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Linguistic Assumptions and Expectations

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on January 21, 2008 1 Comment

As I sit in a café at the Helsinki-Vantaa airport in Finland, I marvel at the linguistic miracle that is the modern day airport. I am thousands of miles from home, having left another linguistic wonder (Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, India) hours ago, yet a young Indian man just walked up to me, and asked in Hindi, “Wireless kaam kar raha hai, kya?” (“Is the wireless working?”). To my left, a young man is speaking tenderly on a cell phone to his wife in Bengali, and I turn away in mild embarrassment since he is speaking blissfully unaware that there is an overhearer who can actually understand the language. Minutes later, an elderly German lady asked me if bringing in outside food into the café was “verboten,” and I mumbled, “Nein” (I had just read the sign which said one could). It was interesting, because I hesitated a few seconds before answering, the “Nein” stuck in my throat momentarily, wondering first what would make her think that I spoke German. 

Helsinki-Vantaa Airport

The Indian man assuming I spoke Hindi was, I instinctively thought, “natural“: I boarded the plane, like him, in New Delhi, have Mehendi designs all over my palms and the back of my hands, and—most importantly, with my dark hair and wheatish skin, look (I think) unmistakably Indian. The Bengali man, on the other hand, probably noticed the Mehendi and assumed I was not Bengali, since it is less common for Bengali women to stain their hands with it.

Mehendi stained hands

But I was stunned that beyond German borders, in Finland, the lady approached me in her mother tongue, a language she could not—on the surface, I thought (and as I write “on the surface,” I wonder what that means)—associate with me. In hindsight I think she thought her tone and the gestures she made would carry the content of her utterance; it was not, I imagine, that she thought I was a German speaker. Her reaction told me she was clearly taken aback that I responded in German.

This little interaction was illuminating for me on multiple levels. I realized that I have expectations about how others (should) recognize me linguistically. The interaction also revealed how these expectations are driven by some very surface considerations and cues (cues that I expect others to recognize, and feel baffled when they aren’t). I did not expect to be spoken to in German because I was (1) an Indian (2) at a Finnish airport. The lady’s astonishment at my response, monosyllabic as it was, showed that she also expected that I didn’t speak German (note: I don’t really “speak” German, just have high beginner knowledge of it).

I started thinking about other interesting incidents from my life which connected with the question of “linguistic assumptions.” My mother and I recently visited the Great India Palace (an Indian mall), and the elevator man addressed my mom in Bengali, without her having spoken a word. The first clue would have been that my mother wears shaakha-paula-cultural insignias that signal her Bengaliness and her marital status. Street vendors in Janpath, a traditional open-air shopping area in Delhi, are well versed in this art, of being able to guess where one’s from, and quote prices accordingly. If my mother walks in a store with me, one of the first questions someone asks is if we are “from Kolkata” (the capitol of West Bengal), a question inspired either by our “Bengali faces” or my mother’s bangles. If I walk in alone, I generally speak very colloquial Hindi, slurring my words as local Delhiites are wont to do, signaling that I am a local (a point which drives down prices by a third, generally). When I resort to English then, my accent is distinctively “Indian,” again signaling that I belong to this community. During this winter break trip to India, I did exactly that: when the vendor began by quoting an exorbitant price—for a Delhiite—I said, in the most slurred Hindi possible, “Bhaiyya, Dilliwalon ko kyon loot-te ho?” (“Brother, why do you loot Delhiites?”). The seller laughed and slashed the price to about a fourth of the original quoted. As my mother and I walked away, we began speaking in Bengali. He angrily called after us, “Arre, aap to Kalkatta se ho!” (“Hey, you are from Kolkata!”). I turned, and put on my most hurt expression, “Dilliwale Bengali nahin bolte kya?” (Don’t [some] Delhiites speak Bengali?”). Despite having spent 22 years of my life growing up in Delhi, though, I felt like I was cheating him a little bit by modifying my speech to lower the price.


There is another side to this: I still vividly recall my first week in Canada, where I went to study for a Master’s, and the serviceperson helping me open a bank account insisted that I could not have just arrived from India because I spoke English “like us.” She was quite suspicious and rude, and it wasn’t until I showed her my arrival papers and the passport with my date of entry that she relented. This has happened to me many times, and though I think most people think it flatters me when they tell me that my English is “good for an Indian,” or “good for someone who didn’t grow up here.” It is , actually, something I resent; I see no reason why, even though English is not my first or second language, there is surprise in my proficiency based on how I look. In a second language acquisition classroom, in a different Master’s program in an American university, a professor told the class it was shameful that I knew more English vocabulary than others (all of whom, as she pointed out, were “native English speakers”-a categorization I find extremely problematic). I remember seething with anger for days that there was assumed to be this correlation between the way I looked, where I came from, and my expected competence in English.

Now, as I put things in perspective, though I don’t condone her reaction, I realize that I have expectations about how people should perceive me just as people have expectations about where we stand, linguistically speaking….Can I fault others for making assumptions when I bring my own set of assumptions and expectations as well?

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One Response to “Linguistic Assumptions and Expectations”

  1. NickB on: 7 April 2010 at 6:51 am

    Interesting post. I think a lot of people’s perceptions about others are formed by what they wear and how they act, rather than the colour of their skin. That said, I am a white Englishman who married an Indian woman. Our daughter has a similar colour to her mother, but our son is similar to me. This causes no end of confusion (for others) when I am out with our daughter or my wife out with our son. And when our daughter (who has an English sounding name) is called at a hospital, for example, she will often need to walk up to the person and say ‘yes its me’ !

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