Mother Tongue, Native Speaker, and Assorted Assumptions

One job description stood out on the online job board for writers.  The post was long but promising, and I continued reading until the last lines.

“Write the word ‘pineapple’ at the start of your application so I know you’ve read it through.”

“Only native speakers from North America can apply.”

And then, in all caps.



My right eyebrow shot up involuntarily and with a dismissive click, I left the job board. No, I didn’t respond to the post, but not for the more obvious reason.  A good piece of writing speaks for itself, after all, regardless of the writer’s native tongue or country of birth.

Incorrect assumption:  Native speakers from North America are better writers.

Q & A with a Gentleman in a Zegna Suit

The distinguished-looking Caucasian in an expensive suit walked into the international hotel’s business center in Beijing. He was agitated and spoke hurriedly to the Chinese staff at the counter.  I heard her say, “I’m not sure if it’s possible, sir.”  That was my cue to make it possible and meet the hotel’s standard of “Yes, we can.” I introduced myself as business center manager and asked how we could be of assistance.  He needed his two sheets of handwritten notes to be typed based on a specific format.  It was the meeting minutes of a joint-venture discussion, and he wanted it done within the hour.

I looked it over, told him I will attend to it myself, and assured him it would be ready in one hour. I would, however, need him to review a first printout in about 35 minutes.  The relief on his face was instantaneous.  Then, I asked if he wanted the document reproduced exactly the way it was written, or if I could make corrections to grammar and spellings. He was practically beaming when he said, “Yes, please. Add the necessary corrections to grammar and spelling.”

The first draft needed formatting adjustments, which one of the capable Chinese staff offered to complete.  While waiting for the final printout, we had a conversation that went like this.

Guest:     “You speak English well.  You’re not Chinese then?”

Me:           “No, I’m not.”

Guest:      “You are good with written English too. So did you grow up in the U.S?”

Me:           “No. I was born and grew up in Manila, the Philippines.”

Guest:       “Ah. You’re Filipino.  Then your mother tongue must be Tagalog.”

Me:            “I’m fluent in Tagalog but it’s not my mother tongue.  Tagalog is the national language but there are 8 other major dialects in the Philippines plus minor ones, a total of over 80.

Guest:       His eyes turned wide, and then he concluded,  “So your mother tongue is one of the dialects.”

Me:            My mother tongue is Spanish.  It’s the first language I learned from my mother and that’s what we spoke at home while growing up.

Guest:       His lips turned up in a tentative smile but his brows were furrowed, equal parts confusion and amusement showing on his face.

At that moment, the staff came back to hand over his completed document and spared us both– him from other confusing surprises, me from a long explanation of Philippine history.

Incorrect assumptions:

An Asian in China who speaks good English is not Chinese.

A person who is good with written English grew up in the U.S.

A Filipino’s mother tongue must be Tagalog.

A Principal’s Stereotype

We picked up the same book at the same time from a pile of books.  Then we both smiled and insisted the other keep it.  She took it.  It was the annual sale at a bookshop I frequented in the suburb of Manila.  The woman who I almost had a book-grabbing contest with had her arms full but appeared to be bent on getting more books. While thumbing through the other titles, we got into an easy conversation about … well, books.

Then, she asked what I do. I said I’m a writer.  She paused and gave me a pitying look that dripped, poor you, followed by the actual words, “You don’t make much money writing.”  It was a statement.  Ah, the starving writer stereotype. I shrugged my shoulders noncomittally, quite willing to let her think what she wanted.  She was a high school principal in a public school, she proudly told me.  She had the important side job of buying books to add to the school library.

Later, I saw her again at the pay out counter.  She had at least a dozen books. Once more, there was the pitying glance as I paid for my measly 4 books.  I don’t think it would have mattered to her that I had more books than I could read on my ebook reader. In her mind, I fit the stereotype of a starving writer.

Incorrect assumption:  Writers are poorly paid.

