Holding Immigrants to a High Standard: Do We Care?
Nobody said coming to America would be easy. The nation always has been and continues to be populated people who regard hardship as an acceptable price to pay for a new life in a new land. With more than 450 different languages spoken in the United States today, my question is: Is learning English any different from enduring the unrelenting sea-sickness of a refugee boat, the terror of the Salvadoran countryside, or the disorientation of culture shock? It isn't -- and I am very tired of listening to the patronizing attitude of native-born Americans who act as if immigrants are somehow enfeebled and incapable of taking on one more challenge for the sake of their dreams.
Many of these same Americans speak of their compassion and tolerance, but the truth is that they are selling immigrants short, and, at the same time, selling out the memory of their own immigrant ancestors. On top of that, they don't seem to really care very much. They don't care about individual immigrants in that they seem content to watch them wallow at the lower echelons of our society -- doomed to selling hamburgers, packing vegetables, or, if they are lucky, assembling parts for medical devices. They say they care, but they do not really care about the Hispanic mother who had the courage and heart to make a 2,000 mile journey but will never be able to fulfill the dream of education for her children unless she learns enough English to get a better paying job.
And they do not care about their country. With one third of the population projected to be foreign-born within a short 50 years, we have to care that every single American -- new or old -- has the ability to succeed in a society that values clear and precise communication, knowledge, and management skills.
I recognize, after nearly 25 years of working with corporations to resolve workplace diversity issues, that many immigrants have never sat in a classroom much less learned a second language. I know, as recently pointed out in U.S.A. Today, that English as a Second Language classes are grossly overcrowded. But I also know that English language radio and television are easily accessible, that there are English-speakers with the courtesy and interest in diversity to carry on the initially-halting conversations from which the rudiments of the language can be learned, and that corporate America has the resources to help both staff and communities make the all-important transition to English-language proficiency.
Indeed, the responsibility to learn rests with each immigrant, but the largest helping hand must be extended by the country's corporations. Each company needs to dig deep to pay for English-language and accent reduction training for its staff and for people in the community. They need to see that this admittedly large initial investment will pay off in increased productivity, reduced workplace conflict and turnover, and, perhaps most important for the sake of the marketplace and the nation, increased customer satisfaction.
Sondra Thiederman is a speaker and author on diversity, bias-reduction, and cross-cultural issues. She is the author of Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace (Chicago: Dearborn Press, 2003) which is available at her web site or at www.Amazon.com. She can be contacted at:
Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
4585 48th Street
San Diego, CA 92115
Phones: 619-583-4478 / 800-858-4478
www.Thiederman.com / STPhD@Thiederman.com
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