Spanish is not a Secret Language

« previous post | next post »

Last September a group of women spent a weekend at Foxwood's Casino to celebrate the 40th birthdays of three of their party. Two casino workers made vulgar comments about them in Spanish, thinking that they would not understand. One did and complained to the casino. One of the casino workers was fired as a result and the women received an apology and free food, drink, and rooms.

What prompted the press accounts of this incident is the fact that the ladies are not satisfied with the compensation that they received and are suing the casino for a total of $3.5 million: it seems to me and evidently a lot of other people that the casino reacted rapidly and appropriately and that the women were reasonably compensated for offensive conduct that nonetheless did little real injury.

What I find so curious about this is the belief of the two offending casino employees that they could speak Spanish without fear of being understood. With 322,000,000 Spanish speakers in the world and 34,000,000 in the United States, the odds of someone at a roulette table in Connecticut understanding the language are not exactly remote, and it doesn't take a linguist to be aware of this. Ironically, the casino is owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, who have used part of their income from the casino for efforts to revive the extinct Pequot language.

Share:



44 Comments »

  1. Ryan Rosso said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 11:52 am

    Does that 34,000,000 count semi-fluent speakers, or just native/conversationally fluent speakers? It seems to me that, while it is not unlikely to find someone quite fluent in Spanish, it is even more likely that someone has a small understanding of the language to at least pick up the insulting nature of the comments. I'm sure anyone that has taken a couple years of high school Spanish could pick up on the insults, whatever they were.

  2. S Onosson said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 12:29 pm

    A friend from Singapore relayed a similar story to me once. She was standing near a black woman at a bus stop and made a rude comment about her in Mandarin (I can't recall what caused her to make the comment in the first place). Then she looked down and realized that the newspaper the woman was holding (and reading) was written in Chinese. Whoops!

  3. Joe said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    I've heard similar stories on gaijinsmash.net where the man who writes that (an American teaching English in Japan) listened to two Japanese women comment on whether he was dangerous, attractive or both in Japanese while sitting right in front of him.

    But the lawsuit seems quite ridiculous. I have a hard time imagining any comments worth a million dollars. They should be playing the lottery directly instead of using the legal system as one.

  4. Aidan Kehoe said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

    Ryan Rosso, if you follow Bill’s link, it says that the 34 million are people who speak Spanish at home, which is a good proxy for conversationally fluent, I would think. I'm sure there are many more with the basics.

  5. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

    They should be playing the lottery directly instead of using the legal system as one

    Well the lawyers aren't exactly protesting the setup. But there is one really obvious way of avoiding this kind of thing and that is for the monolinguals — the majority — to learn to speak the language of the bilinguals — the minority. When Spanish is the official language this problem will go away on its own.

    Do they run the casino in Pequot instead of French? What fun! All those things like rien ne va plus! in Pequot.

  6. Bill Poser said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

    The figure of 34,000,000 for US Spanish-speakers is the number of people who speak Spanish at home, so it under-estimates the number of US residents who might understand comments in Spanish.

    Occasionally people get caught even when using languages less likely to be understood. One of my father's colleagues was an Estonian speaker whose American wife learned some Estonian from him, mostly swear words, which she found it convenient to use since so few Americans understand Estonian. One day she tripped while going up the library steps and used one of her Estonian expressions. To her amazement, the man ahead of her turned around and asked: "Is that my ass you're referring to?".

  7. jk said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

    My mother used to run into this in her later years, when a new surge of Polish immigrants in Chicago came in and some of them apparently assumed no one who spoke English without an accent could also speak Polish.

    But surely you've also noticed that many Americans will make insulting, or at least rude, comments in English when traveling abroad? Considering the ubiquity of English, that's even odder.

