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Front Page » April 20, 2006 » Opinion » A Communication Gap in Whose Mind?
Published 2,918 days ago

A Communication Gap in Whose Mind?


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By RICHARD SHAW
Sun Advocate publisher

The latest flap over immigration is nothing new for America. However some of what is involved in it is.

Most of us come from immigrant families, whether we ourselves came across the border into this country or we are a fourth or fifth generation American. Therefore we should have at least some empathy for those that want to come here, understanding their plight.

But the difference now is that the bulk of our immigrant population is coming across the Rio Grande and not through Ellis Island. That point brings up the possibility of racism; it is said by some that we are not as happy about absorbing brown skin into our society as white people.

But a look back at history will tell you that many immigrant groups were discriminated against in the past, and some of them were white. A good example of this are those who immigrated from Ireland in the late 1800's. Many of the Jim Crow laws for African Americans had nothing on the rules for the Irish during those times.

Americans have often had a "close the door behind me" mentality. That apparently hasn't changed, despite our progress on human rights issues in this country.

But there is something different about this influx of people from south of our border. And it is one that really irritates a lot of Americans whose families came here and tried their best to assimilate themselves into this North American society, is language.

It seems to most people that those who came over the from old country before this recent influx quickly learned English and tried to fit in as much as possible. They say that those that come today are not that interested in fitting in; specifically they speak Spanish and make little attempt to break themselves or their families out of that venacular.

However, I know from personal experience that memory of all European's wanting to learn English to be untrue.

My mother came to the United States on a ship from Rotterdam, Holland in 1927. One of the youngest in her family, later in life she had little of the accent left that peppered the speech of my older aunts and uncles. However, they all spoke great English. But things were different with my grandmother and grandfather.

My grandfather, whom I can barely remember, spoke some English, but it was very broken. My grandmother, who lived well into my teenage years, never could or from my perspective, would, learn English. She didn't work outside the home, and all her contacts as far as I could tell, were either with her kids or other Dutch immigrants.

My mother, up until the time she died, would sometimes lapse into Dutch, particularly when speaking with her brothers and sisters. I remember as a 10 year old child I heard her speaking Dutch on the phone and I asked her if she would teach me the language.

"You won't ever learn Dutch from me," she told me. "You are an American and you will speak English."

Last week I went to a fast food restaurant along the Wasatch Front. It was very busy and noisy. When I reached the counter to order, I noted that almost everyone working behind the polished stainless steel was Hispanic. A young man with a loosened tie attempted to take my order. I would try to tell him what I wanted, he repeated it back, but I couldn't understand him. He was doing his best, and my old ears were also straining at high capacity to hear his replies back to my order.

In the end I got part of what I ordered, and part of something else. That was okay with me; he had done his best.

Next to me sat a couple of people who also didn't get their order the way they wanted. I heard them talking about how "they should get people who speak English to work" at the place. They moaned and complained the whole time I was there.

I had to ask myself about our empathy as a people; our ability to understand what a struggle it must be to come into a new society, not knowing the language and trying to make a living.

As I walked to my car the situation brought visions of my grandfather delivering baked goods to stores in Salt Lake in the 1930's and 40's with his broken English, and what people must have thought of him. It also brought about an image of my sweet grandma, always the generous soul to anyone who came to her door, who couldn't hardly even understand our country's language, yet who donated her youngest son to World War II where he nearly lost his life on the battlefields of Sicily.

And it made me wonder about all of us today.

Is the communication gap theirs, or is it ours?


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