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The curse of the monolingual

It’s ignorance, of course, especially for those who don’t understand a language that is printed on their shirt or tattooed on their body.

Case in point: Visiting a sister who lived in an apartment a short train ride from Tokyo, I joined her and her two small sons in a visit to a nearby park. Also in the park was an impeccably dressed young mother of my sister’s acquaintance. The legend sewn in pink lettering on her crisp white sweatshirt was an invitation to engage in oral sex disguised as a platitude: Kiss All My Lips.

I wanted to tell her. My sister, who prevailed, didn’t. She argued that woman wouldn’t wear a sweatshirt in the city. Tourists didn’t come to this suburb, so the chance she’d be laughed at was remote. Even if the woman encountered other English speakers in the park, they would be unlikely to say anything either. Confrontation causes face loss. What is not spoken of can be ignored.

My sister speaks four languages. She could afford to feel a touch superior, which she did and denied. Speaking only one, I identified with the woman’s plight. At the corners of our single-language consciousness are other worlds we cannot enter, because we lack the linguistic pass.

Some monolingual English speakers fail to demonstrate the humility their condition requires. They’re proud of what they don’t know. Isn’t simple jealousy part of the Arizona problem? Because they live in one world, they hate the sight (and sound) of those brave enough to attempt two.

The New York Times recently posted a series of photographs documenting the mangled English on commercial signs in Shanghai. As we laugh, we who do not understand Chinese should consider how well we’d do in Shanghai, relying on our English-Chinese dictionary to get the job done.

Image, New York Times



  1. When my Mom first landed in Miami from Cuba back in 1961, she saw a sign on a restaurant door that read “No dogs, No Cubans”. Good thing she was bilingual.

  2. Regina. The opinion of a liberal art critic in Seattle means just bunches. Mexico is a dysfunctional country run by criminals. They kidnap and kill on a whim. Crossing the border are their victims and the criminals themselves, seeking new meat. What’s your solution, to learn Spanish, so I can scream for help in two languages? I’d like to live in an Arizona that isn’t Mexico. That’s what this is about, not racism or an inability to learn a second language.

  3. Hi Laura. I’ll bet that sign is as old as the country itself. It probably said, No Indians or No Quakers. When my dad was a kid in Boston, a child of Irish immigrants, he saw signs that said, No Irish.

  4. Making lemonade out of lemons, Hakim Bey has come up with the concept of “fortuitous mistranslation”, in which phrases like the ones on the sweatshirt become the seeds for new meanings to sprout from- kind of the linguistic equivalent of genetic mutation.
    The new world is not binary/either/or, its not Spanish/or/English.
    Its Spanglish, and Japanglish, and Turko/Germanic. Its illegal chinese immigrants selling Ginseng to Koreans in Russia. Its Palestinian used car salesmen selling japanese cars to Kenyans in Dubai.
    The Engrish website has been documenting the misaplications of foreign languages since the late 90’s.

  5. Dennis Webb says:

    Very perceptive and accurate, Regina. I would go further and say that much of the animosity of certain conservatives toward progressives stems from the same source.

  6. Harry Kessler says:

    I’d be careful if I were you when talking about dysfunctional countries run by criminals, as long as you are living in one that is increasingly…..dysfunctional and where criminal behavior (disregarding safety precautions on oil rigs deliberately, attempting to bring down a financial system with “deals” designed to rob some to enruich others) is as common as English.

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