Imagine our disgust the other night when we went to the Marconi Italian Club only to discover the joint has been overrun by wogs.

“Table for four, signore?” the lippy waiter asked incomprehensibly, so I shot back: “Don’t signore me champ, this is Australia and I didn’t come here to be insulted with your jibber-jabber.”

Speaking slowly and a little bit more loudly to help him understand, I explained that all we wanted was a quick tea - nuggets and chips for the kids, a steak for me and a bowl of spaghetti bolognese for my lady wife.

And he starts up again using his hands and telling me about something called bistecca alla fiorentina, and I’m saying “mate just a steak alright, how hard is it?”, then he’s rabbiting on about patate frite for the kids, and the poor little buggers have got no idea going on, they’re clearly confused, and finally the cheeky bastard flashes a latin grin at my missus, even though she’s already asked for bolognese, and says that he’s going to give her something called a ragu.

Not on my watch.

We were back in the car within minutes and grabbed some Dolmio on the way home - and really, it was just as good if not better than anything you could get in a restaurant, and without the language lesson.

Are some people still this backward and insecure in this country of ours?

The answer - in Italian, just to irritate them further - is obviously si.

Daily Telegraph reporter Nick Tabakoff - who in passing should be commended for the clarity of his prose given his exotic ancestry - revealed this week that Sydney’s Marconi Club, of all places, had instructed all staff, not just those in front-of-house positions, that they are no longer allowed to speak languages other than English while working.

This hysterically confused rule - implemented at a place where you’d presume both the patrons and the punters are comfortable with cultural diversity - has now unleashed quite a furore, which itself is an interloping latin word translating roughly into Australian as “stink”, “ruckus” or “barney”.

Much of the commentary has been derisory, saying it is only right that a club specifically designed to celebrate Italian heritage should threaten staff with sanction if they start carrying on like foreigners, and while we’re at it, perhaps all the menus should be changed so as to not offend our rich Anglo-Saxon heritage. You can keep your carbonara mate, I’ll be having the wheat noodles with egg, cheese and bacon. Sounds so much more evocative, doesn’t it?

But many others have been remarkably gung-ho in their support for the Marconi club, saying it’s about time someone stood up for the primacy of English and the rights of Anglo-Australians, even if they do happen to be called Guido and hail from Sicily.

Some have argued - and it’s not so much an argument as a diagnosable mental illness - that people who aren’t speaking English are possibly talking about them.
It’s such a wacky old 1950s view, probably one which we inherited in part from our English forbears with their historic mistrust of the continentals and their flash polyglotted ways, and it’s staggering that these days people are even prepared to put their name to such a comment without fear of ridicule.

Deep down it reflects a basic insecurity about your own intellect - namely the very real risk that if someone can speak not one but two languages, they might be smarter than you. This is because they probably are.

At the nub of this whole issue is what should really be a separate question - the failure of some migrants to learn English, and the reluctance of government to compel them to do so by tying proficiency in our national language to citizenship or employment.

People have a right to jack up about that.

The current row over the standard of taxi drivers is a case in point. You could put up with the Bollywood hits or the chanting of the Koran being blasted out of the stereo if the bloke behind the wheel could a.) muster the linguistic wherewithal to say please, hello, thank you and have a nice day, and b.) knew where the Opera House was.

Proficiency in the national language is the entry point for all of these communities into broader society. It has always been undesirable for communities to remain cut off, to only mix with their own number. Blame for failure to do so must rest largely with them, as it shows a self-absorbed and disengaged approach to settlement in a new land.

But the parallel of this conceit and disengagement has been demonstrated by the “we grew here you flew here” set which thinks that its own artless brand of English should be the lingua franca of our wide white land, to the exclusion of all others.

Not just in the context of the Marconi Club story, but even more alarmingly in the backlash to the NSW Government’s terrific proposal, applauded by The Daily Telegraph in its editorial last week, to teach primary school students Asian languages such as Mandarin and Bahasa Indonesian.

Setting aside the mild qualifier that people are more likely to vote in a poll when they’re angry than happy, it is still massively depressing that 55 per cent of people have said that there should be no bilingual primary schools in NSW.

People should really think this through a bit more. One of the key reasons our nation is doing so well economically isn’t the size of Howard’s surplus or Rudd’s stimulus, but the fact that we are surrounded by the new powerhouse economies of the 21st century, not just in Asia but to our east in Latin America. Even the most unreconstructed hillbilly should recognise that there’s an economic imperative for being able to deal with these nations.