  8. Theo Vosse said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

    But there is one really obvious way of avoiding this kind of thing and that is for the monolinguals — the majority — to learn to speak the language of the bilinguals — the minority.
    Well… let me just point out that I live in a country that happens to have amongst its minority languages Turkish, Tamazight, Arab, Sranan Tongo, Papiamento and Frysian, and then Ethnologue informs me of the presence of quite a few more (Wolof or Neo-Aramic anyone?). Which ones do you suggest I learn, just to make sure I understand all insults?
    I would say that the one really obvious way to avoid this kind of problem is to make sure they never, ever learn another language.

  9. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

    S Onosson's and Joe's comments reminded me of this Berlitz commercial:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KQQo2zeps8

    It may not be an urban myth as I think these kinds of situations do happen in real life, and quite often… But there are similarities aren't there…

    This is almost off-topic and links outside, so feel free to delete the comment…

  10. Bill Poser said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

    But surely you've also noticed that many Americans will make insulting, or at least rude, comments in English when traveling abroad? Considering the ubiquity of English, that's even odder.

    I don't think this is a linguistic phenomenon. It's the invisibility of the servants delusion.

  11. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

    Ok, it was a terrible idea, everyone gets jealous of the Spanish-speakers, but what about if we all learn the extinct Pequod language and make that the official language? It is fairer: everyone has to start from scratch, even the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe — although there must be one or two who still know it, anyway that's a detail. But the USA would have its own official language, like France or Iran. I think this is a winner, it's certainly something to suggest the next time someone wants to make boring old English the official language.

  12. john riemann soong said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

    I wonder if it was perhaps a socioeconomic class thing. If the casino workers were making remarks along those lines, perhaps they thought the women would not be of the part of the demographic of people that would understand Spanish.

  13. Paul Wilkins said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

    I think the workers here fell into the trap of stereotyping, same trap we all fall into at some point in time or another.

    Language joke I picked up from some European friends in college:

    What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
    Trilingual, of course.
    What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
    They'd be bilingual.
    What, then, do you call someone who speaks one language?
    That's an American.

    Tal vez. Manchmals.

  14. jeorg said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 4:29 pm

    i know someone who speaks german and made comments to a friend about the anatomy of the waitress. problem is, they were in amish country. he didn't understand why he kept getting horrible looks and scowls from everyone until after he left.

    i also find this goes the other direction. people assume that the migrant population can't speak english or understand just because they are out speaking in spanish. the same thing happens while i am here in france just because i speak english with my husband, people will complain that the "tourists" don't speak french.

    so it makes me wonder, if this is actually a case of being offended by being labeled "foreign" through language (whether it is the dominant language or not). no one likes to be labeled foreign… would it have been less insulting, or not noticed if it had been done in a way where someone was not "excluded"?

  15. Leslie said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

    My English friend was once in a restaurant in Spain with her mother, and they were arguing a bit. A young Dutch couple sat down right next to them and started talking about how horrible it was that the English girl was on holiday with her mother, and then they went on to make some other rude comments. My friend, who had studied in the Netherlands and had had a Dutch boyfriend for several years, bit her tongue for a bit, trying to decide if she should say something. She got her sweet revenge a few minutes later when she heard the couple trying to work out what things meant on the English-language menu they had–as she and her mother were leaving, she tapped one of the them on the shoulder and told them, in Dutch, that there was a Dutch menu available up at the front. I'm sure the looks on their faces were priceless…

  16. agm said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 7:08 pm

    I worked at a convenience store in high school, and several Mexican construction workers with a job nearby had discovered that I spoke Spanish fairly well. They came in with a guy who hadn't been to the store before, and while my back was turned, he said, "Mira la chica bonita!" One of his buddies replied, "Esta es la chica que habla espanol!" and they all laughed at him. (I didn't have a problem with this, just turned around and smiled, and it was fine.) What I thought was interesting is that most US residents could probably get the gist of his comment, but I have a feeling that many who know the meaning of 'chica' and 'bonita' would still tune out anything that didn't sound like English. Also interesting that he didn't realize that the expression was pretty transparent, although I don't think they were US residents since their English was a little iffy.

