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Linguistic delights of Toronto

In a multicultural metropolitan city like Toronto, it is quite common to hear a number of different languages being spoken when you are in any public space. I hope I don’t sound too stereotypical, but most often I subconsciously associate certain languages with people who look a certain way. For example, if I see a group of brown persons in the bus, I assume they are Indian (or “South Asian”) and I certainly don’t expect him to them speak, say, Norwegian.

Not necessarily in Toronto! This is a city that defies your stereotypical language assumptions.

  • The first time I heard a non-Indian person speak Hindi in Toronto was when I was catering for a party (back in 2006) and a fellow cater-waiter, who had blond hair, blue eyes and strong East-European features (later I learnt that he was Czech) started chatting to me in Hindi. I thought that was unusual, but then I was in Toronto for less than a month, what did I know. I told him I was from Mumbai, and he said in Marathi, “मुंबई छान अाहे” “Mumbai is nice”, ehhh. It’s very unusual for people to know Marathi.
  • Few months back I went to my bank (Bank of Montreal) and a young East-Asian lady, with a distinctly Chinese name was (wo)manning the service booth. I greeted her and subconsciously prepared my ears to hear some Chinese-accented English, but I was shocked when she addressed me in a proper Indian accent: “आप भारत से हो?” “Are you from India?” (formal). For few seconds, I stood there staring at her, dumbfounded. She said that she loved shocking people like that having lived in India all her life in a second generation Chinese immigrant family.
  • Then this one time I was in a west-Indian Roti shop, waiting for my order when two old east-Asian ladies walked in. ‘Two Chinese grandmas in a Jamaican restaurant… that’s kinda strange!’, I thought. I was almost expecting to hear some accented English, but instead I heard strange conversations: “Gimme wen glassa wata pleez”, “De nex time me will buy”, “How yuh eet so much!”, “Tek yu time man” and so on. Later a Jamaican friend told me that there are several people of Chinese ancestry that lived on the island. Pheww, who knew!

language humor

I’ve had reverse experiences too! I recently studied Russian before going on a trip to Russia.

  • The other day I was in the grocery store listening to my Russian lessons on iPod and repeating a sentence loudly, “Hi, if you have some time, would you like to have a drink with me?” I was startled when a voice behind me said, “Yes why not?”. It was a babushka (old woman) who had bumped into me, saying, “Ты в порядке?” “You okay?”
  • When I came back from Russia last year, at Toronto airport a Russian man asked me, “Ezkyooz me, izz the boos come ere?” Somehow, automatically I replied to him in Russian, giving him directions to the bus stop. I could see in his eyes the joy of hearing your mother tongue when you are in a foreign country, something that I’ve experienced few times.
  • I posted an advertisement on craigslist looking for a study buddy to practise Russian with. Guess who showed up? A Korean man who told me that he was learning Russian because he wanted to preach the “correct” (i.e. Catholic) Christian religion in Russia (which has Orthodox Christianity). I laughed out loud and left immediately as he pulled his bible out.

language humor

Making such generalizations and assumptions can often land you in funny situations.

  • The other day a big fat guy was sitting in the subway, with one vacant seat next to him. Since I like personal space, I preferred to stand rather than take that seat. A couple entered the coach in haste and the lady immediately ran to snatch that empty seat (Hint: That’s how you can tell if someone is new to Toronto – they rush!). Something conversation between the lady and her man occured and the next thing I know, the fat guy started grumbling loudly in Spanish at the couple. There were some angry exchange of words between them in Spanish. Apparently the couple was making fun of the fat guy’s fatness in Spanish, assuming that the fat guy didn’t understand them. Oops!
  • Also in the subway, I was once riding with my ex-boss who spoke Italian. Two college girls sitting opposite to us were giggling and talking something that seemed like girl-talk. My boss told me later that the girls were talking, in Italian, about boys and their recent sexual experience with all sleazy details. Awkward!

Toronto has a large number of inter-lingual couples and kids of such parents look not only un-stereotypical but also speak multiple languages fluently. So you see, Toronto is full of language surprises and these are just few random stories I remember. There was a time a white guy speaking fluent Hindi puzzled me, but now I kinda take that for granted. 😉

That’s why I love Toronto so much.

Published inSocial Commentary


  1. Zhu Zhu

    I laughed out loud reading this! I especially like the way you transcribed the old Chinese/ Jamaican women 😆 Mind you, there were quite a lot of Chinese people in Belize as well and I had the same surprise the first time there.