The Power to Un-Make Your Day

It’s been one month from starting a new job assignment and I still wasn’t used to the long and winding corridors of the palace-type international hotel in Muscat, Oman. I was on my way to the sales office where I worked when I passed a function room. From inside, I heard the GM’s secretary barking orders at waiters and secretaries as she checked the set up for a meeting of luxury hotel GMs in the gulf region.  She spoke with an acquired British accent interlaced with a natural sing-song from South Asia.

As I passed the open door of the meeting room, I heard her call out, “Hey you! Come here! I stopped, took a long, slow breath and braced for an unpleasant encounter. That brief delay brought her out of the room and she called out again, louder this time. “You there! Did you hear me?” My right eyebrow shot up involuntarily as I turned to her and asked, ”Are you addressing me?”  This, apparently, came out louder than I meant it to because the waiters and secretaries turned to look at us.

The scene froze for a few tense seconds. Then she dismissed me with a wave of her hand and a curt “Never mind,” and walked back into the function room.  I turned to continue on my way but first, I gamely returned the smiles of the waiters and the thumbs-up sign of the secretaries.  This GM’s secretary had a habit of ordering everybody around and giving the other department secretaries—most of whom were Filipinas—an especially difficult time.

Incorrect assumption:  People who are accommodating and friendly, such as Filipinos, are pushovers.

Working with a cross-cultural team is a rewarding experience that comes with challenges.  English is the unifying language, but messages get lost or switched as individuals do their mental translations.  When one person in the team flaunts wrongly perceived superiority to wield power that is anchored on a job title, complications arise needlessly.

It helps to be aware of and distinguish between assertiveness and ill-mannered behavior/arrogance. The reflex involuntary rising of one eyebrow has served me well. It does that when confronted with a testy tone of voice, a nasty turn of phrase, or ALL-CAPS screaming on an online job board.  That’s the signal to steer clear.  Such individuals do not fit the profile of a productive collaborator who regards team members as equals and recognizes good writing, whether or not English is one’s first language.

Back at the book sale, the cashier handed me my change together with a brief Survey Form of customers’ reading habits.  There were only 5 blanks, which I completed while standing.  The last blank asked for mother tongue.  Ah, that again.  I paused for half a second, scribbled “Dothraki,” dropped the form in the box, and walked away, whistling.

It’s funny how an obviously wrong answer can lead to a correct assumption. One of the customers surveyed has read George R.R. Martin’s recent volumes.

8 comments on “Mother Tongue, Native Speaker, and Assorted Assumptions

  1. another good one, khaleesi

  2. Your insightful and well written article will resonate with many. My mother tongue is English, spoken the way my mother knew best. Vinegar was venigar; oil was owel; finish was penis. I am still learning. The language of the heart is more universal yet more challenging to master. Looking forward to you writing about that – it’s something you know so well. Keep creativity flowing!

    • Your mother is speaking the language she knows by heart. Rem has commented this is an individual’s right. She expresses her authentic self and she spreads a lot of laughter too! Ah, the universal language of the heart. There is, often, better harmony when no words are spoken. Thank you for your encouraging remarks. It is actually your writing that inspired me to put thoughts and feelings to words.

  3. Well done, Luwee!

    • Your remark is appreciated,coming from a hotelier who has worked with different teams while providing high standards of service for discerning guests… and getting your share of assorted assumptions. Thanks, Art.

  4. Dothraki pala first language mo, Luwee hahaha! Mine is Quenya, hehe 😉

    When I took teaching units 7 years ago, one of the subjects was Second Language teaching. At first I thought it was all about the techniques in language teaching, but it discusses more than just techniques, but also issues that surround language speaking, like the language elitism that happens in the country. The book also says we have the right to speak the language we know by heart, and the right to refuse to speak another language. However, language is both cultural and political – and the problem with political nature of it is that those who speak a politically powerful language (like English) tend to put down those who don’t natively speak it.

    • Elves and nomadic horse riding people can get along diba? Legolas and Daenerys look like siblings! Language elitism as you pointed out is saddening and limiting. It is blind to the value of learning a new language in order to bridge cultures. On the bright side, there seems to be an increasing wave of people of all cultures who speak and are eager to learn other languages. The more languages one speaks, the wider the understanding, so better, long-lasting connections are made.

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