There’s also a human imperative. It makes life more interesting. You might learn something you didn’t know, meet someone you would otherwise not have met, have a conversation you might never have had.

Unless of course your idea of fun is sitting in the Italian Club eating bangers and mash and listening to Barnesy rather than that warbling Andrew Bocelli bloke, or anyone else for that matter who can’t speak proper.

Most commented

38 comments

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    • sophie says:

      07:04am | 11/11/09

      Sounds like your intro was lifted from Nino Culotta’s, ‘They’re a Weird Mob’.

      But who is the weird mob? Maybe we are.

      Can i get a spoon for my spaghetti please?

    • nigel says:

      07:33am | 11/11/09

      That’s a little over the top Pembo. Presuming that everybody is capable of speaking English at the club, there would be absolutely no element of doubt surrounding communications. Unlike Italian, where presumably not everyone speaks it. Maybe the rule has been introduced so there can be no opportunity for some staff to gutter-talk and disrespect co-workers and managers. Even customers. Hands up anyone who hasn’t been to a restaurant at some time or another and felt themselves being ridiculed by staff in their native tongue? That doesn’t make me a racist. Just a realist who would prefer everything on a level playing field. And I doubt they’d be disciplined for saying ‘Gratzi’ as they collected up the menus. Let’s put things in perspective. Now, pass the Parmesan.

    • Stephen Pickells says:

      07:32am | 11/11/09

      I was on a bus in Switzerland and siting behind me were two missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They were talking very loudly and disparagingly about Switzerland - the people, the food, the climate - everything.
      Maybe they didn’t realise that most Swiss people can actually understand English. Or maybe they were just dickheads (the two not being mutually exclusive). Either way, they were not ideal ambassadors for their religion.

    • Mr Hyde says:

      07:39am | 11/11/09

      There are plenty of people here whose grasp on their one and only language is poor enough. For example there is a reasonable chance that someone who reads only the opening paragraphs of your piece, Penbo, will miss the heavy irony and write an angry post about your intolerance.

      The news is good however. A large number of young people have already been schooled here in a language other than English. And far from detracting from the teaching of English as some ignorant opponents of the government’s scheme to widen language teaching claim, mastering a second language assists understanding of the first.

    • Helen says:

      07:38am | 11/11/09

      I would just love my son to have Bahasa and Mandarin as language choices (too late for daughter, she’s studying for VCE exams now.) I did two years of Mandarin at the University of Melbourne, where they offered the subject “from scratch” - don’t know if that’s still the case. It was one of the most interesting and enjoyable subjects I’ve ever done. In the end one of the reasons I didn’t pursue it was that in those days most Melbourne Chinese spoke southern languages such as Cantonese. Now I hear the lilting sound of Mandarin almost every day and regret having lost it.
      I’d recommend studying one of these languages to anyone.
      (Son’s school does offer Japanese, which he’s selected for next year, but it’s maybe not quite as relevant to Australia as the languages David mentioned.)

    • Tim says:

      07:43am | 11/11/09

      C’mon Penbo,
      i think it is completely reasonable that when conversing in front of customers that you speak a language that is known to all present. I think it is extremely rude to be having a side conversation in another language when the customer has no idea what you are talking about.
      As for you comment about people talking about them, I learned Italian in school and didn’t we have fun making derisory comments about teachers and other students in another language. That is until we got busted by the Italian teacher.

    • iansand says:

      07:49am | 11/11/09

      Silly.  Everyone speaks restaurant Italian.

    • WC says:

      08:01am | 11/11/09

      I for one prefer that people speak another language when they are insulting me.  I think it is a win, win.  I get a nice dinner in a multicultural setting and they get to make their work more fun for themselves by slagging out the customers.

    • st says:

      08:07am | 11/11/09

      Maybe it’s the english decent however speaking another language in Australia does get quite a few strange looks. I speak Portuguese and Spanish so when for instance I’m speaking to my Brazilian friends i’ll speak in Portuguese. It just seems normal to do. To Australians it isn’t.

      Maybe if we are to fit in a bit more, we show the courtesy that they have by learning english to at least try to learn theirs. It doesn’t have to be functional, just enough to be able to exchange pleasantries. And yes I do support bilingual schools and the compulsory learning of another language in schools.

    • John Paul says:

      08:21am | 11/11/09

      Immigrants are becoming more and more Australian by having a complete lack of respect for the settlers of the land… I for one applaud this, how do we expect them to adapt to the Australian “culture” when there is no culture in Australia expect for that which is brought to these shores?

