Last month, I went by my local cable office to drop off my cable box after canceling my cable service. I was almost at the window when an elderly Asian man asked me in English, “Do you speak Korean?” I replied that I did. He proceeded to ask me for help in Korean. He was there because his cable box wasn’t working but I guess the employee at the window was unable to understand him and vice versa. From what I could tell, and what the elderly man told me, the employee patronized and looked down on the man because there was a communication barrier.
Language barriers are common place when you live in areas populated by immigrants, and prevents people from getting proper health care or speaking out against deplorable living situations. I have often had to help my parents deal with certain issues similar to this, even though they speak English because they don’t like the experience of being looked down because of their inability to speak fluid, accent-free English.
After I helped the elderly man get the service he needed from the cable company, I drove away sad for those who came to America for the hope of a better life, yet are faced with challenges daily. Many may assert that those who immigrate here need to learn English since they are living in America. And while that is a truthful expectation, it may not be realistic or as easily gained for those who moved here in their adult life. Even my parents, who speak fluent English, are patronized and ridiculed because they don’t speak accent-free.
I don’t think it would have hurt the employee to be a bit more patient and kind to the elderly man who was struggling to get the help he needed; the man spoke English. He just couldn’t do it without an accent, which caused the employee to dismiss him and be rude. My heart still goes out to the elderly man — mainly because his sad face of desperation still flashes before my eyes — who speaks and understands English, but has a hard time being understood because of heavy accent. He’ll have to face that daily in his life, and I hope that the other people he comes in contact with are a lot more gracious than the employee at my former cable company.
(Flickr photo credit: davitydave)