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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    The detriment of dynamic dialogue

    Andrew McGheecolumnist
    Andrew McGhee
    columnist

    I

    ‘ve interacted with many people who speak English as a second language in various jobs I’ve held, and more often than not the bosses never particularly like these employees. This attitude reflects one of the fundamental flaws of the American ethos: the appraisal of language based solely on criteria of utility and efficiency, rather than form. Unlike Europeans, most Americans either don’t appreciate or don’t recognize the beauty, the artful qualities and the cultural significance of the multitude of human languages.

    Americans view language strictly in terms of how it may be used and what it can do for them in communication – in terms of its ability to produce palpable material results efficiently, in the shortest amount of time. To the typical American, language is seen only as a medium through which orders, requests, inquiries and gibes are transmitted; it isn’t something to be appreciated for its structure – its syntax, its phonology, its cultural role and its power to forge intimate bonds. Americans find it difficult to see the manner in which a language attaches itself to a society and the individuals who comprise that society. More importantly, they don’t tend to capitalize on conversation’s leisurely potential.

    While working with an individual from Hong Kong, for instance, I noticed that the bosses didn’t like him because he had difficulty understanding their instructions, thereby forcing them to repeat themselves. They would tell him to go somewhere or to do something, and he would respond with a question intended to clarify whether or not he had understood the instruction correctly. This would exasperate the bosses; they felt that they didn’t have time to repeat the order, but repeating their command would have taken a maximum of 10 seconds, 20 tops. Nothing incensed the bosses more than not being understood and being forced to repeat themselves like this, and it was also something which they sometimes misinterpreted as a sign of disrespect and insubordination.

    Like most Americans, their actions seemed to express that they didn’t have any time (even 20 seconds) to facilitate communication in English with a non-native speaker; they wanted results (meaning communicative understanding and compliance) and they wanted them immediately. Incidentally, this behavior in itself illustrates the manner in which people’s use and perception of their language reflects the culture in which they were cultivated. In the United States – a nation in which time is a precious commodity, in which a pervasive sense of obligation and the loss of time is emphasized, in which scheduling is an art form and day-planners are like bibles – we demand things to be expedient and controlled. Verbal interaction is strictly business. (Sadly, business is the American culture in many ways.)

    Americans don’t direct frustration of this sort exclusively at people who speak English as a second language, though. It’s seen in interactions between native-speaking Americans, too. No doubt everyone has seen people get frustrated by having to repeat things to those who are hard of hearing (I know that I personally can’t tolerate those sketches of Lil’ Jon on “”Chappelle’s Show”” because of it) or who have short attention spans.

    What all of these episodes seem to imply is that Americans would benefit from a little relaxation and flexibility. Language doesn’t always have to be as rigid and methodical as a board meeting pitch or classroom lecture; language can be fun. When a boss finds that a foreign employee needs him to repeat his instructions, he should relax a little and assent to the employee’s need. After all, the employee is only trying to learn the language and acclimate himself to a new cultural, socio-linguistic environment. Besides, is 20 seconds really a substantial loss?

    Andrew McGhee is a sophmore majoring in physics. He can be reached atletters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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