    I had a few language adventures too. A few weeks ago, a family asked me for direction to Parliament Hill. Since they were taking a wrong way and I was walking there anyway, I suggested we all go together. We started walking and since I had heard them talking in Spanish to each other, I started chatting in Spanish with them as well. They replied to me in Spanish, like it was perfectly natural. Only a few minutes later the mother paused, looked at me and said in English: “oh my God, you speak Spanish!”. 😆 She hadn’t realized we had switched to her mother tongue 😆

    I can usually understand Chinese people in the bus and caught myself laughing at jokes I was overhearing a few times.

    As for French speakers… how many times did I have an entire conversation in English with someone before we both realized we both spoke French!

    • Hello Zhu,

      I have noticed this automatic switching of language many times and its interesting, isn’t it! Isn’t it funny when you can understand Chinese and they don’t know that you understand it? The same happens with me and Russian, but I don’t speak that well, maybe in a couple of years!

      Hey how can you speak with a francophone and not know it?? They have an accent, don’t they? This whole language thing is very interesting!

  2. Nice! I also had plenty of these occurrences in the past. One time, the whole family was in Osaka, and we were exiting the subway station, so we were on an escalator. A woman was a few steps above us, and my dad remarked how ugly her body was. Immediately, the woman turned around and gave us a mean face. We didn’t realize that she spoke Tagalog as well.

    Now there’s a curiosity. You refer to South Asians as brown guys. I on the other hand grew up accustomed to being cognizant of having a brown complexion (there’s this Tagalog legend about how God sucked in baking: he first made a clay figure of a man, and the oven was too hot so it burned, which gave way to the black race, then he tried again and the oven was too cold, which produced the white race, and then he tried again and this time the oven was just right, which gave way to the brown race, pertaining to the Filipinos). You’ve seen me before, am I included in your ontology of brown people?

    • LOL that’s a funny story, but now we know that brown people are an expression of God’s perfection.

      Now about brown people. This group is a stereotype for South Asians although you may know that they come in all colors – from darkest brown in the south to almost white in the north (I am stereotyping again). So regardless of what your actual skin color is, I’m sorry but Filipinos cannot be included, just like a highly tanned white person cannot be brown. Plus you need to know certain things (such as wobbling your head to say ‘yes’, smell like spices and use 4 kinds of T’s and D’s in your speech) to be brown enough. I would classify you, for fun purposes only, as “Asian” or “yellow”, however inappropriate that might sound. 🙂

  3. Sid Sid

    It is definitely quite stunning at first. We had a sardarji in college who was from Andhra Pradesh. He was born and brought up there and though he could speak Hindi, he was far more comfortable in Telegu.
    It really freaked me out hearing a Sardar talk in Telegu and that too with accent and all!

    • hahaha, that would freak me out too!!

  4. Ha Ha! Loved reading this humorous post about your experiences with languages in Toronto! One can certainly touch a cord when you attempt to speak their language anywhere in the world -especially where you least expect it.

    • Precisely Gopinath! You got it. 🙂

  5. Mandar Mandar

    I can understand what you mean.

    I met this Swiss guy in Indian shop speaking perfect (wo any wiered accent) hindi and I striked good deal of conversation with him. Apparently he was volunteer for NGO in Ajmer :-).

    Its no less then a miracle I thought :-).

    • hehe, yeah unusual perhaps, nothing miraculous about it at all. 🙂

  6. Mridula Mridula

    Hahaha… awesome!!

    Je comprends le français! 🙂 😀
    Now, lets start a conversation in French! 😀

    • Oh no! Two brown people speaking French will be interesting no doubt! 🙂 Thanks for stopping by to comment Mridula. 🙂

  7. Hello buddy!
    What have you been up to lately?

    You should come and experience this linguistic diversity here in London. There are 300 languages spoken in London…

    • Hello LC, nice to hear from you! For sure I’d like to visit London some day!!

  8. renukavijairaghavan renukavijairaghavan

    Interesting experiences. you must share the gastronomic adventures as well. How are the herbal teas coming?

    Marathi manoos, Puneri.

    • Renuka kaku, thrilled to see you here!!

  9. very very well written and very Priyank with your trademrk personal touch. Loved it, enjoyed recounting it, had children read it for pleasure – then sat bk n enjoyed their laughter 🙂 hug, P

    • Hehehe, Thanks Trisha, you are always so generous with comments!

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