Henry Higgins Would Have His Hands Full

By Gardner, Marilyn | The Christian Science Monitor, March 5, 2003 | Go to article overview

Henry Higgins Would Have His Hands Full


Gardner, Marilyn, The Christian Science Monitor


EARLY ON A late-winter morning, a businessman waiting to board a flight at Boston's Logan Airport pulls out a cellphone and calls his secretary with an unusual request.

"Susan, it's Bill," he begins, in a voice loud enough for other passengers to hear. "Could you please call [a large international bank] in New York and ask them to stop sending those recorded voice- mail updates?" He explains that he can't understand the heavily accented English of the woman who records the messages.

Bill has plenty of company these days as the workplace becomes more diverse.

With growing numbers of foreign-born employees adding to the linguistic mix in service jobs - from fast-food workers and taxi drivers to store clerks, telemarketers, and customer-service representatives - Americans are finding more occasions when they must say, "Sorry, could you repeat that, please?"

Not so many years ago, employees with limited or heavily accented English were often confined to jobs that required little communication with customers - as busboys, for example, pouring water and clearing tables.

Today, in many restaurants, a capable immigrant is rightly hired as a waiter, not a busboy. Yet as he recites the day's specials, honing his English skills, customers must sometimes listen hard.

Linguistic frustration can be a two-way street. A Sri Lankan friend of mine who has lived in the United States for 30 years works as an airline reservation agent. Educated and articulate, he speaks in a rich voice, and his accented English is clear. Even so, callers sometimes say curtly, "Can I talk to someone who speaks better English?" The comment always stings. "It's pretty insulting," he says.

In a melting-pot culture, there's little excuse for that kind of prejudice and unwillingness to listen to someone from another country.

When language barriers test my patience, I sometimes mentally trade places with the worker I'm straining to understand. …

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