What Should We Speak at Dinner?

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12/16/2006

Ave. I & Troy Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11210

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Flatbush

“What should we serve for dinner?” often translates, for me, into, “What should we speak at dinner?” My household is the confluence of five languages. I’m French and my husband is Haitian and Italian. Our older son married a young woman from Taiwan while our younger son’s fiancée is from Trinidad. This mélange of native tongues can make the most casual conversation arduous in my home so, to avoid strained gatherings, I often only invite people who speak the same language to dinner.

I know too well the discomfort of being unable to communicate or understand what is being said. I still feel a churning in my stomach whenever I think of the first Haitian party my husband and I attended. We were newlywed and I didn’t know Haitian Creole yet. My husband promptly reconnected with long-lost friends and forgot about me. I sat next to him, ill-at-ease and silent. I only understood the French words that Haitian Creole is peppered with. The chatter around me sounded like a low-level grumble sprinkled with high notes. Most of the people present probably spoke French fluently, but I don’t remember anyone addressing me in that language.

I took comfort in the food. Someone circled the room with plates loaded with beef patties and fried akra. I now know that the latter is made from finely grated yucca which I was not accustomed to. It was mixed with onions and codfish and I was thankful for their familiar taste. Dinner was served buffet style and I helped myself to fried pork and rice and beans. Both were also new dishes to me and I was happy to recognize the flavors of thyme and clove.

I eventually understood that most multilingual people are not indifferent or rude, but they rather speak the language with which they are most comfortable. They often automatically switch to their native tongue in the natural flow of a conversation. I too have been guilty of that offense. Once, at a party another guest confronted me with, “I don’t understand what you’re saying. I know you aren’t doing it purposely. You don’t even realize what you’re doing to me.” She said this without a trace of resentment, but I was appalled at my unintentional rudeness. I had absent-mindedly switched to a language that someone who was standing right there didn’t understand.

I have also learned that multilingual gatherings spontaneously follow unspoken rules. It doesn’t take much for the balance to tip in favor of one language or another. The presence of one special guest can make a difference. If my mother is visiting, French is the language favored. It’s also during her visits that I serve snails as she faithfully brings cans of escargots with her. If one of my husband’s Italian relatives makes a rare appearance, he too, gets the special treatment. Setting is another important factor. People tend to feel free to speak the language they are more familiar with at a barbecue or at a cocktail party, while a sit-down dinner–more formal–is likely to generate conversations in one language.

The most unusual multilingual get-together I ever experienced was a party made up of two distinctly different groups of people, one spoke English and the other, Haitian Creole. The English-speaking guests congregated in the dining room. They all worked for the same company and talked among themselves about office politics. The Haitian Creole speakers sat in the living room and debated the latest Haitian news. There was only a minimum of chatting between the two groups because the desire to converse with those who shared common interests and background was too strong. Everyone had a good time, but who knows what friendships we might have developed or what knowledge we might have acquired from each other if we had intermingled more?

This experience, and a few others, convinced me that sticking to one language per dinner was the best solution. With monolingual gatherings, I could ensure that everyone present could debate, reminisce and joke in the comfort of shared language and cultural references. I was certain it was the only recipe for a successful party, until my older son and his wife hosted a Thanksgiving dinner one year. They did the exact opposite of what I usually do. It was a multicultural gathering with four different native languages: English, Haitian Creole, French, and Taiwanese. As a group, we probably would not socialize outside of an occasion such as this one, yet the dinner was a success.

We were the host couple’s close family–their parents and siblings. The conversation was light, the meal potluck-style. We admired the turkey my son had prepared, which was oven-browned to perfection, and praised its taste. He had marinated it overnight in grapefruit juice which made it tender and flavorful. His sister-in-law had prepared salads and a cake–Martha Stewart style. I had brought cauliflower au gratin and rice and beans–a dish I had become expert at preparing. My son’s mother-in-law loved the mix of flavors, so different from the sticky rice she was used to. She asked me for the recipe.

It was the young couple’s first Thanksgiving and we all wanted to make it a success. I realized that, although setting and language are important dynamics, they are not key. What matters the most is something as plain as boiled potatoes: the desire we have to spend a pleasant time together.

I tested that theory a few weeks later, by inviting people from Haiti, Italy, Brazil and France to our New Year Eve’s party. I let everybody know in advance that it was an international gathering. As people arrived, I was careful to find some connection between them. For instance, Leo worked for an airline and Eddy was planning to visit Rome in the summer. Nicole and Maria both loved cats. Carole worked with children and Lola had two of her own. At one point, I asked a friend if the mix of languages and people made the evening less congenial. Her reply was spontaneous and heartfelt, “No, we learn more things that way.”

I understood exactly what she meant. We were out of our comfort zone and we were enjoying it. If I had invited the usual crowd, we would have had a good time talking about familiar subjects and joking about well-known topics, but the diversity of this group had created a different kind of energy, which was refreshing.

We ate frog legs, lasagna, Caribbean chicken, and glazed ham. At midnight, we watched the ball drop in Times Square, while savoring a lentil soup prepared by one of the Brazilian guests, who explained, “In Brazil, we believe that lentils bring good luck and wealth in the upcoming year.” Then we ate oranges because in Haiti, fruits with seeds are traditionally eaten at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, since seeds are a symbol of prosperity. We toasted the New Year with a bottle of French champagne.

So I now know that, even in multilingual contexts, the most important question when preparing a gathering is not, “What shall we speak at dinner?” but, “Will the guests have a pleasant time together?” If the answer is yes, the party is likely to be a success.

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