Question: When going to a restaurant/cafe that has its menu written in their own language alongside an English translation or reference numbers, do you attempt to say the name of the item you want in that language or prefer to use the English translations or numbers? Why/why not?
Before we proceeded with our interviews, we had multiple discussions on what exactly we wanted to ask the people we interviewed. During one of these discussions, the situation described in the above-mentioned question was brought up. We should note that the members of our group are all bilingual and are of an Asian background. We all had a similar answer to this situation: if we were familiar with the language in question, (for e.g. I am familiar with Japanese) and are comfortable speaking it, then yes we will use the native language words for the menu items. However, if we aren’t familiar with the language, then we would use the English version or use numbers instead. Our collective reasoning behind this decision was that we simply did not want to butcher the language by speaking it with an inexperienced tongue and that it would make us uncomfortable on the native speakers’ behalf (as they would have to hear us mess up their language). We surmised that these emotions arise from our own experiences witnessing people butcher our native languages (or other languages that we are familiar with) and the uncomfortable feelings we get in those situations. We did note that because we were bilingual and all Asian, that may have had an influence on our opinion on this subject and thus, we decided to put this concept into a question for the interviews. With this in mind, we decided that it was worth asking individuals from different backgrounds the same question to see how their actions would vary.
Starting with those interviewed by Nicole and Shanella. The first person that was interviewed was a young Caucasian girl who worked at a bakery cafe in Penrith. She was monolingual and had an Australian background. When we asked her the question and used a Chinese restaurant as an example she responded quite readily with a “Yes, I would definitely give it a try” and was incredibly comfortable with the idea. Conversely, both the elderly Tongan gentleman and the Australian-born Italian lady that we interviewed had the complete opposite reaction. Both said that they would feel uncomfortable speaking a language they didn’t know and would avoid it where possible. The Italian lady also said she would use numbers or simply point at the menu item instead. We also video interviewed a young Chinese lady who worked at Michel’s Patisserie (see “Step 7: Texturing the Milk”). She very adamantly said “No” when asked the question. Her response was essentially the same as the opinions we had as a group, which is that, unless she knows the language enough to pronounce it, she would not try to speak it for fear of butchering the language.
Moving on to the interviews done by Shajara and Emily. One of the individuals interviewed was a young Japanese lady who had been living in Australia since the age of 7 ½. When asked the question, her response was similar to those of our group members, saying that if she had at least a rough idea on how to pronounce the language then she would attempt it. She also said that she would attempt speaking the language rather than just pointing “because [she] thinks it’s a bit rude.” This is more so the case for Latin-based languages. Ultimately, it seemed that for languages that she couldn’t pronounce, she would prefer to use numbers, if possible. We also interviewed a Caucasian mother and daughter pair. Again, the pair were not comfortable attempting to speak a language that they aren’t familiar with, even going on to say “I wouldn’t want to look stupid saying something and they’ll be like ‘why are you saying it like that?’” Much like the Italian lady from Nicole and Shanella’s interviews, they would much rather point at the menu and/or use numbers. It should be noted that this family seems to have familiarity with European languages such as French, Dutch and German.
Finally, we have Amy’s interviews and it should be noted that all the interviewees here are in the young adult range. Two Chinese and Filipino female interviewees both responded that they would go for English first as, similar to previous interviews, they felt more comfortable speaking English and wouldn’t want to “butcher words from languages they weren’t familiar with” or “embarrass themselves”. Exceptions are if they were “fluent in the language and so was the waiter” or if they felt confident they were able to pronounce the menu item accurately. Other interviewees had varying answers, with one responding that he would go with a “mix” of using numbers, pointing at names/pictures or using the original language. Another Vietnamese male would choose to use English all the time, even if it was their native language. It was interesting to note that many of the interviewees, whilst not being completely fluent in the original language, would choose to order in the language if they were “familiar with the pronunciation of the menu items”. Three interviewees, two Chinese males and one Vietnamese female, would order using the original language from the menu if it were Korean or Japanese, rather than the English translation, simply because they were familiar with the menu items’ pronunciation.
Overall, it seems that most individuals are uncomfortable in attempting to order things in a language they aren’t familiar with and from the perspective of our group, this is a very understandable sentiment. We can also gather that it is not only the inability to pronounce words that prevents us from trying to speak these unfamiliar languages, but also a combination of public opinion and respect for the native speakers. Nobody wants to come off as disrespectful by muddling their way through the pronunciation of a word and as the Caucasian mother put it, nobody wants to look ridiculous in front of native speakers and other customers for getting the word wrong. At first, we thought that maybe it was our culture or background that makes us uncomfortable in ordering food and beverages like this or perhaps even our mentality as bilinguals. Now, we can safely say that culture is seemingly not a definitive factor in this, as seen by the results. We can also say that age doesn’t seem to have an effect here either, considering the wide age range of our interviewees. However, we cannot rule out the idea that this uncomfortable feeling can stem from the way we think as bilinguals or from those who speak a second language as we noted that the only interview that had an affirmative answer to the question was that of a monolingual. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to gain more evidence from monolingual people.