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Language and Dining Out [moved from General Topics]

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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!!!

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  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.

            1. I can speak mediocre Spanish and love exercising my skills in restaurants here in Manhattan. The Hispanic workers seem to appreciate it.
              BUT: Lately there has been an influx of Bengalese restaurant workers in NYC and if I don't look closely I start speaking Spanish. OOPS!!
              It's all good, I apologize and no one is offended.

              1. I am a multilingual foodie and nearly fluent in several languages...my general rule is that I always speak English if it is obvious that the waiter is American-US raised, speaks excellent English, and it would be patronizing for me to order in the foreign language. I will say the dish names in the language with correct pronunciation if they are listed on the menu that way or if I am ordering something special/off the menu. If the server's English is poor and if communication would be facilitated by my using my foreign language skills, I switch into the foreign language or at least ask for the dish names in the language even if they are listed on the menu in English. If the server's English language skills are fair, I may order in English knowing that they can take the order efficiently, but if I have a difficult question (is there pork in that? lard in that? ect.) I will switch into the foreign language. I don't think it gets me better food, but it makes sure I get exactly what I want when I order.

                Recently I was in a restaurant owned by Chinese from Vietnam. Most of the waitstaff are multilingual and speak both a dialect of Chinese (guessing Cantonese) and Vietnamese, some speak English better than others. My waiter was only Chinese speaking and her English was very poor. She gave me the English only menu. I asked for the Chinese-Vietnamese menu. That way, I could see to make sure that I was getting the dishes that I wanted and not ordering the wrong thing based only on the English name, plus the Chinese-VN menu had the "good stuff" I like to eat. I read the Vietnamese and pointed to the dish name and she read it in Chinese and wrote the order on the ticket in Chinese. I got what I wanted.

                I do know the cuisines of the regions of the languages I speak better than others, so perhaps that enhances my dining experience. But I don't speak, say, Thai, and I still enjoy Thai food without ordering in Thai. Though over the years you figure out some words even in Thai just from menus! I actually know a lot of food vocabulary and pretty much exclusively food vocab in several languages just from being a foodie. Like in Korean I can pretty much only say hello, thank you, goodbye, and then dozens of food and dish names!!!