Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Language Barriers & Trash Bags & Benadryl

I sauntered past a frustrated Mexican girl in Walgreen's the other day, simultaneously speaking into her cel phone, and to a clerk: "que es el nombre?" and then "KLAHR-ee-teen" she told the clerk, who continued to stand there in a stupor. Just take a peek at the look on her face:

Ok, I just HAD to put my nose into it: "She needs Claritin."

A few minutes later, the clerk approached me and thanked me saying, "I had no idea what she was saying; I was getting ready to take her to the Glad Trash Bags."

NOT Claritin, but wrap it around your head
and pull the drawstring tight. Allergies go away.

Aurgh! I can handle stupidity in a person until it seems voluntary. So, I slapped her across the face and screamed "Glad Trash Bags??!! Were you even TRYING? Can you not even SOUND OUT an accented word?"

In my mind.

I'm always amazed when Americans expect everyone else in the whole world to learn OUR language, thus saving us the hassle of learning jackshit, and then look down their noses at accented English or a foreign language.

Soon after the Claritin incident, I got an e-mail from my friend Ilaiy, who grew up in Bangalore, India. A frustrating day at work, and he wanted my honest opinion:

....[D]o I sound that bad that people cannot understand what I am saying?

Apparently he'd been explaining something at work, and after he was allll finished, the two guys he was talking to laughed at him and said, "we have no idea what you just said."

Ilaiy was brought up speaking English. He speaks 5 languages fluently, and understands 2 more. He received his Master's degree in the United States. He is clearly not lacking in vocabulary. There's the occasional transposition of V's and W's which makes the word "Volvo" pretty amusing, but his English is otherwise clear and understandable.

So, what is it, he wants to know, that makes some people "choose" to misunderstand him?

What do I say? How can two coworkers become so paralyzed with "Ve" over "We" that they toss up their hands and declare themselves completely in the dark? How can "Claritin" become "Glad Trash Bags"?

I tell him that we weren't introduced to other languages as children. Nor other sounds for letters, other than the ones we make.

I tell him that people are intimidated by others that know more than they do.

I tell him that people fear looking stupid.

I tell him we're lazy; memorizing an entire dictionary full of words in another language seems overwhelming.

I advise him to politely ask, when it happens again, "Where did I lose you?" or "What didn't you understand?"

Maybe it will be a gentle nudge to the paralyzed in question to listen more carefully. We could all stand to do a bit of that.

As for me, I have a basic understanding of a second language, and I don't use it, and I'm more than a little ashamed of it. SO, I've pulled out my spanish libros and am brushing up on my vocabulario. I'm looking into refresher courses in the community. Our spanish-speaking population grows here, and they need help, baby! Our hospitals need translators. There's only one insurance store in our town that has spanish speaking agents. Only one car dealership.

By the way, the girl at Walgreen's ended up in front of me in the checkout line.

She purchased Benadryl.



  1. You have jolted me into the French evening courses I keep prescribing for myself. One of my degrees is a French degree so I am there already, hence my laziness and inability to organise it... it's so easy to forget to listen and adapt, your post is a stark reminder of the very real dangers.

  2. You tell 'em. I live in a VERY diverse area with people from all around the world. If you don't try, you don't communicate. Period. It's just common courtesy. Ugh. That makes me nutty.

  3. Living with someone with a very heavy accent for a number of years, I experienced a number of American's embarassing behavior countless times. Like the time we were in a local bar and the rednecks at a table next to us immitated my friend and then laughed and laughed. Also, when people expected me to translate or talked to me rather than him when they couldn't understand what he said. I think Americans are lazy and egocentric. We do expect that everyone to know English, but we don't want to learn anyone elses language. However, living in LA is very different and I am one of the few people that I know that isn't fluent in a second language. It's just expected here that everyone knows Spanish and/or another language like Cantonese or Japanese. Here people aren't expected to speak or know English as much as other places I have lived. It's very refreshing.

