Language and class in the US

Changing our attitude about language is the first step
Changing our attitude about language is the first step.

Americans carry a linguistic assumption that will ultimately hold us back.  As a society, we judge you based on one linguistic question: How good is your English?  Based on the answer to this question, we can begin to decide on your worth as a person.  The centrality of this question displays chauvinism and inflexibility, as it degrades any other linguistic abilities a person has.  More importantly, the question prevents us from learning and improving ourselves.  Until we recognize the linguistic abilities of those who might speak “bad English,” we will never take advantage of the learning opportunities standing right before us.

Here are a couple of examples that came to my attention this week.  I work in customer service, and our company has recently sent our help desk off-shore.  (I’m leaving out some identifying details, but the point can probably apply broadly.)  I spent many hours this week fixing problems that our help desk couldn’t help with.  When the help desk couldn’t help the customers, the customers called their boss, who called me.  When I talked to several frustrated customers, one problem kept coming up with clear anger, “And I could hardly understand what they were saying!”  The question refers to the perceived quality of their English.  Then I would hear about how the help desk is broken–of which their lack of quality English being a major symptom.  I heard clear disdain for non-native English speakers.

One of my co-workers is an intelligent, hard-working immigrant.  Because his English is clearly accented and he is soft-spoken, I hear frustration arise sometimes among those who communicate with him.  It breaks my heart.  Obviously, these frustrated people do not know that he possesses encyclopedic knowledge of poetry and music from his culture, writes about the grammar of his native language in his spare time, speaks about 4-5 languages, and heads a non-profit organization that aids development in his native country–all without a college education.  Moreover, the hardships he has endured has given him a depth of soul and feeling that I rarely see in people.  He has the mind of a professor, yet circumstances do not allow him to develop and use his gifts to that extent.

Neither one–the offshore helpdesk worker or the US immigrant–is respected for their knowledge because Americans perceive them through one particular lens: How good is their English?  As a result, the Americans do not realize their opportunity to learn; similarly, those who possess this knowledge do not perceive what they know as valuable.

These people are often seen as poorly educated and/or disadvantaged, in other words, lower class, despite their knowledge of multiple languages.  Their knowledge of another language means that English is not their first language, so they stand on a lower rung of the social hierarchy.  Sometimes they are treated poorly, such as what I hear about the offshore helpdesk workers.

You can only be multilingual and respected under one condition: your English is nearly perfect.  A Swede who speaks flawless English, or an American who speaks native English and learned Chinese–both are considered intelligent and educated.  But our public housing projects are full of multilingual people who do not speak “good English.”  The multilingual people who serve those non-English speakers in the projects do not get rich, either, in spite of their knowledge.

If the US wishes to perform an important role in the world and the global economy in the near future, Americans will have to understand how valuable knowledge is, even if it comes in another language besides English.  Every day Americans stand at the path to the global village, but they don’t take the first step.  We will never get there.  Our language teacher is on the phone already; our introduction to world language and culture is sitting next to them at work.  In the same way, the Mexican landscaper and Vietnamese nail salon worker who struggle with English bear valuable knowledge. Once our people see that they can learn from the interaction on the phone or at work can make them better world citizens, will be ready for a more cosmopolitan and multi-lingual future.  We will be people who seek to learn and understand people from other cultures and contexts.  Let’s change our question and ask ourselves: How good is our Spanish? Hindi? Cantonese? Tagalog?

What languages can your learn–even if just a few words–from the people you interact with every day?  I have “thank you” in Amharic on a sticky-note in my cube for when the Ethiopian maintenance worker comes by to empty my trash.  I also ask about the differences in regional Spanishes from the Bolivian and Nicaraguan I work with.

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17 thoughts on “Language and class in the US

  1. It is true that the actual knowledge of the other speaker is often not perceived because of his/her poor pronunciation of English, but communication happens thru the language in use, and that language – in this case English – must be intelligible to the caller of the help-desk. This is basically a “mechanical” type problem that impedes a quick solution to the immediate needs of the caller. It is true that many Americans misjudge others nationalities on the basis of their ability to speak English more or less well, but the same happens to the English speaker who goes to another country and massacres that language with the aid of a phrase book… In the meantime the quality of English spoken in the US by native speakers has greatly deteriorated… or it may be evolving into another type of English.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. Intelligibility is key, whether it’s on a help desk or an American goes to another country. However, when an American goes to another country, he/she gets tons of complements just for trying to speak that language, even after massacering the other language. Moreover, the American is perceived to have money and power just by being there. The American who speaks another language won’t be perceived as lower class (at least in an economic sense). The American is rewarded for just trying; the non-English speaker is looked down on for being less than perfect.

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  2. Ah, now this topic is a can of worms, and it’s nice that you brought it up 🙂
    Like most people, I’ve had the hell frustrated out of me by calling help desks and talking to people whose command of English was poor. As a customer, I am annoyed. I do not assume that the people I speak to are stupid, but if all the company wants to do is to save money at the expense of customer service quality, then I do have a problem with this. There are perfectly qualified people in the UK (or the US, etc) who can do these jobs, AND communicate flawlessly. But they cost more.

