Saturday, March 22, 2008

¡Me No English!

Now I understand why so many professional writers insist on writing every day, no matter what: it’s so easy, if you take one day off, to let it slide for another, and then another. So I’m back at the keyboard now, before I slip further. There’s so much to write about anyway. I’ve finished reading Living with Darwin, and I have a lot to say about it, as well as about Obama’s big speech on race and what people have said about that, and more.
But today I stumbled on this bit, from AOL news: a Philadelphia restaurant was vindicated by the city Commission on Human Relations for its display of two signs ordering patrons to “SPEAK ENGLISH” when ordering because “THIS IS AMERICA.” (The article reports, inaccurately, that the signs say “PLEASE SPEAK ENGLISH.” A “please” would be better business practice, don’t you think?) The Commission ruled that the signs do not violate the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance.
The restaurant’s owner claims “he never refused service to anyone because they couldn't speak English”, and that “he posted the signs in October 2005 because of concerns over immigration reform and an increasing number of people in the area who could not order in English.” Whose “concerns,” exactly? And if he never refused service to anyone, what is the point of the signs, except to establish that he’s a bigot?
There have always been people in urban America who couldn’t speak English, like Italian or Polish grandmas brought over by their relatives. Or they might be spouses, following a husband who came here to study. The offending immigrants in the restaurant’s neighborhood are presumably Asian or Latin American, and I suspect I’m looking at a venerable American tradition where an older wave of immigrants despises the wave after them for allegedly refusing to assimilate. (A commenter at The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks says, “Apparently this same restaurant has been there for many decades, but back in the 1960's they would only serve you if you spoke Italian! Same intolerant attitude, just a different language.” I don’t know if it’s true, but I wouldn’t be surprised.)

I also wonder what constitutes “speaking English” in this context. I once had a Japanese boyfriend who spoke excellent English, and who switched credit-card companies because the customer service people claimed that they couldn’t understand him. It’s been shown that if people see a “foreign”-looking person, they’ll hear an accent in her speech even if she speaks perfect Standard English. (This was tested by playing the same audiotape, but showing the subjects two different photographs of the person supposedly speaking on it. One photo showed a blonde Caucasian, the other an “Asian,” and the subjects were much more likely to hear an accent if they were shown the latter photo.) I imagine that if you hear an accent where there isn't one, your brain would simply shut down and refuse to parse an actual accent.
So it’s quite likely, I believe, that the immigrants who so offended the owner did speak some English, but spoke it too slowly or badly to suit him. I’ve known quite a number of Latin American immigrants, and they all speak some English and want to learn more. None has ever expressed the view that learning English was not important. But if you work ten to twelve hours a day in the kitchen of a restaurant, it’s not easy to find time to take classes or study. (And I live in a nasty ol’ PC liberal college town, whose university offers some free English classes, mainly for students’ wives but open to anyone who wants to take them.) There’s a myth often retailed by the “This Is America” frothers, that their ancestors came here and learned English, so why can’t these newcomers? But most of their ancestors did not learn English. Their American-born children did, but learning a new language, no matter how motivated you are, is hard work, and it’s harder the older you are. In any case, the arrival of several thousand non-English-speaking immigrants (we don’t really let in that many, you know, and the larger numbers of illegals are here because American business wants them here) is not a threat to our civilization, such as it is.
I do agree that if you’re going to visit a foreign country, let alone move there, you should try to pick up as much of the language as you can. (Just saying “hello” and “thank you” in the local language will generally win a tourist points.) But I’ve talked to too many Americans who think that learning foreign languages is for foreigners. I remember in particular a man with an advanced degree in business who declared that foreigners coming to the US should know English, and if he went to other countries, the people there should know English to speak to him, because English is the dominant language in the world today. (Especially in business.) That he should befoul his tongue with foreign jibber-jabber was, to his mind, outrageous Political Correctness. I hope he lives long enough to see a day when he loses business because he doesn’t speak at least a little Chinese. The simple, brutal rudeness of his attitude still boggles my mind. The international reputation we Americans have for arrogance is not, alas, completely unearned.
As for Geno’s Steaks in Philly, I agree that they should be allowed to post their signs. But I also think that no decent human being should eat there. According to the AOL article, there’s a rival steakhouse across the street, and if they don’t have a sign demanding English in their window, it should be easy enough to get a good sandwich there. I also wonder if Geno’s, like most American restaurants, has any employees back out of sight in the kitchen who don’t speak more than minimal English…
In the university food service where I work, there are a fair number of Latino/a workers, all of them legal, who speak English with varying degrees of fluency. They’re dispersed among the dining halls during the school year, but during the summer you’ll find several of them in the same building. I enjoy this, if only for the chance to practice my Spanish. One summer day during break time there were several of them, speaking Spanish in the dishwashing area, along with me and one other Hoosier, a well-meaning but still often obnoxious young man who has been known to make fun of the halting English of his coworkers. (In addition to the Latinos, we also have a number of Albanians and West Africans, among other nationalities.) After watching our coworkers talk for a minute, he blurted out, “Hey! This is America! Speak English!” and looked at me for support. I grinned back at him and said, “Lo siento, Señor, no hablo inglés.” He looked crestfallen, as well as he should have.
I’ve used the same move a couple of times since, on other people in other places around town. Americans are just going to have to grow up. I cut no slack to the relatively uneducated like the fellow I just mentioned, since in most of the world it’s not uncommon for uneducated people to be able to get around in two or more languages. Americans have just been spoiled because of our relative isolation, though the successive waves of non-English-speaking immigrants we’ve enjoyed for the past couple of centuries render even that excuse non-operative. I favor a more aggressive stance by Americans of good will towards our fellow citizens who freak out at the sound of a language that isn’t English, let alone English with an accent. ¡Abajo Geno’s! Run ‘em out of business.