  4. Out of curosity, "British Accent" would still remains english or is it brilish.


  5. I'm married to a Brit.

    Trust me, it's a whole 'nother language.

  6. The way I see it is their English is guaranteed better than my Whatever their language is. I am hard of hearing so often have to ask Anyone speaking English to repeat themselves. I always get a little embarrassed when I have to ask it of someone who is speaking accented English because I Don't want to appear like these people!!!!

  7. I just come right out and say it, if I don't understand a thick accent, I think it can be stated in caring way that makes it clear that your first priority is to stay on track within the conversation.

    I take crap from my Tunisian friend when I can't understand him, he starts exaggeratedly speaking very slowly, acknowleging that it's true; I am the idiot here: I .... said...I....wish...

    Then ya just punch 'em!

  8. gnighgirl: you should listen to the malaysian accent...spoken in a Manglish way. Manglish=malaysian +English. It's awful:) In singapore they call it Singlish. Which is even worse I think.

  9. I will say that is you live in an area that is not very diverse understanding a thick accent can be very hard. Trust me, I just had my sis' fiancee from South Africa here for a week and I spent the first half of it having him repeat things...LOL

  10. Queen: Actually, for living in a midwestern town, this one offers more cultural diversity than most; The University of Illinois is here, bringing students and professors from all over the world. I feel fortunate for that.

    I also had a friend from the Ivory Coast (a student here, that has moved on), that I had to listen to very carefully. Again, he was fluent in English, Spanish, French, and a number of other languages from his country. Amazing, huh? How many your languages does your future brother-in-law speak? Well, tell them Congrats!

  11. FJL: Muy bueno. Oh, that's spanish. I think. Buena suerte.

    Wendy: You hit the nail on the head: common courtesy.

    PP: You need to sign up for Cantonese lessons...somewhere outside of your 80-hour workweek.

    Edina: But YOU should hear my malaysian. I know this: kuaci. yee sang. Sago gula melaka.

    How was that?

  12. Ilaiy speaks perfect English and is not hard to understand him. People are lazy and xenophobic.

    Or maybe it's because I grew up in an Italian culture (I'm only 3rd generation, so the elders in my family were all WOPs, literally) and attended Catholic schools with nuns from the "Old Country." Don't know.

    I do know there's this movement from lily-white young republican-types to increase the English requirements for foreign teachers. They actually include this as part of their platforms when running for student government.

    Some of the best, smartest, most educated and interesting teachers I've ever had possessed heavy accents. But it's like, these students don't want to have to TRY or CONCENTRATE or really LISTEN in order to understand. That's "hard," and they resent it. Trying, concentrating, or listening as part of their education? Who needs that?

  13. That clerk seems like a lazy so-and-so. And for me to say that the clerk is unfeeling is an understatement - I really could go on and on here - about the service industry in general being the pits lately - I can get food faster at a sit down restaurant in town (El Toro) than I seem to at McDonald's (when I used to go there). One time it took me over five minutes to get a cup of hot tea at McDonald's. I was told to step aside while they took someone else's order. What the frick is so hard about pouring hot water from the little spout in the coffee machine into the cup and handing me a tea bag??

    Anyway - as you said - our little town is pretty multi-cultural. And this clerk needs some customer service training. Or some everyday human empathy.

  14. She bought benadryl? HAHAHA! Classic!

    Los americanos nunca aprenden otras idiomas porque no tienen ninguna curiosidad sobre otras culturas, desgraciadamente.

    Mais non tous les Américains sont les idiots et les imbéciles stupides!

    I had several Spaniards refuse to believe I was an American because I speak several languages and knew something about history and art.

    Even still, I have a hard time understanding some people. I had a couple of indian employees who shook their heads yes and no backwards from us. That threw me off countless times. "Did you do this?" "Yes!" Smiles and shakes head 'no'. And vice versa. And a CHinese guy who would nod and smile no matter what you said, LOL.

    You haven't said a word about your son. IS he OK? What's up with that?


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