Thursday, October 20, 2011

Language and the Private/Public Sphere

There are two types of people involved in Tibetan Issues: those who, through their involvement, make personal connections inside of Tibetan communities and those who do not. While people might automatically condemn those without personal connections, based on my own experience (as can be seen in previous posts) those with personal connections often do a great deal of damage as well. Likewise, there are many people doing a great job of spreading information and other activities despite being in a situation where personal interaction with Tibetans is near impossible. This is not to say one is better or worse than the other, there are good people and bad people on both sides, but there is a divide. What I really want to talk about is something that I see among people in the second group: we who make personal connections, outside of our work, study, journalism, dharma or activism, with the Tibetan community.

By doing so, we enter their space. We remove ourselves from the public forum in which we conduct our other interactions. This might be physical interactions or, in this modern day and age of iphones, the world of social networking. We have moved from public business discussions into the world of friendship; the world of the private. This puts us on radically different footing.

I was browsing Facebook the other day when I came upon a picture posted by a Tibetan man living in India. Most of his Facebook friends, not to mention real-life friends, are Tibetans and his primary language is Tibetan. The picture was from a recent Tibetan event and he captioned it in Tibetan. Most of his friends likewise responded in Tibetan. However, one of the early responses came from a foreign Tibet supporter and read "English, please, so that others can understand."

I was immediately taken aback. He was not posting on a public, international forum or on an English language website: he was posting on the wall of his personal Facebook page. Not only that, but the primary readers of his page, his Facebook "friends" are Tibetans. What right do we, as foreigners and friends, have to demand the use of English in Tibetan personal space? Even in the case that we are invited into that personal space, it makes us no better than tourists who go to a foreign country and demand the use of English.

This is not to say that I do not have sympathy for the English poster. Several of my friends on Facebook write in very high level, scholarly Tibetan which can leave me in the dust. However, there is a difference between asking for help and demanding the use of my language, which in this private space is the minority language. Why not say "Hi! I don't understand the caption. Could some one help me with it?" thereby requesting assistance while respecting the space and people around as opposed to demanding that the Tibetan-speaking majority in Tibetan-speaking space conform to one's own English speaking whims.

We, as Americans, are famous and notorious for demanding foreign visitors and immigrants to our shores learn English if they are going to live here. How would we feel if a Pashto speaker, for example, marched into our home and demanded that we speak Pashto so that others could understand--within the privacy of our own space? Tibetan language is an important part of Tibetan identity. If we are claiming to support Tibet, we should then encourage the use of the language. We are so used to the privilege of having everyone speak English, of believing ourselves to be welcome everywhere. Supporting Tibet means respecting Tibetans, respecting their language, and respecting their space. The option always exists to learn Tibetan or respectfully ask for assistance, rather than demand that our English-speaking needs be met


  1. I completely agree with you that one should not demand translations in English (or any language) on someone else's Facebook wall. To me, doing so implies a certain sense of self-entitlement. I also agree that believe that there is a general expectation that Americans (and most English-speakers for that matter) have that people from abroad should accommodate their language to suit them.

    But another issue is that the 'Facebook wall' is an odd mix of both public and personal space. It often feels like personal space and some things suggest it is personal, like the fact that you have the right to delete things that others put on your wall. On the other hand, it's a public space where you are broadcasting information to the people on your friend's list.

    To use the analogy of being at a party, if I post something in a language that many of my friends don't understand, it's like selecting the group of friends who do speak that language and having a conversation with them in a corner of the room while the party's still going on. To have people demand a translation is like having others barge in on our conversation and demand that we accommodate them. On the other hand, to those people who demanded the translation, they may think that they were always part of the conversation.
    (I actually just blogged about this last week, albeit about language choice on Facebook at a more personal level

  2. Thanks for the link to your post. It was a very interesting read. And yes, facebook is a strange combination of public and private space. As a multilingual person myself, with several "cliques" on facebook who speak different languages, this can create a situation like the party analogy of someone who believes that they are in the conversation. I think that one thing that makes this specific situation different is that, in regards to the person in question, the vast majority of his facebook friends and activities are Tibetan. So it would be more like an american walking into a Japanese party in Japan where the majority of the party goers are Japanese, and demanding that they speak in English.

    The irony, of course, is that Tibet supporters often go on major campaigns to support the protection of Tibetan language.

    However, outside of Tibet, as you point out, this is a vast issue commonplace to many multilingual people. I loved seeing your perspective. Thank you!

  3. I'm married to a Tibetan man, and for a couple of years during the late 90's I served on the my local Tibetan community's educational board. All other members were Tibetan, and often the language used was English. There were times when someone would be more comfortable in Tibetan and everyone was very apologetic to me. I ALWAYS insisted that I was the minority and that they SHOULD speak Tibetan...I'd take the summary. It didn't and doesn't make sense to me to do otherwise.


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