling them what the “uniform” stands for. I’m with cartomancer@4 if you’re really going to go there, but mostly it’s “Mind your own freaking business.”

  40. says

    Unfortunately, this problem is a century old. See Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923) (invalidating 1919 Nebraska law prohibiting the teaching of German in public schools).

    Sprech nur englisch, bitte!

  41. blf says

    Nowhere did we see any Germans speaking English with the strereotypical German accent, most had British accents.

    There was a young lady in the village (she’s moved away now) who, despite being very obviously French (and she self-identified as such), spoke flawless English — with an obvious (and again also self-identified) rather strong “Brummie” accent. Reason is she had spent a lot of time in Birmingham (England) when she was improving(? learning?) her English. I — and according to her, others as well — found it rather amusing to hear this obviously French lady speaking “Brummie”-accented English.

  42. lucifersbike says

    @35 whheydt. I speak neither Klingon nor Somali, but I have to say my Somali next-door neighbours do not sound like Star Trek extras unless mum is telling the kids off :). Mind you, they tell me they like to hear me speaking Italian because it’s so musical, but I’m usually interpreting for tech support on a softphone in my backroom when they do.
    @42 slithey tove and @48 blf. German (and most other European) schools usually teach British English; the UK is much nearer than the USA, Low German and Frisian are phonetically very similar to British English; and until 1913 and post-1945 both countries had close cultural, economic, and political ties. I started to learn German in Bavaria more than forty years a go, and even in the home of broadest Bavarian I could pick out individual words and expressions that were oddly familiar to a Londoner like me within weeks of arriving without a word of the language. To this day I am grateful that I escaped “learning” German at school.

  43. jrkrideau says

    @18 Andreas Avester

    nobody has ever criticized me for not using {whatever} language in {whatever} situation

    Hey come to Canada. Nobody will even notice. As long as you vaguely speak French or English no-one cares. If not, we can probably find someone to translate.

    I was a witness to a traffic accident once in Ottawa, where the other witnesses only spoke Cantonese. Took the officer a bit of time to work things out but she did a good job.

  44. jrkrideau says

    Note, officer seemed big, blonde,and very Caucasian as were most police in that day.

    Despite hearing some nasty stories about the police, I am very happy with them.

    They show up when one needs them, and are incredible polite. Nice people on the whole.

  45. whheydt says

    Re: blf @ #38…
    On the flip side of that… When the codebreakers got a lot of traffic about an upcoming attack just giving a set of map coordinates and they suspected it was Midway, they had the people there send a message about a water plant breakdown in a code they were sure the Japanese had broken. Practically the next thing out was “target at [coordinates] is having water shortage.” That clinched it and Midway got the support it needed.

    FYI… I have a sort of connection to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In late 1941, my father was the engineering officer on an Esso tanker. He applied to the Maritime Service and was accepted for officer training. He left his last tanker on Dec. 6,1941. (He eventually left the Maritime Service in 1954 as a Lt. Commander.)

  46. says

    And then those people will go abroad and expect not only that everybody speak English, but also know American customs.
    I was once having coffe at an Autobahn reststop (funny enough on my way back from meeting our esteemed host for lunch) when an American walked up to the counter and told the lady “two twenty”. She looked at him, not understanding a word. He proceeded to repeat his demand, just getting louder. I finally intervened and explained that you first pump gas and then come back to pay…

  47. yaque says

    Heck, at my desk I can hear Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and Spanish.
    Oh, and a little English.

  48. blf says

    whheydt@53, Yes, that is a famous example of working out what one of the location codewords was. The trick here was normal communications with Midway were by undersea cable, so the (false) message was deliberately sent by radio to allow the Japanese to intercept it (and, as you say, deliberately sent using a known-to-be-compromised cipher).

  49. wzrd1 says

    @53, as I recall, it was a bit worse than that. The Japanese sent the message you mentioned in a cipher we already had broken and in the newest, unbroken cipher.
    Which, obviously allowed the new cipher to be broken.

    As for the service member and her response to an ignorant civilian, she should receive an appropriate personnel action, in the form of advancement to the next pay grade, along with the appropriate training required at that grade of rank, along with the usual developmental programs toward her acquiring her next rank.

  50. A. Noyd says

    stroppy (#22)

    I see it this way, it’s not just about othering, it’s about conformity.

    Yes, this. Enforced conformity—which is somehow the very essence of “freedom” to the people demanding it.

    I live in Japan and encounter many Japanese people who generalize their own society as demanding conformity while lionizing American society for its supposed unfettered individualism. So I end up explaining that however much we might talk about individual liberty, America has always had a strong tradition of enforced conformity. Both societies can be toxically oppressive toward individual expression.

    In fact, Japan has traditions of situational conformity which can actually foster individualism. That is, there are times when people should put aside their differences to work together for a common purpose and times when they should pursue their personal likes and interests. This means folks are way more inclined to stay out of other people’s business, such as the language of a stranger’s phone call.