  17. wally said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

    My wife, who is Turkish, was sitting in a coffee shop by
    the University here in Texas, when two guys came and
    sat at the table next to hers. They started talking in
    Turkish, daring each other to talk to her, etc. After
    quite a long time, she got up to leave, and thanked
    them for the entertainment and compliments. They
    were horribly embarrassed, and ran out of the shop.
    But one of them is now a very close friend of our families.

  18. Doc Rock said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

    A friend and I who were studying Chinese at Middlebury College one summer had a relevant experience involving Chinese Mandarin 42 years ago in Montreal. The details were blogged a couple of years ago on one of my blogs: if you're interested, go to this link: http://tinyurl.com/5befnm

  19. Dave Wilton said,

    July 31, 2008 @ 8:54 pm

    A similar incident happened to a friend of mine working as a teller in a bank on an army post. Two soldiers were making rude comments in Spanish while standing in line. When they got to my friend's window, she told them that their comments were not appreciated and that she would be reporting them to their commanding officer. They looked confused and then she pointed to her name on the placard by the window, which read "Ms. Mendoza."

    She was more offended by their stupidity than by anything they said. The odds that no one standing in a bank line on a US Army post would understand Spanish approaches zero.

  20. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 12:03 am

    My high school French teacher was an older woman, a widow who had escaped from Hungary in 1956 with her family. Her father had been a professor at a university where German was the official language. She knew six or seven languages, and my guess is that her English was the weakest, since she had learned it late in life.

    She enjoyed telling stories, and we did, of course, hear some sobering stories about what life in Hungary was like under the Russians.

    When she was much younger, though, she studied at the Sorbonne. She and at least one friend, perhaps more, went to Paris on the train from Hungary. Her brother was already at the Sorbonne, so she asked him to meet her train and to bring along some of his French friends.

    The girls had a great time meeting the men and chattering about their attributes until they found out that the guys were all Hungarian men who were students at the Sorbonne.

  21. Confused said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 6:01 am

    …the odds of someone at a roulette table in Connecticut understanding the language are not exactly remote…

    I'm with John Riemann Soong on this – you can probably rule out a hefty chunk of that 34,000,000 just by eyeballing your visitors for ethnicity and social status.

    The idea that non-english languages can be used as private codes is kind of memetic (it's been mentioned in a few films, such as Training Day where Washington's character warns his protege to learn spanish to understand if a suspect is plotting something in front of him; and Real women have curves where Ferrera's charater is caught out by just such an assumption).

    I guess there are the social factors, such as negative reactions by the monolingual majority, and a reinforcement of cliques by using a shared language, that it's tempting to think that it's "you're thing".

  22. Kanou said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 7:27 am

    As a foreigner living in Japan, I can't count the number of times I've heard Japanese people talking about me in Japanese, as they almost always assume that someone who doesn't look Japanese cannot speak the language either.

  23. Kyle said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 8:18 am

    I work in a science museum, and a week or so ago I was doing an informal presentation involving the dissection of a sheep's heart and lungs to a group of museum visitors, including one family whom I had noticed speaking Spanish amongst themselves (it turned out they were from Argentina). When I was pointing out the pulmonary artery, I mentioned to the Argentinian kids, I said something like "We call this the pulmonary artery because it goes to the lungs — pulmonary, like pulmones." The 11-year-old-ish girl I was speaking to looked shocked and said, "How you know Spanish?!" And I replied, "Is it a secret language?" So it looks like the belief that other people can't understand your language sets in young!

  24. Rubrick said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

    Vi Language Log ljudi su takve budale.

  25. Lugubert said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 4:45 pm

    In a pizzeria in Frankfurt/M, my then wife and me were discussing in our Swedish what to order. She told me that the staff were commenting on her in Italian, in which she is fluent, but assured me that it was all nice. They should have been more careful, because a substantial trace of Walloon blood makes her looks being mistaken for French or Italian all the time.

  26. Michael Roberts said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

    There was the time I was at Pizza Hut in Frankfurt, and settling up the bill, and two American soldiers were behind me. One of them said to his buddy, "Boy, I really should learn German." I turned around and said, "It's really not that hard." The looks on their faces! Priceless.