    • grantt says:

      08:33am | 11/11/09

      Awww poor David,

      So much pent up anger, sounds like someone needs a bex and a little lie down?

    • Jolanda says:

      08:35am | 11/11/09

      Often these clubs create problems for their patrons as they are frequented by the older generation or new arrivals who speak in their native tongue whilst socializing with each other and as a result they loose the ability to speak English well.  These people also get a satellite dish and watch movies from their own country and they stop hearing English being spoken and they stop conversing in English.  I personally think that it makes them mix less with other English speaking Australians as they loose the confidence in their ability and they tend to stay only with those of the same background and kind.  Personally I think this is a shame.

      On that note I would say that my mother is one of those people.  Spends time at the Spanish Club and watches Spanish movies and always speaks to her children in Spanish and is losing her English but us kids, when speaking to each other refuse to speak Spanish, even if she is present.  She has to learn and it is in her best interest to use her brain and stay familiar with the English language as she lives in Australia.

    • AdamC says:

      08:50am | 11/11/09

      Nigel makes a good point. While not having all the background to this issue, isn’t it quite possible the English rule was brought in because the establishment now employs non-Italian staff who can’t speak Italian?

      And it is quite proper that English be Australia’s lingua franca. While people are obviously free to converse in other languages, Australia’s language of general communication (in business, government, etc) is English. There are lots of good reasons for having a common language. That is why almost all countries with a history of regional languages and dialects (including, quite notably, Italy) went through a deliberate process of standardising a national language. It would be pretty dumb if Australia started to do that process in reverse!

      PS, I am not criticising bilingualism. Rees’ schools plan is great, but probably won’t happen!

    • H of SA says:

      09:05am | 11/11/09

      Good point David,

      Fear of people from another culturla background is tragic and demeaning to us, meanwhile over at the Sri Lankan club…..

    • Jan says:

      09:14am | 11/11/09

      UMmmmm. Eggselent!

    • Bryce says:

      09:17am | 11/11/09

      Brilliant article Penbo. Australia’s physical distance from so much of the rest of the world already puts the country at a huge competitive disadvantage. The sort of xenophobia that demands English be spoken to placate the paranoiacs who think shifty foreign wait staff are dissing them while they serve up their spaghetti can only further cement Australia’s reputation as an out-of-touch, small-minded backwater. It’s a big world out there people - and not everyone in it speaks English. If Australia is going to take its place in an increasingly globalised and inter-connected world, it needs to start being curious about other cultures and languages rather than suspicious.

    • Rafferty says:

      09:29am | 11/11/09

      This apparent inititive at Club Marconi is more than likely down to the fact that second-generation “Italian-Australians” and assorted other tryhards out that way can’t speak the old lingua very well - if at all - and feel a little bit too ‘Aussie’ around some of the old timers and Italian-speaking staff..

      These are the same people who congregate in Norton St every four years decked in Kappa shell-suits and still think Roberto Baggio is playing.

    • MJ says:

      09:40am | 11/11/09

      I can’t believe some of the comments I’m reading. What is so wrong with immigrants speaking their native tounge, these people are hard working, contributing Auustralians. So what if for them they can communicate better speaking italian to not screw up your order. Also they still speak english to you, but some of the chefs/cooks only have a basic level of english, and to communicate with them for the order it best done in italian. Now I know I’ll get but they live in Australia, but you must remember these people were poorly educated in their own country, came here as an adult, and learnt the language to best of their ability. What is so wrong if they can communicate freely with other speakers of the language??? Should we persecute them in a “free” “tolerating” country, by not allowing them to converse, knowing the person next to them understands them clearly in their native tounge. Many people are too paranoid here, and think people are talking about them. What next, italian mass at church will be banned??? I think you would find if these italians could speak better at english they would, but why can’t we be happy knowing they try their best. It sounds like that many of the people here when speaking to an immigrant, would be saying in their heads ‘speak english’, but they are, be tollerant to the fact, that it is hard. That is why you see the nonna’s bring their kids along when shopping, etc, so people can better understand them. If you go to a club, which expresses their diverse culture, and you don’t like the language the person on the other table is speaking, just leave, and never go back, because we can see that you are just not a tollerant person. Immigrants also do not neglect the language, that is why their children speak english. It is solely a generational gap, for communication purposes, not in defience to the english language, so stop being paranoid.

    • Sam Chowder says:

      09:59am | 11/11/09

      Australian Mullticulturalism - Bring your cooking and a bit of your dancing but leave the rest behind mate.

