Hello all! Emily here, briefly taking over the blog. We’ve already had a few blog posts summarising the interviews we’ve held with a variety of customers and staff at cafes and restaurants, so I wanted to do something a little different for this blog post. As someone who currently works at a coffee chain (Starbucks) with also a solid background in linguistics (since I’m clearly working on this project), I am essentially the ideal guinea pig for our assigned domain, so I have a lengthy and in-depth post about my experiences with language, as a customer and as a staff member for you all just below!

When you become both the interviewer and interviewee for your chosen domain

To start things off, a quick profile of my background and languages:

Nationality: Australian (born citizen)

Ethnicity/Cultural background: Mainland Chinese – half-Shanghainese, half-Cantonese (technically this half is Hakka, but this side of the family originated in Guangzhou and only consciously passed the Cantonese language to my generation of the family, so I consider this half of my background Cantonese more so than Hakka)

Languages spoken (in order of fluency): English, Shanghainese (conversational), Cantonese (conversational), Japanese (high school beginner-to-intermediate), Korean (university beginner)

I can also understand basic conversational Mandarin and a few words and phrases in Hakka, but cannot speak either.

Language in Everyday Life

In my everyday life, my default language is English as it is my strongest language by far. Even when talking to parents, I reply almost exclusively in English, as it’s far easier for me and both parents can understand me perfectly. It’s also more practical, as a mix of English, Cantonese, and Shanghainese can potentially be thrown at me at any given time, and it’s easier for me to stick to one language that everyone’s comfortable with (Dad is comfortable with any of the three, but Mum can’t speak Shanghainese, though she has learnt to understand it because my paternal grandparents live with them).

Having grown up with hearing three (four when Mum’s side of the family visit) different Chinese languages in the household, I don’t necessarily register when people speak different combinations of these languages to each other in the home. When I’m the one speaking, however, I’m definitely made more aware of my background. I think this connection to my Shanghainese/Cantonese background is made stronger with the awareness that I am a person of Chinese descent who cannot speak Mandarin, because I lack a language with which to connect me with the rest of mainland China.

I also code-switch on occasion, though it depends on the language as well as the context. For example, I very rarely codeswitch to Shanghainese as I only really use it with people who can only speak Shanghainese, such as my paternal grandparents; as such, it feels far less natural to switch between English and Shanghainese than English and Cantonese, where I interact with more people who can use both languages. I’m also much more likely to code-switch with languages that I learnt later on than with languages that I acquired naturally during childhood, as I don’t have enough knowledge of Japanese or Korean to sustain a full conversation in either language. That said, it still ties in with context, as I use them more with friends who can speak English and Japanese/English and Korean, and so I’m more comfortable with codeswitching in these contexts.

Language as a Customer

When choosing a cafe, the presence of bilingual signage has no influence on how comfortable I am with ordering at a particular cafe. Rather than that, if I am after a more authentic menu, I am more comfortable in cafes that have more people of my background dining there (Conversely, if I just want a place to relax in, I am more comfortable in places with a good mix of backgrounds as I am much more comfortable with using English in general). I also look more at the menu items themselves to see if I can recognise them as dishes my family has either cooked at home or ordered elsewhere. I know barely enough written Chinese to recognise dishes that are familiar to me, so if I recognise a dish, I then check whatever English description is available to see if it matches with what I know of the dish.

I predominantly use English to order items and to interact with staff in general, as I am most comfortable with it. I will, however, use the language of origin to specify the menu item itself if it’s written on the menu as such, even though the rest of the sentence is English (e.g. in a Japanese place, “Can I please have one regular-sized katsudon?”). Similarly, if I ordered items over the phone it would be mostly in English except for the item, with which I would use the original language where possible.

Language as Cafe Staff

By default, English is the language I use most of the time at work, both when I interact with customers and with fellow staff, as both groups consist of a diverse mix of people. In most cases with customers, if they speak to me in a language other than English that I can recognise, I reply in English, but also give them non-verbal indicators that I can understand them so they can proceed more comfortably with the order. It is somewhat frustrating on my part though, as I’m not confident with my command of non-English languages in a customer service context to actually use them exclusively throughout the transaction. Even though I never let it show, I am slightly uncomfortable (this is all directed at myself) during these interactions because I can’t do more to help bridge that gap in communication for customers.

There are, however, a few occasions where I will switch in loan words or certain phrases from other languages. If I can recognise the customer’s native language, and gather that they have little to no knowledge of English, I sometimes use equivalent loan words (e.g. Japanese ‘koohii’ or Korean ‘keopi’ for ‘coffee’) to ease the communication barrier with phonology that is more natural to them. Other times an interaction will go mostly smoothly in English except for a phrase that is completely unfamiliar to the customer, at which point I switch in a learnt phrase specifically for this context. This situation happens to me especially with native Japanese customers and the English phrase, “Is that all for today?”, which was completely lost on enough Japanese customers previously that I asked a Japanese co-worker to teach me the equivalent phrase in Japanese so I could push past that barrier in future interactions.

Sometimes when Chinese customers approach me at the register, they begin in Mandarin or English, but I might pick up from their interactions with their friends or family also present that they are Cantonese or Shanghainese. I usually feel a mix of pleasant surprise and mild discomfort – surprise because it is relatively uncommon to hear in a customer service context (especially Shanghainese) as most Chinese default to Mandarin, and discomfort because I don’t feel confident in speaking either in the appropriate register for customer service. That said, if I’m feeling particularly brave, I might strike up a brief and friendly conversation with them in Cantonese or Shanghainese and explain my background before finishing the transaction and moving on. Incidentally, I also have just enough Japanese knowledge to potentially have a similarly brief conversation with Japanese customers, but I feel even less confident with it so I can actually count on one hand the times I’ve felt brave enough to initiate a conversation in basic Japanese.

Starbucks Australia previously had multilingual (they offered English, Chinese, Japanese and Korean simultaneously) menu cards with images that we could hand over to people at the register to help them decide. For space efficiency purposes (menus were constantly updated with new promotional items), the current menu cards only offer English, but still retain the images for visual reference. That said, I vastly preferred the old multilingual cards, as it made it much easier and more comfortable for the Chinese/Japanese/Korean customers to order what they wanted, rather than having to do some guesswork and hope that they ordered the item correctly. It was also easier on the staff end, as it increased the accuracy of the order that was being taken down.
This concludes my experiences with language use in cafes! Look forward to our last few posts where we look at bilingual/multilingual signage around Sydney, as well as discuss the results we gathered from our study across various Sydney suburbs!