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Why some people have no tolerance for linguistic diversity?

by Ferdows Kazemi (Originally published in Dutch by Volkskrant)

Persian Barley Soup Recipe

I was talking with two friends in the dressing room of a gym. A lady came from the shower, walked to her locker, grabbed her clothes, turned around to us and said: "I don't understand a word of what you are saying to each other".

My friend: "Don't worry, madam. Our conversation is not very exciting. We are discussing a Persian recipe".

The lady, clearly surprised by the fluently pronounced response in Dutch, replied confused: "Yes, but it's very unsocial if you are going to speak a different language here".

My friend joked: "Perhaps you could learn that language".
The lady: "Whatever. You go learn to speak Dutch".
I: "Madam, we already know Dutch. We are talking to you in Dutch right now, aren't we?"

The lady, apparently still confused: "Really? Do you really know it? How have you learned it?"
My friends and I looked at each other.
My friend cleverly said: "I have picked it up in conversations with others".

Next, we took our bags and left the gym. My friend was wondering if the lady was alright. She said they both had visited the gym for two years already and had already had small talk frequently. Consequently, she should've known that my friend speaks Dutch. But even if they hadn't known each other, the question would've been strange anyway. If you think that somebody does not understand Dutch, it's no use to tell that person to learn Dutch in Dutch anyway.

Prejudices apparently result in the malfunctioning of the brains. You see a group of people that are talking in a different language. You assume that they do not have a proficiency of the Dutch language, and you can't tolerate it, but you do address them in Dutch.


This about prejudices. But now about decency. It's not the first time that passers-by addressed me or my friends because we were talking in Persian to someone. Sometimes they euphemistically say they think it's unsocial. That happened to me when I was talking with my sister from Iran, who was staying with us, at the schoolyard, while we were waiting for our daughter. The same happened to my friend, while she was sitting in the bus and was talking to her husband in Persian on the phone. A fellow passenger thought she too was unsocial. 

Sometimes people are more direct and they say that they resent that they cannot understand you. Sometimes they even call it indecent behavior. Similarly it happened with my cousin who was talking with an Iranian friend in a restaurant and was addressed in Persian by another guest -one table across-.

What brings people in such situations to rescind all decency standards and to address you on the fact that you are speaking a different language?

Imagine that you are in a dressing room of the gym, at the schoolyard, in the restaurant or in the bus, talking with a soft and inaudible voice. Somebody who happens to be in your surroundings indignantly asks you to speak louder, because it would otherwise be unsocial. How would you respond? You probably wouldn't say, "our conversation isn't that exciting, we are discussing a recipe of kale". No, you would directly confront the meddler with Dutch directness. But that situation will not happen. Surely, it's indecent to meddle with other people's conversations.

The question is, why some Dutch speaking compatriots cannot tolerate it if they hear somebody have a conversation in a different language? Why do some even assign themselves the right to be so blunt? Being unsocial cannot be the reason. A person who speaks a different language is not there for the sociability of people who are not a participant in their conversation. The same holds for a person who speaks Dutch.

More than 70,000 Persian speakers live in the Netherlands (Photo: Pejman Akbarzadeh)


The answer lies in the sense of superiority of some Dutchmen. The sense of power of the majority. It's my country, my culture, my language and everybody must subject to it. Everybody who lives in "my country." Stranger, I have the right to understand you, even if I do not participate in your conversation. I am the one who defines decency, not you. "My decency" prescribes that you must speak my language, as soon as I find myself in your surroundings. And that "my decency" does not allow to eavesdrop on other people's conversations, is not your concern. Surely, it's "my decency".

Sorry madam, sorry sir, I was not aware of your position. Please, do come sit here. I shall explain to you how to make Persian barley soup, as that was what we were discussing. I know some more tasty recipes from Persia. Shall I teach you how to make them too? I haven't yet forgotten everything from "my culture."

About the author: Ferdows Kazemi is a Persian-Dutch columnist who lives in The Hague since 1993. The above article was originally published in the Dutch daily Volkskrant and it has been translated into English for Payvand News by Ben Burgers. Persian translation of the article has been published on the website of Persian Dutch Network.

... Payvand News - 03/04/14 ... --

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