    • AM says:

      11:08am | 11/11/09

      As a child of a migrant, who could speak, read and write fluently in five languages, I have absolutely no issue with people speaking other languages than English. Many Australians generally don’t like hearing other languages, because unless they come from a non-English speaking background, they don’t know any other languages other than English. Learning other languages in Australia is promoted as some business tool that you may need if you want to do business or work overseas. It is not promoted as a cultural and academic tool, and is largely considered as unnecessary.
      People who can use more than one language are usually more articulate in many other areas as well, including mathematics and science as they are using more areas of their brain and are able to understand more concepts.
      My children are learning at least one other language fluently and also enjoy learning concepts from other languages, like counting, greeting and simple conversations.  I can ususually pick up what language is being spoken even if I don’t understand what is being said.
      I always find it amusing that many world leaders speak at least three languages, whereas all the English speaking leaders are monolingual. Kevin Rudd is probably Australia’s first PM who can speak fluently in another language beyond basic high school level.

    • Grant says:

      12:00pm | 11/11/09

      @ AM,

      I wish I could be as good as you

    • David C says:

      12:00pm | 11/11/09

      We carry on a lot in Australia about multiculturalism yet it seems to me we are encouraging monoculturalism

    • laurie says:

      12:00pm | 11/11/09

      I enjoyed the article by Pembo because even though I have no Italian blood I openly admit loving all things Italian. The food, the clothes, my Brando shoes and of course the cars. They’re one ethnic group who don’t deserve to be ridiculed. Gee-whiz, isn’t the great U.S.A named after an Italian ? Ameriga Vespucci? And didn’t another Italian discover America ? Cristoforo Colombo ring a bell ? It’s a shame us anglos don’t know this, I feel sorry for the Italians because they invented so many good things but never get acknowledged for it. They just sit back and don’t seem to care…

    • ChelseaLee says:

      12:47pm | 11/11/09

      David, the general public don’t need more Eyetalian. They get their Eyetalian from a jar at the local supermarket, which they warm and pour on top of their overcooked Latina Fresh. The authentic preservation of the ingredients fills their home with the decadent aroma of cardboard and melted plastic, and the dish is served with some garlic bread, which they found in the back of the freezer section.

    • Clover says:

      12:47pm | 11/11/09

      Nah, calm down, it’s just being polite really.

      When I go for a massage and all the girls are chatting away in their own language it is pretty excluding. It’s the same in this case. It’s good customer service not to speak in a language that your customers don’t understand. It’s not infringing on workers rights to speak their own language outside of work.

      Would we say it was infringing on workers rights having to wear a work uniform while working and not their country’s national dress? C’mon.

    • Castro says:

      12:52pm | 11/11/09

      Some interesting points have been made. Speaking of the Italian language however, Vaspucci, who America was named after was a man hence his name was actually Amerigo.  The continent was changed to the feminine ‘America’ for consistency with other continents (Asia, Africa, etc).

      Nitpicking aside, the author and many people commenting here seemed to have missed the point.  The decision to ban speaking Italian in the Italian Club (obviously ludicrous) was made by the board of the Italian Club, presumably people voted in by the members of the club and connected to the Italian community.  Therefore, linking this to an argument claiming Australians are racist and xenophobic etc is wrong and deeply offensive. 

      This is not some broad conspiracy by middle class white elites, nor is it ‘dog whistling’ to ‘rednecks’ (to use another racist term).  This is a silly decision made by the Italian board of an Italian club.

      The author and commentors who have tried to cast this in a sinister light are guilty of the inflammatory talk and bigotry that they purport to disagree with.  Penbo, I expect better from you and eagerly await your apology.  I’ve got a feeling I will be waiting a while.

    • bella starkey says:

      12:55pm | 11/11/09

      America wasnt named after Ameriga Vespucci. Places aren’t given people’s first names unless that person is a monarch.

    • E says:

      12:56pm | 11/11/09

      During the Cold War, an American and a Russian are talking…
      “So Yuri, youre saying that under a communist system, if I need something you have, you will give it to me, because there is no personal property?”
      “Da Steve, that is correct.”
      “So if you have 2 cars, and I need one, you will give one to me?”
      “Da Steve, that is correct”
      “And if you have 2 refridgerators and i dont have one, you will give one to me?”
      “Da, that is correct”
      “And if you had 2 shirts, and I need one, you will give one to me?{”
      At that Yuri looks distressed, “Nyet Steve!”
      “Why not Yuri?”
      “Because Steve, I actually have 2 shirts.”

