Stepping into the world of Social Work
Every once in a while, I hear someone complaining about the increasing frequency of Spanish language options on telephone customer service, business signs in retailers, and other similar accommodations companies and government agencies have made to Spanish speaking customers or residents. Usually it’s followed by a rude demand that the target audience for that accommodation “learn English or leave.”
I do have some cost-cutting ideas when it comes to taxpayer funded materials, but as someone who has been a second-language learner in a foreign country (in my case, Germany) I’d like to add some helpful thoughts to the dialogue.
First: there are many legal residents in this country who are not yet citizens, and thus are still learning English. Though they are not yet entitled to all the rights and privileges of citizenship, they may still legitimately encounter and utilize government agencies. The only way to ensure they are properly treated is to provide them services in a manner they can understand.
Imagine you are transferred to Paris for 2 years by your employer, completely legally and correctly registered with all the proper visas, etc. You are trying to learn French but as an adult it isn’t coming easily. If you needed the assistance of some French government agency, would you not expect they would locate a translator for you?
Further, if the company is a profit making company, it is almost certainly a financial decision whether to provide services in other languages. In other words, they do it if and only if there are enough customers who need it. For those who support a market driven economy, this is exactly what you want.
In our Paris scenario, let’s say you’re having trouble with your French cell phone. You are very likely to be able to get assistance in English, as the company would have a strong profit motive to provide it.
Alternatively, you may simply assume that English is such a commonly taught second language that even if you can’t press a particular number on the phone, you should be able to get what you need. A Spanish speaking immigrant or visitor to the US Southwest or major cities can expect similar odds.
Further, Many private businesses and agencies also recognize that their services are very complex and even those who have good English skills might be better served in their first language. Examples of this would be professional services (medical, counseling, legal), as well as financial/banking. In my opinion, it would amount to professional misconduct to attempt to offer such services without consideration for the person’s ability to fully understand.
You’re hurt, in an ER in Paris. Is it a crime for you to ask for an English speaking doctor, nurse, or a translator?
You might try to argue by pointing out the difference between our hypothetical 2 year temporary transfer to Paris and the possibly permanent immigration of the Spanish speaking individuals we see in the US. I have to ask – what does it matter? My length of stay in a country does not diminish my need for medical care. What does matter is that I need that service, and my skills in French or lack of them should not be the issue.