Thursday, June 09, 2005

English is broken here

To put it delicately, I got into a heated conversation today with someone who thought that the counterpeople at the Starbucks in Langley Park should have been able to speak English better. (For those of you that don't know the area, Langley Park is just north of Takoma and right up the road from us. Most of the residents are immigrants, mostly Latin American or African.) I was a little surprised to hear these statements come from this person, and they ended with a statement that they wouldn't patronize that Starbucks again because people who come to this country should learn the language. I was then asked my opinion.


Let's just say that I knew I wasn't going to change anybody's mind. I pointed out that English is not the national language of the United States and, more to the point, that this person was, in fact, not the clientele that any Langley Park business actually caters to -- indeed, if the counterworker only spoke English, the capitalistic wheel would not spin there. (Although, granted, it's questionable who does go to buy a $5 latte there then.) And that, actually, most of this countries' ancestors at some point came in not knowing the language -- except they looked white and spoke Polish, Italian and Irish. Not so very different.

Later, however, I was driving by myself and thought, "You know, it's this kind of isolationist mentality that gets us in trouble. And it is precisely the reason why I wanted to live somewhere where not everything was lily-white and, well, safe. I kinda knew that it was one thing to say, 'I'm not a racist' and another to live next door to someone who is not like you. I like that we live in an area where things can be complicated and where the black family that lives across the street and the lesbians who live next door maybe -- just maybe -- will keep Xan from so surely believing that 'we' are so very separate from 'them.' I want this for me and my family. I'm proud of this."

Am I wrong for thinking this way, that this cornucopia of languages (including multiple Englishes) and cultures is a damn good thing and that Americans in general are fool-hardy to reject this so readily? Or do I think this is all OK because, quite frankly, I can get by largely in that shopping center because I happen to speak Spanish? Note that I don't feel conflicted about this -- but I'm curious what some of you who read this think (knowing full well that some of you will side with the other person here...).


Anonymous said...

I can see both sides... I would enjoy the diversity of the neighborhood, but I don't think it's entirely unreasonable to expect to be able to transact my business in English when in the U.S. I wouldn't go so far as to boycott an establishment because of it, but I do think it would be worthwhile to make sure the employees are at least conversant with the menu, small-medium-large, and please/thank you/have a nice day, in English.


Middento said...

I would agree with most of this. I also think part of the problem in this altercation was the idea that at Starbucks "small" is a "tall." Said person seemed to take it out on the counterworker than Starbucks' lingo.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, since I rarely go into Starbucks, I always run into the tall/small thing. Someone reading this probably knows for certain from experience, but I would bet that the training has something against calling anything "small."

Despite the fact that I am married to a half-Peruvian and I like languages, I don't speak Spanish. All the same, I would place a high bet on the probability that I would not have had the same communication problem as the person in the story (since I know the speaker in question).

(Side note: Admittedly, I have been in one bakery in our neighborhood where our transaction was all pointing and nodding, but I still got my pastries.)

I've lived abroad in countries where I spoke lots (but not perfect or fluent), some, little and none of the language and I work with people with all kinds of foreign accents (lets not even get into "native" English accents.....). I have no problem applying the skills I learned as a result of those experiences in my own country, too - it's all about communication.

It all makes me say "Darn, I gotta work on my Spanish!" rather than "Damn, why don't they speak English!"


Hikaru said...

"Englisch uber alles!" ;)

Well you know, communication is a two way street. Both parties must make an effort to find a medium.

Food franchises in Japan, most especially like Starbuck's, commonly use picture menus, to further ensure what a patron orders is what a patron gets. Typically, both parties speak the same language. They still use pictures, so there is no mistake as to what a "Tall" is vs. a "Venti" or "Grande."

Note to the "damn #@$@'s should learn English if they're in America" contingent: "Venti" and "Grande" aren't English words, yet somehow the grinders manage to continue churning...

Oh, and cheers to your responsible parenting. It's one thing to bitch, and another to put your money where your mouth is. Dillon -- blond/blue -- went to a predominantly Cantonese preschool (I don't speak Cantonese, and neither does his mom), and it was great. Bilingual at two.

The question is: do people want to live with blinders on? Some do, some don't. I personally prefer being able to stretch.