Some months ago, I was having a conversation with coworkers from Latin-America in Spanish. Nothing relevant to tell, except that a couple of coworkers from India approached us asking out of pure curiosity why we were addressing one of my friends, Francisco, as: Pancho! We kindly explain that pancho is a nickname for the given name Francisco (Spanish equivalent of the name "Francis"). They kindly told us that this word resembles another one used in many languages from Northern India, benchod, which is a rude word. At the end, we had a nice moment together and the use of this word originated a funny anecdote.
When you live in a city like Toronto, you don't need to walk far to hear different groups of people speaking in different languages, especially if you are in a crowded place. Curious situations or confusing ones might happen when a different language is spoken; the odds increase when short phrases (one or two words) are used.
Here are some potential examples:
-English has also words that might sound strange in other languages. Take the word kiss that sounds similar to the Swedish word kissa that means pee. Curiously, if you want to say kiss in Swedish, the correct word is puss. Better be careful if you want to kiss someone in Sweden without knowing the language.
-If you like to dance salsa, or you like that special sauce for your food, be careful how you talk about your preferences in Korea. This word sounds like the word 설사 (seolsa) that means diarrhea.
-This kind of confusion are possible in written messages. Just imagine an innocent word, very often used by retailers like Sales. The word sale in French means: filthy, nasty, dirty.
Canada and the USA and Canada are part of an important area of the world that has been attracting thousands of immigrants who come every year to settle in this part of the world. Both countries live in Democracy, under the rule of law and a set of freedoms are guaranteed like freedom of expression, including freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds. This is the kind of freedom hundreds of thousands of immigrants in both countries have been looking for when they moved here.
When we have this in mind, news like the one I am going to refer, are creating concern. A professor at the University of Southern California (USC) has been placed on leave and under investigation over a simple and innocent Chinese word. The professor was discussing filler words in different languages such as "err", "umm", "like". For Mandarin he took the word 那个 which can be pronounced Nà-ge or Nèi-ge and is a common pause word, but it sounds like a rude word in English. The word 那个 just means "that". You can say as an example: 我要那个，那个 … (Wŏ yāo nèi-ge, nèi-ge …) which can be translated as: I want umm, umm… being a typical phrase from somebody who is about to make a decision while talking. However, several students complained to the university because they felt offended when they heard this word. USC has decided to take action.
Many students decided to sign a petition in support of the professor. What happened in this lecture also attracted attention in China and among Chinese students in the USA. There is fear that this might lead to some sort of discrimination or even attacks toward those who speak Chinese. Some said that this fact reminded them of the Cultural Revolution in China.
Not long ago, a lawyer in New York City was caught in a video ranting against Spanish-speaking restaurant workers, causing public outcry. The public then showed sympathy to speakers of foreign languages in that city, defending their right to speak their mother tongue. This time, why there is such reaction to a word taken from a foreign language, a word that clearly has nothing to do with any racial slur from anywhere?
In my opinion, the reaction of the USC has been disproportionate. It dismisses the fact that we are talking about a different language with its own rules and pronunciation which are not related to English. Are we going to censor speakers of foreign languages for words they might say, which we even do not understand? Languages deserve to be respected. I think we should respect the right of anybody to use their own language, the same way they learnt it from their families.