What’s Your Salary?

By Hina

There’s this couple I’ve known for many years. The wife graduated with a B.A. in English Literature and had taught English for many years. The husband, on the other hand, was a doctor. Having research experience abroad and about 30 years of experience on the field, he had high credentials and did well, although he was sometimes a little socially awkward.

I was talking on the phone the other day to the wife, who was complaining about the lack of her husband’s English ability. “I was so ashamed when we went out for dinner with that doctor from Taiwan. All he could ask in his bad pronunciation was how much [the Taiwanese doctor] earned and what he did in his free time.” “He asked how much he earned?” “Yes, and that was all he could ask.” “Oh… Well, that’s too bad.” “I was mortified. I can never go out with him!”

…everyone, meet my wonderful parents.

Not to show any disrespect towards them, but this conversation got me thinking about what “native-ness” means. It does not just point to where they’re from, but also encompasses how well they command themselves in the language – their pronunciation and social skills. Moyer (2004) mentions that pronunciation is what people use to judge “native-ness” the most (p. 85), so in order to sound native, pronunciation is a must. Additionally, when we learn a second language, we need to know what is or is not acceptable in the society. Asking about someone’s salary is quite acceptable in Japan, especially if you have a higher position (like my dad did). On the other hand, it is usually unacceptable in English-speaking countries to do the same thing. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis says that culture and language are so tightly bound that learning a new language means that you’ll also learn a new culture and worldview as well (Brown, 2007, pp. 211-213). Sometimes, by learning a second language and the various cultural aspects that come with the process, we must learn to ignore the ways of our first language and culture, adapting to the ways of the second culture.

There’s a story about a Japanese guy who went abroad and ordered, “Pan (bread) – tsuu (two)!” to which the waiter confusedly asked, “You want pants? This is a restaurant, sir.” We laugh at these stories, but maybe those are just innocent mistakes. Just like second language learning takes a long time, acquiring the culture that comes with it will take awhile, too.



4 thoughts on “What’s Your Salary?”

  1. Cynota

    Hi Hina,

    I have been also thinking about the relationship between culture and language.

    “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis says that culture and language are so tightly bound that learning a new language means that you’ll also learn a new culture and worldview as well (Brown, 2007, pp. 211-213).”

    As a teacher, in multicultural Montreal, I have to deal with so many worldviews in the same classroom. The scene you described, a cultural misstep, is very common, especially here in Montreal. Teaching culture is complex when there are so many of them to consider.

    In my classroom, at the International Language School, I teach young people from many places, together in one class, so for culture, it is a “smorgasbord” (a meal with many different types of food).

    I recently observed, during introductions, a little cultural clash! The Japanese student (a young man) was trying to be friendly, and asked a French student (a young woman) for her name, then he asked for her nickname. She thought that he was getting too friendly, and closed the conversation by saying to him that “only my boyfriend knows that”. I spoke to the Japanese student, because he looked upset. He explained that it is custom in Japan to have nicknames and that your friends all know each others nicknames.

    I have faith, that in a few short months, my students will tune in to what the norms are in their social situation. I think that in a multicultural English learning environment, cultural sensitivity may be more appropriate to learn that cultural norms.


  2. Yu-Ting, Liu

    Hello Hina,

    I found it amusing while reading (I’m Taiwanese!). It’s true that asking about salary is not a big deal in our culture. Everyone is just honest about their salary if they feel like talking about it. If not, it’s not that offensive as in English speaking countries. When I was young, I always heard people said “if you want to learn a language well, you have to learn about the culture”. I believe it’s true. In this case, even though the doctor had a perfect pronunciation, people won’t find him “perfect” in English because of his clumsy social skills. It’s the same for us to say “How are you?” to an English speaker, instead of “Did you eat yet?” as a way to greet people in Chinese culture. I think it’s all about the width and depth we explore the language and culture that makes you sound like a native speaker.


  3. Hello, Hina!

    Thank you for sharing !
    I found your story very interesting as sometimes I face the same problem as you did. For example, In Chinese culture, ordering a lot of food and making sure people will not finish all of them are the ways to show the considerateness to the guests. However, in western culture, it is seen as the waste. When I ordered a lot of food for western people, trying to show the friendly, and respectfulness. They don’t understand it. This is so culturally awkward.

    I agree that culture differences should be taught as a part of the language. But on the other hand, if people from different cultures and languages tend to be same regarding their behaviors, that would be quite hard to keep their own identity. Therefore, on one hand, we aim to enhance student’s multicultural ability by teaching the socially accepted behaviors. On the other hand, we want all the students to keep their own identities. I think we have a paradox here.

    I know a Japanese girl, and I noticed when she wants to show the agreement in English, she likes to say “yea, yea yea”.By repeating it for several times, she confirms her agreement. In this case, I think the Japanese language makes an influence on her way of speaking English. I really like her way of speaking of English, and that makes her different. But she told me sometimes people think that indicates her lacking of language ability.


  4. Géraldine Gras (comment 6):
    Hello Hina,

    I related closely to your post as I have often told my parents they sound “so french” when they speak English. Having acquired English as a second language early on, my brother and I both acquired a native-like speaking abilities. However, when my parents spoke English, it was very clear they were far from native. I remember being 16 years old. My father was on a talk-show, an English talk-show. He was so nervous and all I said was: “You sounded really French”. Clearly, I had an obsession with sounding native like in English. I don’t know where it comes from. As a teacher however, I am not someone who takes into consideration whether a learner sounds native-like (for example due to accents) on oral tasks. I’ve since apologized to my father and now that he is in France, his confidence in English has increased. His accent in France is less important than his proficiency in English – as it should, truly always be.


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