Press 1 for English, 2 for Bigotry?
Discrimination worms its way onto Facebook—some surprising people join these hate-fueled groups.
It can be a shock to see what kind of groups our various friends join on social networking sites like Facebook. Upon visiting a friend’s profile page, I noticed that she had joined a group—I won’t mention its name here, it doesn’t deserve the publicity—maligning automated IVR (interactive voice response) programs that include the “Press 1 for English, press 2 for Spanish” option. The group includes a demand directed at foreigners who don’t—or can’t—learn the language to, as the group so kindly states it, “get the f--k out.” When this friend, who I knew years ago but with whom I had since lost touch, only to reconnect on Facebook recently, posted this group on her page, one of her friends commented that she was saddened by the add.
My friend’s glib response was that since her Italian immigrant father had been forced to learn English to pass the driver’s test (and she misspelled “driver’s”—perhaps she should brush up on the language herself), the implication was that she had a right to espouse this sentiment since she is a daughter of immigrants herself. Surprisingly, she indicated no shred of compassion or tolerance for the challenges that immigrants to this nation face every day.
Though I doubt my friend read my response—it was posted over a month ago, which was a month after her initial posting, and I haven’t heard from her—I was reminded of this exchange last night while watching The Rachel Maddow show. Maddow highlighted the Tim James political ad which inspired hilarious parodies, one of which made me laugh so hard I cried and drooled. These are a must-watch.
Here is my response to her on Facebook:
Gina, it is great that your father learned English, and for many immigrants, being put in a position like that is motivating. Having taught ESL [English as a Second Language] to a wide range of people, through local town programs and as you recall, Berlitz, I have met and worked with everyone from highly-educated CEOs of large companies like Sony, to low-income, newly arrived immigrants whose education in their native countries were either cut short or inadequate. English is an extremely difficult language to master, and having taught it to natives—who frequently make grammar and spelling mistakes that many immigrants do not—and to immigrants, I have been told by multilingual speakers that it is one of the hardest languages to learn. Couple that with the fact that many immigrants arrive from countries in which educational systems may not address potential learning disabilities, and you can imagine what a challenge it is for many to learn English as quickly as many Americans expect them to.
I write about consumer behavior regularly for my website, including the role of multiculturalism in the United States and how it affects corporate revenue. Hispanics make up a rapidly-growing power dollar in the U.S. and companies that ignore that segment are cheating themselves out of potentially millions of dollars in profit. Offering an option for Spanish doesn’t discourage immigrants from learning the language—learning a second language is a far more complex issue than that—but what it does do is attract customers that feel comfortable purchasing their products and provides a positive customer relationship experience, which brings valuable initial and repeat revenue. A Dutch study confirmed what I—who as you know, Gina, speak and write English as a second language myself—have always known: that approaching a customer in his or her native language, even with one word or phrase, creates a sense of comfort for the buyer and means big business for the company. This holds true no matter the level of second language proficiency the target audience possesses.
This translates to huge profits for these businesses—American businesses, I should add—which is great for our suffering economy. As Hispanics are achieving higher educational goals and greater wealth—I have written about this often; the wealth in upper-class Hispanic enclaves in places like Miami, South Beach, and Los Angeles is mind-blowing—their children and children’s children are and will contribute more and more to society and to our growth as a nation. I have interviewed Hispanic doctors, lawyers, university professors, social workers, marketing experts, and business moguls, all of whom are either immigrants themselves, or are children of immigrants. Yes, they also speak English, but it took them time to learn, and they didn't learn the language because some Facebook group told them to speak English or get the f--k out.
Having traveled abroad throughout my life, and having lived in multicultural Los Angeles, I don’t really understand the hostility present in groups that encourage people to learn English or leave. Of course people who live here want to learn the language; it is lonely, limiting, and isolating not to, but it takes time, and for those who may have undiagnosed or unaddressed learning issues, it can be especially frustrating. In countries throughout Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere it is common to see street signs and businesses in several languages. Further, people abroad seem to embrace learning several languages and most foreigners I know—including Hispanics—speak their native tongue, English, as well as one or two other languages fluently. I really don’t know where the affront to America exists when a company offers phone consultation in Spanish, when having been abroad, I would find customer service offers in English, Arabic, French or whatever other language addressing minority populations in that nation, and minus the anger and hostility that I have seen here in the U.S.
My father came to America from Israel with my mother, me and my brothers as a young man at an offer from Princeton University to carry out his post-doctorate research in polymer chemistry. While my parents both spoke English, it was obvious that they were foreigners. One day, while they were on the street chatting with one another in Hebrew—my brothers and I were just little kids—a newspaper vendor overheard and angrily muttered, “Speak English!” My mother whipped around and answered, in English, “What did you just say? Speak Indian (meaning Native American). I speak five languages. How many do you speak?” Of course, the man didn’t answer.
Following his work at Princeton, my father went on to work for American and international companies, most importantly, creating fire-retardant materials for Boeing aircraft, improving safety measures for their airplanes. Today my mom and dad are retired and living happily in Los Angeles, where, among other activities, they enjoy grocery shopping at Asian and Latino markets—and where the shop signs are in various Asian languages, English and Spanish—and have raised three English-speaking and productive U.S. citizens. My father’s proudest career moment was creating materials for airplanes that make it safer for all Americans and foreigners to travel. I wonder what that newspaper vendor is doing today— I hope he is doing better than spitting “Speak English!” at foreigners, but I can almost guarantee that if he does travel, he is flying in airplanes my father helped build to meet and exceed safety standards.
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