Sometime in the not-so-distant future: A man enters a nondescript building, opens a door to what appears to be a classroom or a conference room and takes a seat.
Man: “Hi, I’m Sanford, I’m an English-speaking American.”
Chorus from the room: “Hi, Sanford.”
Sanford: “This is my first meeting of English-Speaking Americans Anonymous.”
Leader: “Welcome, Sanford. Tell us what brings you here tonight.
Sanford: “My day started at 6:45 a.m. as I carried my wife’s suitcase to the cab and bade her goodbye as she departed for a business trip on the Left Coast.” (As Schwarzenegger: “You know, Cal-i-for-nia!”)
Chuckle from the crowd.
Sanford: “I very politely told the driver to drive carefully because he was carrying precious ‘cargo.’ He looked at me like I was from Pluto speaking Flemish because he could barely put two words in English together. And he has the responsibility of navigating a taxi, reading street signs and knowing the traffic laws. Fortunately, my wife reached her destination and called me from California.
“Getting on with my day in several telephone calls I made where I needed information or connections to a particular extension, to a call, I was instructed to press one for English, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Now there’s another annoyance that chaps my hide. I say, for English, press ‘kiss my hinny.’ ”
This is the United States of America. We speak English here. When I travel to Mexico, I try to use my Spanish as best as possible. Before I visited Hungary, I spent weeks trying to learn some Magyar, which is one of the most challenging languages to attempt, but I am not the Ugly American.
Quite frankly, I don’t care what language a person speaks in the privacy of their own home, house of worship or even in public, so long as on the job, they speak English. While the United States does not have an official language, unlike most civilized nations in the world, most individual states do, in fact, have an official language – surprise, surprise, it’s English.
When I walk into a place of business, be it a restaurant, department store, supermarket, bank or government office, I expect to be served, waited on or assisted in English. I shouldn’t have to ask for someone to help me who speaks English. People who legally immigrate to the United States, statistically speaking, will enjoy much greater success financially, educationally and every other way when they have learned English.
This was not an issue when folks from my grandparents’ generation emigrated from their native countries to their new home in the United States. Millions of people came from Italy, Poland, Greece, Russia and myriad other countries in Europe. We didn’t live in a touchy-feely era of political correctness where anything goes and new immigrants became indignant when the English-speaker did not speak the other person’s native tongue. They rolled up their sleeves, found jobs and took pride in learning English. Sure, they spoke Italian, Greek, Yiddish, Russian, et cetera, around their homes, in their neighborhoods and read newspapers printed in their home languages, but they instilled a pride in their children that English was then, as it still is today, they key to success.
Two to three generations later during the Asian influx, the same sense of pride took over and they, too learned English – even while maintaining their native languages at home or when dealing with former compatriots.
Much to my chagrin when I ran errands later the same day, I reached the pinnacle of frustration as I felt like the foreigner in a foreign land, yet, I simply attempted to locate Tide laundry detergent at my local Target in Alexandria. I encountered six, no exaggeration, six Target employees who could not tell me where the merchandise I sought could be found simply because they did not speak English.
When I complained to an alleged member of the store’s management team, at least she identified herself as such, I was flummoxed to be informed that sometimes employees pretend not to speak English. Pretending not to speak English or not speaking English, either way, six employees did not provide me customer service. Eventually, another employee, for whom English was not her native language, could only guide me in the general direction of my desired products, thus sending me on a seemingly unending scavenger hunt. (The only English-speaking employee I encountered, aside form the aforementioned member of the management team, was putting returned merchandise back on shelves, all the while talking on her cell phone – and the conversation was loud enough to discern that it was not work related.) This was not a pleasant experience.
And the barely-out-of-her-teens “manager” looked positively lost by my complaint, as if what I experienced was both normal and acceptable. To be fair, she did listen to my complaint, delivered in a calm and reserved manner. After all, no reason to raise my voice and make a scene – just for the record. Ultimately she said there was nothing that could be done, but she did ask if I had any suggestions regarding the situation.
As one who has worked in the retail world, I gladly offered up the notion that just as any new hire is given proper training in sales procedures, customer service, operating the computer or register, speaking English on the job should be mandatory. Some companies provide their employees with English lessons, at the expense of the employee, and that is a good idea. Everyone wins. The employee learns English and becomes increasingly marketable as a bilingual speaker. The company wins as they have employees who can serve non-English-speaking customers as well as English-speaking customers. Most importantly, the customer is served appropriately, thus the potential for repeat business.
My tour de UN continued as I needed to make a visit to the store next door to the Target. I entered Staples and inquired at one of the registers where I might find the items I sought. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s déjà vu all over again,” except this time Spanish was not the native language I encountered, but instead an Asian language. Two additional people later, I finally located what I needed.
I experienced much the same several minutes later in the same Alexandria shopping plaza when I visited the Shoppers supermarket for a couple of items. The fellow at the register spoke little English, did not greet me nor tell me the total owed upon completing his task of ringing up my items. He simply looked at me and waited for me to pay without saying a word, including ‘thank you.’ He spoke Spanish with other customers and other employees. (Obviously with gas prices nearing such that a second mortgage is required with every fill-up, any trip must be calculated, thus the multi-store schlep.)
I implore all who read this to complain when experiencing the same circumstances – whether in a department store, restaurant, supermarket or any other venue where you have the power to purchase your goods and services where you choose.
Bottom line – in this era of extreme political correctness, to launch such a diatribe and lament the lack of English being spoken in these United States is to encourage the wrath of the loons who will no doubt use such invective as xenophobe, racist and bigot when these are legitimate concerns that could actually impact people’s safety. It is neither xenophobic, racist nor bigoted to expect people to speak English in the United States. It is vital for people to speak out about this issue, because it matters.
Sanford D. Horn is a writer and political consultant living in Alexandria.