Tuesday, April 01, 2008

My Spanish Policy

When my great-grandparents sailed from Napoli to Ellis Island, they did their best to leave their Italian language behind them. When I wanted to learn Italian, I had to go to university classes because their children - my grandfather and great aunt and uncles - did not speak it. This has always felt like a terrible loss, unnecessary and tragic.

"Hello. Somebody speak Spanish?"

At the center, we serve a bilingual community. Our receptionist and three of our directors are also bilingual. Yet I often answer the phone myself, and my Spanish is lousy. In my mouth, the Spanish language falls with a sound like dried peppers being poured onto a wood floor. Fifteen years ago, I attempted to learn Swedish, and while I caught on to reading and writing very quickly, my pronunciation drove my native-speaking Swedish girlfriend into fits. So aside from a smattering of Italian, I stick to English. For some enquiries, I pass these callers on to someone who speaks Spanish.

Other times, I don't. Most of the routine callers know who they wish to speak with, or have a simple transactional question. What is our address? What time are we open? Are we open on Good Friday?

The transactional english required for retrieving this information is not too much to ask, so I stick them out. "What is your question?" I speak slowly and encourage them to ask me. Sometimes, they will actually put an english-speaking relative on the phone just so they can ask me, "Can you put someone who speaks Spanish on the phone?"

"She's on another call. Please let me help you."

Once or twice, the question has been more than I can handle, and the answer then is to invite them to hold for one moment and then get them a bilingual employee for assistance. The majority, however, are simple enquiries. And more often than not, the folks actually have sufficient english to ask their question. I can make out enough Spanish to meet them halfway when necessary.


Andrew said...

During my time in L.A. this has never ceased to amaze me. Every other speaker of every other language seems content to learn English and use English here, speaking their native language at home. This is a good way of interacting, I think, as according to the 2000 census 82% of the U.S. population speaks only English.

The exception to these other languages though is Spanish. It seems that Spanish speakers in this country refuse to learn English, and in fact, expect everyone they talk with to know Spanish. I don't understand why this is the case. Obviously the majority of the country does not speak Spanish, so why expect it?

Maybe it's just here in L.A., but it would make more sense to me for every non-English speaker to attempt to learn English, at least while you're here. I would do the same in your country. If I was in Spain, I would not expect people to speak English. I would attempt to speak Spanish. And THAT would be hysterical!

Anonymous said...

My daughter spent most of January in Guatemala learning Spanish in a total immersion program. (6+ hours of instruction daily with a non-English speaking tutor and accommodations in a host home where no English was spoken) She learned a LOT in just three weeks! Her main reason for wanting to learn was so when we travel to Mexico on mission trips she can converse with the families we help.

I think everyone living in this country should be able to speak English, but I also think it would be nice if kids coming out of US schools were bi-lingual. I have a friend in France (raising six kids) and schools there expect kids to be multi-lingual.