    • jack says:

      01:00pm | 11/11/09

      Mate, I would happily bet you a couple of schooners that the staff were not being discouraged from speaking Italian, but rather some other language. Did your intrepid reporter ask the question?

      As to bi-lingual education, well people have different views about it. Our son goes to a bi-lingual school here in Hong Kong and he loves it and it suits him, but other kids I know have struggled, hated it and made different choices.

      Wherever in the world you live, If your kids don’t speak English at home, you must get them in a school where they will learn it well. If they already speak English, well another language is a handy addition.

      Me, I speak Engrish, restaurant French and Italian, a smattering of Bahasa, and now, Taxi Canto, ie enough to get a feed, get on the sauce and still get home with a non-Engrish speaking cabbie. I generally get a laugh from the locals as my tones are so bad when I use my Canto, and of course they yabber away to each other insulting me as I chat to them, but who cares.

    • Linds says:

      01:05pm | 11/11/09

      As an Italo- first generation Aussie I take great offence at “Rafferty’s” comment.  You have no idea! Those just like me would not have a problem with the older generation speaking Italian (or its dialets) around us in a personal or work environment.  It’s want we grew up hearing from either grandparents or parents.  It is not offensive to us in the slightest - it’s who we are. We have spent a lifetime across two cultures and know what it feels like to be the “wog” when it wasn’t cool.  To continue hearing the older generation mix the mother-tongue with English is not only entertaining but extremely comforting to us - it’s our identity.  It is only those like me who can relate to hearing the old folks using “backa yarda” for back yard, “goodie” for good and “cummin ova hiya” for come over here - would ever understand what it means to be part of the two worlds.

      To state its probably those of my generation that have an the issue - and thus creating the Marconi Club outcry is pure BS. And, then to further state we pretend to adopt a love of things Italian like - soccer & kappa (without knowing who might currently play) when it suits is is again BS.  You my “frienda” are implying that those of my generation are stupid.  Its opinions such as yours that keeps the racism card alive in this country and puts pressures on businesses across all spectrums to “conform” to the perfect Australian ideal.

    • Stephen Pickells says:

      01:17pm | 11/11/09

      I think some of the commenters on this thread are a bit too precious. Good manners? When have good manners ever been held up as an Australian ideal. When you hear somebody talking about you in another language, the subtext is “I wasn’t talking to you”.

    • stephen says:

      03:09pm | 11/11/09

      When I hear another language spoken, I know that person is from elsewhere, and that they are here because they like us.
      Aussies shouldn’t feel intimidated by this. If we maintain the highest personal standards, and let new arrivals and indeed, the older migrants retain their ‘personality’, Multiculturalism,  will work. Assimilation (Kevin Andrew’s version of the ‘mixing pot’) will not make us more interesting.

    • H of SA says:

      04:22pm | 11/11/09

      It would be a much less interesting Australia if we only ever hear one language in this country.

      As one of my international student friends told me, his favourite thing about Australia is the mulitculturalism - he said “It’s like you don’t have to travel” because there is so much to experience here already. To homogenise all that would be….boring.

    • snilbert says:

      05:21pm | 11/11/09

      Magnifico Penbo!

    • Jack says:

      06:28pm | 11/11/09

      cmon pnbo, let’s make it an even hundred, were they Italian speaking staff, or did that just make a better story?

      Be the first Italian speaking back of house staff in F@B in Sydney in twenty years if they are.

    • Helen G says:

      07:27am | 12/11/09

      I encourage the teaching of a second language at school but I would like to see an indigenous language taught and become an officially recognised language of this country.  This may stop everyone constantly bleeting on about their culture and make them think about the culture that was here for 40000 years before white man arrived.  No-one gives a toss about indigenous australians - pull your head in the lot of you!

    • Robyn says:

      07:27am | 12/11/09

      I think every school should be ‘bilingual’, it is great for children - and everyone. However, there should be choices - to say ‘you must learn Indonesian or Chinese’ is unfair and a little biased.

    • Garry says:

      01:41pm | 12/11/09

      Having grown up in the Northen Hemisphere my two language lessons were English and French, becuase French was seen as the other European language. I regret not having the choice for speaking Spanish as this to me is a little more universal than French in Europe. Now here I would like for Kids to have the choice of good English, i.e. Grammer and Lit, but also Japanese, Indonesian, Mandarin or cantonese. For as an Asian regional land these are where most of our regional customers and of course neighbours are… it may also build our relationships further.

 

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