“English Only, Please!”

You’d think a docent at a place called “Gardens of the World” would be more receptive to world languages, but apparently to some a rós is not a rose.

Language discrimination. You hear about it all the time.

A young woman is standing in a supermarket line, talking on the phone to her mother in Spanish, and someone taps her on the shoulder and says “This is America. We speak English here.”

Two college students are chatting in Arabic on the underground in London, and a big guy gets in their faces and tells them to bugger off back to their “own country.”

A couple of women go on holiday in Wales and come back red-faced and angry because “They were speaking Welsh in the pub, and we know they were talking about us!”

You hear about it, and it makes you angry, but you never really, truly internalize it until it happens to you.

Welcome to the World

I  spent this past weekend thoroughly enjoying the annual Los Angeles-area Deireadh Seachtaine Gaeltachta (Irish language immersion weekend), which was held this year in Thousand Oaks, CA. This was my fifth year at this event, and I always look forward to it. Wonderful people, An Ghaeilge an t-am ar fad…what’s not to love?

I’ll write more about the L.A. DSG a little later this week (I have a lot of photos and memories to organize!). I had a wonderful time! But right now I want to write about something that happened to some of us on the last day of the weekend, because it was very upsetting to all of us, and not something I feel I can let slide.

On Sunday, the last day of the DSG, a group of us decided to visit the nearby Gardens of the Worlda botanical garden in the heart of Thousand Oaks.

Gardens of the World was established by Irish-American entrepreneurs Ed and Lynn Hogan as “a striking monument to commemorate the various cultures of the world.” It consists of five different gardens, each one dedicated to a particular world culture.

“Field trips” are a fun feature of the L.A. DSG…a chance to speak Irish in a different setting, with different conversational topics. As Gardens of the World is no more than a mile from where we were holding our classes, it seemed like a perfect place to spend some time on a Sunday afternoon, speaking Irish and enjoying the beautiful early summer weather.

Seeming is Not, Alas, Believing

I really wish I could say that the Gardens of the World was a good experience. I wanted it to be a good experience. I’d had a wonderful weekend, I love botanical gardens, and this seemed like a perfect cap to the occasion.

Sadly, things went pear-shaped rather quickly.

Three of us arrived shortly before the others and, noticing the very small parking lot, politely asked one of the docents if there were other places to park nearby. We were treated to an officious lecture about how limited space is in the gardens (it really isn’t all that limited, nor was it particularly crowded!). It was very clear that our little group presented a huge problem to this person, and she wanted to be sure we knew just how big a problem we were.*

Nothing like first impressions, eh?

Eventually the rest of our group found parking, and we set off to enjoy the gardens, chatting as Gaeilge.

A second confrontation

We hadn’t been in the gardens 15 minutes when we were confronted again, by the same docent.

We’d stopped at a display of the California missions and one of our number had begun to talk (in Irish, of course) about the missions and the role they played in the history of California,  for the sake of those among us who were from out of state.

Suddenly this woman confronted us again. She accused us of “conducting a private tour.” She accused the person who had been talking about the missions of “using an amplification device” (she wasn’t).  She complained again about the size of our group. Then she said the thing that turned our irritation into shock and outright anger:

“We can’t have you doing this in a foreign language, because we don’t know what you’re saying.”

To say that we were gobsmacked would be putting it mildly.

I have no idea what she thought we might have been saying that could possibly have been so bad that she felt threatened by the language we were speaking. Horrible things, such as “The Japanese garden is all about tranquility” or “The missions were established by the Spanish”? Or maybe “Roses are my favorite flower?” Or perhaps she thought we were talking about her, like the women in the Welsh pub?

You’d think a docent at a place called “Gardens of the World” would be more receptive to world languages, but apparently to some a rós is not a rose.

Well, we continued on our “tour,” and we didn’t stop speaking Irish, but that line continued to fester, and when we got back to the place where our classes were being held. we talked about it for a bit.

California is a state that people of many tongues call home, and that many more visit every year. There is no excuse for language discrimination in any place, but in a place as diverse as Southern California, it’s absolutely absurd.

I found it particularly ironic that this happened in a place that was established by a family with the surname “Hogan.” I don’t know if Ed and Lynn Hogan spoke Irish, but their ancestors certainly would have. And they would have faced terrible discrimination — a form of bigotry and cultural genocide that came very close to eradicating the language altogether.

I volunteered to write a letter, which I have done. If I hear back from them, I’ll update this post with their response.

Why the fear?

I’ve never understood the xenophobia that makes some people suspicious or resentful of those who speak another language.

Are some people actually so self-centered that they think that people speaking another language are talking about them? Really?

It’s a big world, full of people of divers tongues and cultures. To my mind, one of the best parts of living in the 21st century is the opportunity we have, thanks to the internet, to communicate with people all over the world…to learn about languages and customs that our ancestors never had the chance to experience.

It’s time to let go of the fear. To learn to appreciate and enjoy diversity, rather than to resent and shun it. It’s time to celebrate the human family in all its wonderful variations.

A garden full of flowers of all the same color, shape, and scent, after all, would be a very dull place indeed.

Le meas,

GG

* In the interest of full disclosure, there is a line, buried in the small print on Gardens of the World’s website, asking groups of six or more to contact the gardens before they come. We  hadn’t seen it. We weren’t a large group, but there were more than six of us, and had we seen it, we most certainly would have called. And, had this been explained to us politely when we showed up, we would have been happy to break into smaller groups, as the reason we were given for the problem with larger groups was that they’re concerned about big groups interfering with the “traffic flow” in the gardens. Unfortunately, we were shown no politeness whatsoever — in fact, we were lectured as if we were naughty, and not particularly bright, little children — which, by the way, are also apparently not welcome in the gardens!


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/