    But I've been on the embarrassed end, too. After a few years living in Indiana, my wife and I had fallen into the trap of thinking German was a private language, and weren't always too taciturn when discussing people around us.

    Worked fine until we were in Germany once. I'll spare myself from remembering the details, but it's a bad habit to get into…

  27. Peter said,

    August 1, 2008 @ 10:30 pm

    I wonder if it was perhaps a socioeconomic class thing. If the casino workers were making remarks along those lines, perhaps they thought the women would not be of the part of the demographic of people that would understand Spanish.

    It is unlikely from their appearances that the women would be native Spanish-speakers, but many non-Hispanic people in the United States know some Spanish. It's the most commonly taught language in schools, among other things.

  28. Tarlach said,

    August 2, 2008 @ 4:43 am

    To me the real story here is that it would cost a hard working underpayed person his job for saying something that the woman went out of her way to be offended by. Doesn't that bother anyone else?

  29. Dr. Weevil said,

    August 2, 2008 @ 8:00 am

    A Hungarian immigrant friend was eating at the only Hungarian restaurant in the D.C. area some years back. He was wearing American clothes and speaking English to his American girlfriend, and the waitresses kept making rude remarks about his girlfriend's looks and apparent age. Apparently their English was not good enough to notice that he spoke his English with a strong Hungarian accent. He pretended not to notice, left a 1 cent tip and told them to have a nice day in unaccented idiomatic Hungarian on the way out. (The point of the 1 cent tip is that if he left nothing they could tell themselves maybe he forgot.)

  30. Kutsuwamushi said,

    August 2, 2008 @ 3:24 pm

    Tarlach:

    Making vulgar comments about a customer, especially within earshot, is inexcusable. The customers went too far by suing, but he didn't lose his job over someone "trying to be offended."

    It *was* incredibly offensive.

    And not only is it bad for business, because you can bet customers will warn their friends about it, if the casino didn't take action they would be risking legal repercussions . Forget the customers; tolerating this type of behavior creates a hostile environment for female employees.

    I'm boggled that someone would try to claim his firing is unjustified. Would you also think it was unjustified if he had, unprovoked, insulted a male customer by calling him all sorts of vulgar names?

    I am one of those hard-working, underpaid customer service people, and don't find it hard to refrain from that type of behavior. This employee who was fired made the choice to behave in a way that runs counter to basic human decency *to his customers*.

  31. Rob Gunningham said,

    August 2, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

    I wonder if anyone can tell me how we can go about learning the extinct Mashantucket Pequot language. A couple of us have decided to start learning it with a view to making it the official language of the United States, but I know next to nothing about it. Is there a set of tapes, or a dictionary? Just let me know here. Thank you very much.

  32. dveej said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 1:42 am

    Rubrick, da li ne volis pisati "ste", ne "su"?

    Budalo/a…

  33. Ali said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 11:38 am

    They should be playing the lottery directly instead of using the legal system as one

    Well the lawyers aren't exactly protesting the setup. But there is one really obvious way of avoiding this kind of thing and that is for the monolinguals — the majority — to learn to speak the language of the bilinguals — the minority. When Spanish is the official language this problem will go away on its own.

    Do they run the casino in Pequot instead of French? What fun! All those things like rien ne va plus! in Pequot."

    So, what happens when the casino gets employees who want to insult customers in Arabic (my second language), German, French, or some other language they think the customer can't possibly speak? In the area I live in, more than one hundred languages are spoken by students in local schools. The sensible (and cheaper) course is for ONE language, English, to be spoken for official purposes and for work.

  34. Ali said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 11:41 am

    Some posters have expressed concern that the workers were fired and the casino sued over the matter. Yet, a Hispanic woman in Michigan sued and won over a woman who made a comment she deemed offensive that wasn't even directed at her, but to a companion. When you start getting into regulating language, such as through laws about "hate speech", you open up a can of worms.

