Tongue Lashing

11 Jul

Letterbalm Bunch of LettersDear LetterBalm: This may seem like a petty thing, but sometimes it’s the smallest things that drive you crazy. My friend is a brilliant linguist – she’s fluent in five languages, and she makes her living as a high-level English translator for U.S.-based companies and conferences. She wasn’t born in the U.S., but she came here as a small child, and she’s lived and worked here since then. Her English is flawless. The problem is, when we’re in a social setting, she seems to get befuddled over English idioms and jargon in the conversation, bringing things to a screeching halt. She asks mocking questions about the figure of speech and calls it “so stupid” or “utter nonsense.” This has caused people to get angry. I think she’s rude and exerting a subtle form of control because she can put us down when she actually knows better. So far, I’ve held my tongue (no pun intended). What can I say to her to let her know I’m on to her game?

–On To Her

Those fans of the TV perennial NCIS may not be a fan of character Ziva David’s similar mocking confusion about English idioms and figures of speech. For heaven’s sake, she’s a trained Mossad assassin who speaks an array of languages including most of those spoken in the Middle East. (Cote de Pablo, who played Ziva, has left the show but she may return. So watch for more linguistic sarcasm.) Ms. L.B. sympathizes with your situation. It is ungracious and insulting to make fun of someone’s native tongue. You have your friend’s number, and, indeed, she should show better manners. When the two of you are alone and she’s not in Language-Police mode, say this:

Annette, I want to talk with you about last night. At dinner, you questioned several idioms in the conversation and made fun of them. I know you’re absolutely brilliant about languages – I envy your talent and knowledge – but you have to know that you come across as impolite and ungracious. Over the years, because people know I’m a good friend of yours, they’ve asked me why you make fun of English so much. Some have even suggested that they think you do it on purpose just to show you’re in charge – that you really know the English meanings and do it to show off. All this makes people angry and hurts their feelings. Sweetie, I’m not saying any of this to hurt you. You’re a good friend in so many ways. Can I ask you to be kinder and more polite when you’re talking with people? We don’t always need to know how smart you are about English.


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