Friday, October 16, 2009

English Meltdown

I should preface today's post by saying that I embrace other languages. I enjoy other languages. I like learning phrases and words in odd languages. I have amassed quite a collection of helpful Swedish phrases (like "I don't understand" and "cheers"), a smattering of Cantonese ("thank you"), enough French to get by (buy me drinks and my vocabulary magically expands) and some Spanish (plenty to get drunk with). I am also ESL. I swear it.

I arrived in this country 18 years ago, little blonde pigtails, dressed in a mickey mouse jogging suit (remember jogging suits and how wonderful they were for all occasions? going out for dinner? jogging suit. going for a run? jogging suit. going to school? jogging suit, naturally), looking around at everything and wondering what the hell everyone was saying. I had no idea. It was like being in Charlie Brown's classroom, just mumbling. My mom had tried to prepare us by reading English books for us in the motherland. I distinctly remember my first English word: bacon. But story time didn't totally prepare us for full immersion.

I spent the first few days trying not to get burned by foreign concepts like soda (I still cannot drink carbonated beverages, that stuff is evil) which I had never been allowed to have before. I looked up to my cousin but had no idea what she was saying. I remember we had a gift for her, a pink shirt (probably hideous, but awesome because it was from Europe) and I wanted to be the one to give it to her. But I didn't think about the language barrier (I was 6 and not yet well versed in the complexities of a globalized world) so I ended up just kind of throwing it at her to explain that it was for her.

My point is that, I am ESL. I had to go to school with people that I couldn't understand. I also spent a fair amount of time with other kids that couldn't understand anything. But this bored me quickly and eventually I graduated from smiling and nodding to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and finally, naming all the planets after a trip to the Planetarium. My conversion was complete.

Here's my gripe (and I'm sure that this will offend some): people in the workplace that cannot speak enough English to do their jobs.

There. I said it. Its out there. Can't take it back.

Languages are absolutely an asset. Especially if you are dealing with the public. But you're also dealing with me and sadly my Mandarin is just not up to par.

Here are my Top 3 Language Barriers.

1. One word answers. I will need someone to answer a question for me. Maybe its about what course of action they want me to take. Its probably my fault that I am giving them options in the form of questions. This is clearly way too much for them to take in. Lets say I ask: Do you want oranges? Or would you prefer apples? An acceptable answer would be: Apples. Do you know what isn't an OK answer? Yes. Yes?! Which one? This does not help me to figure out what you want me to do. Also, if I need to know how much something costs, it doesn't help me if you answer with "5pm". How does that answer my question? Oh that's right. It doesn't. Answer the question.

2. Sending wordy letters out. Sometimes clients need letters to explain unique situations. We don't have form letters for when this happens. Which means that the representatives need to send out their own letters. Occasionally I will be reading through the log and I will come across some of these letters. And they never cease to amaze me. In trying to make up for their poor grasp of grammar, they throw in lots of big words, no matter the context. Remember on Friends when Joey discovers the thesaurus and rewrites his letter for Chandler and Monica, to the adoption agency? Its like that. And they get sent to clients. Can you imagine getting a letter like that? I'd be afraid.

3. Getting yelled at. This is the best part. An email asking for the 3rd time for an answer to my question, or maybe I did something that they don't incites their rage. Which gets focused at me, a disembodied voice on the phone. Because they are unable (or unwilling) to decipher emails that get sent to them, or because they make a mistake that has angered their clients, I get yelled at. I'm all about a good confrontation (thats not actually person to person; I'm much better at email and phone confrontations- do they still count?) but when I can't understand what the hell you are trying to tell me, I can't participate. And this annoys me.

4. I know I said Top 3 but I just realized that the one thing that aggravates me more than the rest is this: the mispronunciation of my name. I don't have a difficult name. I swear. There aren't more consonants than vowels, there aren't 10 syllables. No odd foreign accents (although I'm seriously considering adding one). But for some reason, no one will say my name right. I understand that when you read my name, your instinct is to say it wrong. But after I correct you, I figure that you should be smart enough to remember it. I'm also OK with gently reminding you again in the early days of our working relationship. Here is what I am not cool with:
**phone rings**
me: Hello (my name here) speaking.
other person: oh hi is this (saying my name wrong)?
me: yes, this is (correct version)
other person: oh hi (wrong name again). Can you help me with this?

I cannot tell you how many times I have wanted to tell them that no, that person isn't here (wrong name doesn't work here) and hung up. Or send a mass email to all the reps, spelling my name and then explaining to them the finer nuances of correct pronunciation and how important it is. There are those people that don't care how people say their name- my brother is one. I am not one. Mispronouncing my name changes it. And makes it ugly. And my name...its actually pretty damn awesome. Its like if you're name is Joan and people say Jo-ann. That would be annoying. Imagine your name is Claire and people always spell it Clare. This would probably be midly irritating. This is like that, but worse. Learn to say my name. Its not hard. Lord knows you're not a rocket scientist but I'm not asking for the moon here.

So to close. I am an a**hole and have very little patience for ESL.

If this is the impression you got, you are only half right. I am an a**hole but I actually have a lot of patience. This is why I rant here, instead of to the offenders. This is why I am patient and sweet (wherever I can be, so out of character too- who says I dont work hard?) and eventually I will get my answer.

But it doesn't change the fact that my job would be made easier if everyone had a strong grasp of English. If I was working in Russia, I would make the effort to learn full, funcational Russian. As it happens, I did actually have to learn English. And I done good.

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