Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > Not About Food >
Sep 3, 2012 10:10 PM

Language and Dining Out [moved from General Topics]

Within the United States, there are many, many ethnic restaurants from around the world. Lots of these are owned, staffed, and/or operated by natives of the country whose cuisine they're serving.

When dining at one of these places, do you think that speaking the language (as a general rule - obviously, there's no 100% universal reality) makes a difference in the experience (food quality, food variety/options available, service, etc) for better or worse - or does it not make a difference either way?

Do you think some cuisines/nationalities are more influenced by a patron (visibly NOT of the nationality/ethnicity in question) speaking to them in their own language than others?

Do you think it's cool, or disrespectful, or rude, or otherwise, when such a patron begins speaking to staff in the native language? Under what circumstances do you find it one way or another? Discuss!!!

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Where I grew up there were a number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and particularly in their restaurants the improved service and portion size was very visible. In one Uzbekistani restaurant, the kebabs/meat skewers would often come with more pieces of meat or visibly larger ones. However, for the most part the items served to native speakers were all items that were identifiable on the menu.

    Where I currently am, there is a Korean restaurant (owned/run by Koreans) - and there it is clear that there's a separate menu for the Korean community. In both situations though, the former Soviets and the Koreans are minorities in the community at large and particularly with the Korean restaurant, the place serves not only as a place to get food from home but also a meeting place/psuedo community center. This Korean restaurant has an equal number of 2 and 4 top tables to 8 and 10 top tables.

    That being said, in the two examples I've given - both are cases where if you're part of the in-group - awesome. But speaking basic to intermediate Russian or Korean would result in a polite smile and them still speaking to you in English. That being said, at another Korean restaurant I was at in the Cincinnati area our table ordered a bottle of soju and the wait staff was so impressed that a table full of non-Koreans knew what soju was and wanted a whole bottle that we had amazing service (extra small plates, free dessert).

    1. Echoing cresyd's comments, I think if you are reasonably fluent in the other language, by all means, go ahead and use it. But if you know only a modest amount of grammar/vocabulary, then the chances are the restaurant staff's English is better than your [insert other language here], so I would say just stick with English. You can discreetly show off your knowledge of the language by being able to read the menu and pronouncing the names of dishes correctly. That may be enough to get you noticed positively.

      1. I have been living in Japan since 1977, and have become quite fluent in the language. Years ago I was in New York at a sake bar and was asking a lot of questions about the sake they had to a Japanese guy behind the bar. After several exchanges, he asked me "Do you speak Japanese?" and I told him "Yes" and began speaking to him in Japanese. He was quite relieved because he had difficulty answering my questions in English. I could sense he was quite helped by the fact that I spoke Japanese to him. Also, I have been in Japanese-run places in San Francisco where speaking Japanese opened up a new world in service and food offerings. So, when it seems right, I speak Japanese to Japanese people working in places.

        1. I think if the staff is struggling with English and speaking their language makes their job easier, then go for it. At the Central American restaurants I've been to where this is the case, the staff is usually so entertained by the novelty of a blond, blue eyed American speaking Spanish that the service is great. That said, I wouldn't order in Spanish just because the waiter looked Hispanic. I've seen it happen (not just at restaurants) and it's so awkward and insulting.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Hobbert

            I believe that it all depends on the level of English that an owner & his or her employees have. If the employees are not fluent in English and / or have a low level, than of course, the Owner should be providing instructions in the language that they share natively; eliminates alot of blunders ...

            As far as being a guest diner, if you are travelling through areas of a foreign country, please do not expect all the people you encounter to speak English; they do not especially in parts of Asia, and South & Central America,

            The young people in Europe and South America are studying English as their 2nd language.

            Asia is more complex. Small village people, have a very tiny percentage of English intermediate upper speakers.

          2. Yes, that has happened numerous times. The reasoning is pretty simple: when i speak with the staff in their language (usually Chinese), they assume that I have the similar taste preferences as they do. They know what to recommend to me and what other menu items might go well with my selections.

            I don't think it's rude--it just makes their job easier.