  35. Jenny said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

    Considering the insults made about the women, some of them suggesting they should be raped, a free drink and room is not sufficient compensation for what truly was threatening, demeaning and hateful speech.

    The illegal alien lobby considers the rights of American citizens, inconvenient, their constitutional protection to petition their government to seek redress, "hate speech", when citizens protest their being illegally displaced so corporate and business interests can drag down their wages. I encourage all citizens to pursue such litigation against all employers of illegal aliens.

  36. Kate said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 4:57 am

    I'm not very surprised by the large number of stories about people assuming others don't know the language they're speaking. It seems to be some kind of universal human assumption. And after all, haven't most travelers been in a situation where we could *actually* speak freely in a language nobody around could understand? I've always found it to be psychologically fascinating how quickly most people immediately start to gossip or talk about things that are far too private for a restaraunt or train when they're in that situation.

    Jenny, I thought this lawsuit had to do with insulting speech, not with any kind of so-called "illegal alien lobby". What makes you automatically assume that the Spanish-speaking employees were illegal immigrants? Do you also assume that the customers who were insulted are illegal, because they can speak Spanish?

  37. Mark said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

    One should never assume that no one else knows the language you're swearing in. I was in a bar once with a friend of mine and we somehow pissed-off a drunk woman next to us who started swearing at us in Cherokee. You should have seen the look on her face when my friend Tim joined her in a heated conversation, entirely in Cherokee. No matter how obsure you may think your language is, there is ALWAYS the possibility that someone else nearby knows it.

  38. vanya said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

    Do they run the casino in Pequot instead of French? What fun! All those things like rien ne va plus! in Pequot.

    Hilarious. Sorry, Rob, this is just touchingly naive. You really thought they still use French in American casinos? No tuxedos either. It's about as far from Monte Carlo as you can get. Not a hint of class.

  39. vanya said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

    As Bill Poser said: "I don't think this is a linguistic phenomenon. It's the invisibility of the servants delusion."

    You see this people do this in English in front of English speakers as well. It's amazing what people will say in front of taxi drivers, chauffeurs, wait-staff at parties, etc.

  40. Neil Dolinger said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 11:33 pm

    "Vi Language Log ljudi su takve budale"
    "da li ne volis pisati 'ste', ne 'su'?"

    Esperanto, right? Watch out, Google will probably add that to its translation service!

  41. Feynmaniac said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 3:09 am

    I actual can relate to this. I grew up in small Canadian towns where almost no one except us spoke Spanish. My mother one time openly made fun of one of my friends in Spanish right to his face(she was luckier than those casino workers though and he didn't understand). I actually thought it was rude of her to that.

    I grew up kinda thinking of Spanish as our family's secret language. Intellectually I knew far from a secret language it was one of the most spoken languages on the globe. However whenever I travelled and heard others speak it I felt it felt as if they knew a family secret . I guess these guys felt the same way in Connecuit, which is probably as white as rual Canada.

  42. v said,

    August 6, 2008 @ 9:02 pm

    > Ironically, the casino is owned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, who have used part of their income from the casino for efforts to revive the extinct Pequot language.

    Why is that ironic? There are a million different cultures, a million different sensibilities among groups, among peoples at varying levels down the food chain in any environment. All your 'irony' shows is that you're summing up the situation in much too simplistic terms.

  43. John said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 3:14 am

    That's why my target is to learn at least 5 languages including to learn to speak Spanish. Not only to prevent people from scolding me without me knowing, but also to connect with them.

  44. Juan said,

    February 1, 2011 @ 6:06 am

    Not at all. I remember I was in Asia once and was chatting on a train with a friend in Spanish. Well, we did make some funny remarks about certain things we saw – laughing along the way. Guess what, a young Asian man just behind us suddenly talked in Spanish… he was laughing heartily at our misunderstandings about their culture. Good thing we were not saying anything rude. Who would imagine someone talking Spanish in Asia – especially Asians.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment