Monday, October 15, 2007

How to bury the language barrier

After a late night at work, I often need a bite to eat. One grocery store in my area of town is open 24 hours, which gives it its own unique vibe in this nine-to-five city. The massive size of the store, contrasted with its late-night emptiness, often makes it feel like the supermarket abandoned by the zombies in "28 Days Later."

On this particular (and rare) occasion, I am off early on a Saturday night. At this time, the store is three times as crowded as usual - meaning, three customers. I see them already in line, so this should be in-and-out as usual.

Fast forward to the checkout line, about 15 minutes later: the same three people are still in line. What the hell? At first glance, it appears the man at the front is to blame, due to his purchase of apparently every banana and tomato in the store. This is one of those self-bagging stores, so that adds to the delay. But, for whatever reason, the clerk is standing there holding the man's bank card, nearly frozen in place. The other customers - who have maybe 10 items between them - silently seethe.

That's when I figure out the problem - the guy, who appears to be Korean, doesn't speak a word of English. His card is also locking up the system repeatedly, which has the manager running across the store several times to work some key magic.

Right when said customer appears to be done - which seems like 20 minutes after I got in line, and long after everyone has placed their groceries on the belt (and sorted them alphabetically) - the clerk starts ringing up the next customer. Suddenly, she darts her head up and says, "WHOA!!" For some reason, the man is gesturing toward two large tanks of water in his basket.

"I did not charge you for those. I did not see them," she says. He nods and starts to leave.

"I DID NOT CHARGE YOU FOR THOSE. I DID NOT SEE THEM!" the clerk yells, and starts to chase him. Why people think they can yell over the language barrier, I'll never understand. The officer-looking guy who's always there at night blocks him from the front, and chatter ensues. The man seems compliant, but communication is still an issue.

The awkwardness in the line escalates to triple-digit levels. On one hand, you have a man in the middle of Missouri who has apparently no grasp of English; he doesn't even say one of those translation-guide phrases like, "Where is your carburetor?" I feel bad for him, but resent him at the same time. On the other hand, I'm also afraid to make eye contact with anyone else in line, lest they give me that "God, don't you hate these damn immigrants?" eye-roll that I'm expected to reciprocate. This awkwardness intensifies when the man is escorted right behind me to pay for his unscanned purchases.

When the clerk gets back to her register, she shakes her head and mutters, "Guy doesn't even speak English!" with an air of exasperated cultural disgust you don't typically expect from a black woman.

That night at the store, I saw firsthand how important it is for someone in America to learn English. But I also realized how much heat immigrants take for not having mastered the language. It's enough to get you mad at everyone involved.

I think it's wise for someone who wants to live in the United States to have at least a working knowledge of English. It's smart, because it's the predominant language in almost every area of the country.

On the other hand, I'm not one of those people who thinks the U.S. should make English the official language, out of preserving "our culture." It's frankly a very bigoted view that ignores massive cultural clusters throughout the country, not to mention the huge array of dialects within English itself. I'm surprised any Cajuns would take the English-only view, given that a major lesson from their forced English schooling in the early 20th century was that it nearly killed the culture outright. Still, I've heard it time and again from self-professed Cajuns. But even in apple-pie Missouri (or anywhere else, for that matter), it's a short-sighted view.

Who's to say the guy wasn't trying to learn English anyway? Linguists say it's one of the hardest languages to learn. Could you even begin to explain slang like "Keep it real" to someone who doesn't even know the real meaning of "real?" Good luck with that! And, as I know from my attempts to speak French to actual French people, sometimes you're better off shutting your mouth if you can't construct everything you want to say. So I feel for the guy at the checkout line. Even if he did hold everyone up.

I'd like to see immigrants learn English, just as I'd like to see Americans learn other languages. In my experience, most of the loudest advocates for an English-only nation don't, and don't want to, know anything but their own language. They want everyone to speak English - as long as they themselves aren't involved in the learning process. They see English as something that can be picked up as fast as, well, bananas and tomatoes. It's not. But it is hypocritical; while other countries might require a native language in everyday life, they sure know OUR language when we visit THEIR tourist traps!

So don't get so upset when you have to press "1" for English. I'm sure most immigrants wish learning English was as simple as pushing a button.


Nick said...

Making English the "official" language of the U.S. is not a bigoted view. Then again, that's the mantra of many people these days, just throw around charges of racism and bigotry to marginalize someone.

Establishing English as the official language would basically mean all government forms here are printed in English. If you want to do business in the U.S. or apply for a government program, assistance, drivers' license, etc., you'll either need to understand English or get someone who does to help you.

The guy who I support for President, though very anti-illegal immigration and pro-English as an official language, eventually opened a law firm where he helped legal immigrants who couldn't quite get through the language barrier apply for business permits and such.

Also, in regards to the Cajun language, it's unfortunate that the language nearly died, but much of that was due to the parents. Many Cajuns knew that in order for their children to be successful in the U.S., they would need to be able to conduct business in English. In the case of many, Cajun children were punished by their parents if they were caught speaking Cajun-french.

It's unfortunate it went to the extreme of the language nearly dying, but many of them understood that immigrants needed to get past the language barrier.

Ian McGibboney said...


If the issue were strictly about government forms, it wouldn't rile people as much as it does. My point here is that people latch onto the English-only issue as just one facet of anti-immigrant sentiment. When people talk about "preserving our culture," that has nothing to do with government forms or language programs and everything about race/ethnicity.

But even if it IS just about the forms, I fail to see why this issue is as pressing as some make it out to be. Why should I care if some documents are written out in two languages? If anything, it can help with translation if they are willing to study it. And if Americans knew enough about other languages, then maybe we could meet them halfway when their grasp of English isn't as good as it needs to be. But enough of us aren't willing to do that.

As for the Cajuns: culture experts frequently use the Cajun experience of the early 20th century as a cautionary tale. It wasn't a matter of them not wanting to learn English; it was that they were punished even for using their dialect among each other. They were told to conform to American culture and forget everything they already knew. That extremist attitude didn't help things then and it certainly won't now.

Maitri said...

"Speak Engligh, immigrant."
"You first, American."

I know you refer to those who speak no English or American whatsoever. However, it is often Americans with the worst grasp of the English language who chide immigrants for not knowing the language, when it is often a matter of accent differences or making a simple and welcoming attempt to communicate.

Often I've run into people speaking perfect Queen's English with a Nigerian or Indian accent and still they are told to speak English. An irony when one of these folks insulted so is a bestselling English language writer and historian.

It's not like a lot of people in New Orleans could be considered English speakers, too, you know. Would you have them do it?

Ian McGibboney said...

Maitri, my point exactly! Many British look down on so-called "American English," whereas New Englanders look down on Midwesterners, who look down on Southerners, who look down on everyone for some reason.

I don't think anyone wants to be told how to speak. But it takes an especially ignorant person to insist that everyone sound exactly like they do.