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Is your second language a 'secret' language?


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Here in Southern California, there are hundreds of different languages being spoken every day. But you probably don't understand them all.

Here's a scenario: You're out at a coffee shop, and people at the next table start talking in a foreign language...about you. Maybe you can only tell based on how they look at you. Or maybe you caught them because you know the language. 

That is what we're calling using your second language as a "secret" language. It's definitely happened to listeners in KPCC's Public Insight Network.

KPCC Asks: When have you heard people talk about you in a different language? Or were you the one doing the talking, and got busted? Tell us in our Public Insight Network

A Martinez talked in studio with Joz Wang, blogger with the culture site, and Maria Carreira, professor of Spanish at CSU-Long Beach and co-director of the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA.

When do you reveal you speak a foreign language?

Joz: "I'm one of those people who pretends to only speak English because then I can kind of listen to what's going on with the service [in a Chinese restaurant]. But, you know, I also see if I'm being treated differently if I'm only speaking English because if they're giving discounts to the dude at the next table speaking Chinese, well, you know, maybe I might choose to break out my Chinese." 

Can you break it out at any time in LA?

Maria: "It depends on the language. In Southern California, we have a large population of Spanish speakers, so in many places Spanish will not give you any privacy. We did a study at UCLA of students who speak another language. One of the things they like most about speaking another language is that they can communicate secretly. Interestingly, no such answer appeared among the Spanish speakers."

How are looks deceiving when you're judging whether someone can speak a certain language?

Joz: "What you don't know, especially like with Chinese, is there could be a Vietnamese-Chinese next to you. So this person has a Vietnamese last name, they identify as  Vietnamese, you look at them and you say, okay, you're Vietnamese because your last name is this. But what if they're Vietnamese-Chinese and they actually speak Chinese at home?"

Is it rude?

Maria: "Oh, it's considered very rude." But her own opinion: "Absolutely not. I think everybody should speak whatever they want! How often do you want to say something secret to your spouse or the person you're with? I don't think it's rude, but I will tell you, it is considered rude, and in some cases my students have told me that they are told that they are un-American."

What happens when you're busted?

Joz: "It's one thing to be busted. That's mortifying in itself. But I think also on the other end, you sit there while you're being talked about and say, what do I do about this? What do I say about this?"

Maria: "I'm the kind of person that would just remain quiet and pretend I didn't hear. It is awkward."

Joz: "Sometimes we've got to pick and choose our battles, right? So I think it might depend on my mood."