    In the UK, where I used to live, call centres are commonly farmed out to India. The workers there are highly qualified, technically, but their accents can be difficult to understand and they often use phrases that Brits find jarring and slightly obsequious. The latter doesn’t actually impede communication, but on top of a difficult accent and a lot of background noise, which you tend to get when talking to someone in a call centre, it does nothing to curb the customer’s irritation.

    Now I live in Spain, and again, the same is happening here, we get shunted through to call centres situated in Latin America. My Spanish is OK but I do still struggle, especially with Latin American Spanish, and a few months ago, I had to put the phone down, close to tears, because I could not understand what the guy was saying to me. This is NOT a good experience for anyone.

    I’ve also been at the other end of this – I’ve worked in call centres 20 years ago in the UK, as a non-native English speaker, but my level of English was certainly sufficient to do my job.

    We cannot blame the people who take these jobs, or make judgements on their level of education or intelligence, I completely agree with you there, but we can criticise company policy. And I am not happy with what I’m getting, a lot of the time.

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    1. Thank you for a helpful nuance. The decision to hire poor people because you can pay them less goes along with hiring less-than-perfect English speakers. In many ways in the world the haves and have-nots are those who know English and know-not English. This is how lower class and poor English go together. I only wish that us native English-speakers would care more about the knowledge that non-English speakers have so that we could go around learning rather than trying to teach others all the the time.

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      1. I do agree with you… the dismissive attitude of some folk towards their fellow human beings purely on the grounds that they are struggling with English can be quite offensive. Not that it’s a new phenomenon… I guess it was the same with Latin during the time of the Roman Empire, etc. Come to think of it, because of that, I’m now wrenching my brain into a knot over Spanish!!! 😉

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      2. Good point about the Romans. Of course, the Greeks looked down on them because they didn’t speak Greek. There’s the oft-quoted fact that the word “barbarian” comes from the sound of the “gibberish” that non-Greek speakers spoke (“bar-bar-bar-bar”).

        Looking down on people because they don’t speak your language is not new. Thank you for raising that point. I think that we can try to change that attitude–or at least not perpetuate it.

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  3. Nc Siavash

    Ur notion is impressed me.thanx

    On Sunday, February 3, 2013, Loving Language wrote: > Loving Language posted: ” Changing our attitude about language is the first step. Americans carry a linguistic assumption that will ultimately hold us back. As a society, we judge you based on one linguisti” >

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  4. As far as I know, to work and live in US have always been demanding and challenging. And besides, US is an English speaking country. It does not sound nice to put blame on the US companies and/or their policies. Those who go to the US, either to work, study or to live, have to accept that they are in a complete new environment and everyone around them speaks English. To speak English fluently and to have a good command over written English are the first challenges that one will have overcome after putting feet on that land. They have to work hard to improve their English.

    Few days ago, I was paging a book; in the last pages of the book I read about some distinguished institutions in the US which exclusively teach English language. US is full of institutions which teach English. I think, if new comers to US enroll themselves in those institutions and study English language, at least for six months, their problems will be solved to a large extent.

    Ehsan

    Kabul

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    1. Thanks, Ehsan! I think that you’re right, people who come to the US should learn English. However, the first point I’m making is that Americans are chauvinists about language. When I speak Ukrainian or Farsi, people complement me for even trying. When Americans hear an accent, they immediately look down on you. They don’t think of you as a speaker of another language, but an imperfect speaker of English.

      The second point is that Americans are so uninterested in learning a language. Of all the Americans in Kabul, what percent know a single word of Dari? How about Pashtun? Turkmen? If Americans put forth the effort to learning langauges that they expect others to put forth to learn English, Americans would be the most multi-lingual people in every country they went to.

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  5. While many people do learn to speak English well with good grammar and extensive vocabulary, they are likely to have a foreign accent. A native-like accent is one the most difficult things to acquire when learning a new language and very few people who learn foreign languages as adults manage to acquire one. I think there are some language courses that focus specifically on accent reduction, but most don’t spend a great deal of time it.

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    1. Good point. Thank you. It’s funny the affect that accents have on people. When I was in France, I always was afraid of my accent, that it would make the French turn snooty on me. My host mother told me that, in fact, American accents sounded nice and exotic. I learned a few phrases of Indonesian from my old roommate. Whenever I spoke he would crack up so loud–my accent was hilarious! So foreign accents can sound cool.

      However, I noticed that in the US, foreign accents are rarely considered “cool,” so people have to work at eliminating them. I think you’re right about the classes for accent reduction.

      What do you think about foreign accents? Cool, annoying, or neutral?

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  6. Pingback: Does Spanish have a chance in the US? Language in American politics – Loving Language

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