Ethnic restaurants as sites of cultural transfer: On Czechs’ adoption of Vietnamese in Prague

Author: Marián Sloboda (Charles University, Prague, Czechia)
Speaker: Marián Sloboda
Topic: Ethnography of Communication
COMELA 2020 General Session


Linguistic anthropologists have already devoted substantial attention to the transformation of the human relationship to language from an attribute of an ethnic community to an alienated economic object that can be ‘on demand’, sold, invested in, etc. (see the classical volume by Duchêne & Heller 2012). In this context of language commodification, ethnic businesses such as ethnic restaurants are an interesting phenomenon in the sense that they rely on both types of language affiliations: on a language’s ‘traditional’ linkage to the respective ethnic community (from which employees operating in the language are recruited) and the ‘late-capitalist’ linkage to a language’s indexical meanings (employed as an ‘added value’ of the goods or services offered). Nevertheless, even in such primarily economic uses of language, transfer of culture, including of (fragments of) a language, cultural knowledge or forms of conduct, from the minority ethnic community to the majority population takes place. I investigate this phenomenon of ‘language adoption’ (Franceschini 1999), and more widely ‘culture adoption’, in the workings of Vietnamese restaurants in Prague. Theoretically anchored in ethnomethodology (Francis & Hester 2004), this study focuses on the mundane practices – ranging from ordering a meal to asking from ‘ethnic’ staff information on pronunciation to assessing restaurants in online customer reviews – in which Czech customers learn, are expected to know, use and adapt certain Vietnamese expressions. I thus aim (1) to call attention to the minority-to-majority direction of social integration, (2) to show how the adoption of Asian culture by Europeans can currently be observed in real time in the ‘Asian Century’ and (3) to highlight the role of ethnic businesses in these processes. Data have been collected during two-year fieldwork and consist of participant observation as customer, photography and audio recording, as well as of desk-research on-line.

Duchêne, A. & Heller, M. (Eds.) (2012). Language in Late Capitalism: Pride and Profit. New York, London: Routledge.
Franceschini, R. (1999). Sprachadoption: der Einfluss von Minderheitensprachen auf die Mehrheit, oder: Welche Kompetenzen der Minderheitensprachen haben Mehrheitssprecher? Bulletin suisse de linguistique appliquée, 69(2). 137–153.
Francis, D. & Hester, S. (2004). An Invitation to Ethnomethodology: Language, Society and Social Interaction. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Keywords: ethnic restaurants, language adoption, cultural transfer, social interaction