Questionable Language

I observed a few things in the past few weeks that got me thinking about language – specifically, the role it plays in people’s chances for success in our country. So, instead of writing about what’s being said, this week I’ll write about understanding and being understood.

The first experience occurred while I was ordering a pizza. The people next to me – a very nice family of three – were also ordering. Spanish was their primary language, but they had been able to order what they wanted, with some difficulty. Let me be quick to point out that I would be unable to order a pizza in Spanish.

Following the restaurant’s protocol, the young man behind the counter asked how to spell the customer’s first name. It was “Luis.” I’m guessing that this employee doesn’t know anyone named Luis, isn’t familiar with Luis Aparicio, who played shortstop for the Red Sox, White Sox (he apparently liked socks) and the Orioles from 1956 to 1973. He also may not have noticed the character “Luis” on Sesame Street.

Anyway, the Hispanic couple was dumbfounded that someone would ask how to spell Luis, as I might have been if someone asked how to spell “Peter.” They also didn’t understand the word “spell.”

The second incident I noticed had to do with an African American young man who was attempting to get directions at a convenience store. I have to admit that my hearing isn’t great, but it was only on the third repetition that I understood what he was asking. The person behind the counter had the same problem, but was finally able to give the desired directions.

A lot was made of “Ebonics” ten years ago or so, and I understand that we all speak differently around friends and family, but it’s also important to be understood by strangers, both in day-to-day life and in the workplace.

The third episode didn’t involve anyone speaking. We were in Oshkosh Sunday night and, bringing back memories of growing up there, a train caused us to stop. A long train. It was more than 128 cars long. Here’s what I noticed: There were box cars that said, “Canadian National” and others that said “Canadien National.” Same company, but some in English and others in French.

Canada has embraced bilingualism to the point that their road signs are like the instructions from Ikea: more symbols than words. I remember driving through Canada a few years ago and seeing a road sign several times that I couldn’t figure out for the life of me. Words can be helpful.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a two-time Pulitzer Award winner, and advisor to John F. Kennedy, made the point that the melting pot that has made America such a successful country has been put at risk by our emphasis on multi-culturalism, including the desire to keep the language of one’s country of origin. None of us have to give up our heritage to thrive in this country, but being able to communicate in English, in addition to being willing to work hard, are crucial to the upward mobility that has allowed so many people from so many parts of the world to come here and make a good life for themselves.

I think it makes sense for us to support the teaching of English, including literacy programs for anyone who needs help reading. It’s also important to exercise patience and understanding with people who are not yet good English speakers. Chances are that we had relatives who were in the same spot.

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