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Archive for March, 2011

‘Magic’ Translation Glasses

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Recently, I saw a short video about a man who was given ‘magic’ glasses. When he put on the glasses he was able to see phrases over people’s heads that showed their current life concerns, like: “just had a fight with my girlfriend”, “just found out I have cancer”, “struggling at work”, “can’t pay my bills this month”, etc. The purpose of the video was to show that we can’t see what struggles someone may be going through, just by looking at them.  It suggested that we should consider there may be more underneath a person’s daily façade than you could possibly know. Basically, that we shouldn’t judge without really knowing someone and we should be kind to everyone no matter what the circumstances.

The video reminded me of how people judge others who speak another language without even thinking about the struggles that person may be going through.  What if there were ‘magic’ glasses that translated the thoughts of others? When you put on these glasses with non-English speakers, you might see: “feeling insecure because I can’t speak English well”, “wish I could talk to them”, “trying to get a job so I can support my family”, “miss my family in my native country”, etc.

Millions of people in the U.S. speak more than one language and approximately 337 different languages are spoken in the United States. It’s inevitable that everyone in this country has come across someone who may not speak English well. What do you think when you see or meet someone who has difficulty speaking English? Do you speak a little slower, so they can understand you? Are you patient with them, as they try to think of and pronounce the words they want to say to you? Do you realize how insecure they feel speaking in their second language? Do you think about how hard it is for them to find a good job or get promoted?

From a human perspective, we all want to be understood; whether we speak another language or not. We all have similar worries, dreams and hopes swimming around in our minds. No one lives their lives without joys and struggles. Moreover, our lives and the difficulties we experience are not any more or less important than the people we meet. Neither is there a time when we should consider ourselves better or less than any other human being. It’s a shame to see examples of times when people don’t realize this and put themselves on an exalted level at the suffering of someone else.

Unfortunately, I experienced an example of this when I was standing at the end of a line at an airport fast food establishment. A gentleman was placing his order and the counter person (being from India) had difficulty understanding what he was saying, because her English skills were poor. He loudly and angrily repeated the order. The poor woman behind the counter was so shaken by his yelling and obvious aggressive nature she ended up giving him the wrong order. He kept yelling at her and he finally said: “You dumb $%#@! You can’t even speak English! Go back to your country!” Believe it or not, things turned worse from there.

The people behind him in the line started to get aggravated that they had to wait, (it was only a few minutes that had passed). They started saying things, like: “Come on!” “Hurry Up!” “What’s taking so long?” Now, with everyone making the matter worse, it was as if the woman behind the counter was faced with an angry mob, all because of a lousy cheeseburger and fries.

Everything happened so fast, I felt I was almost in a state of shock. Looking back, I wish I had reacted faster to help this woman. Just as I started to go up to the counter and defend the woman, another worker came to her rescue. The Indian woman retreated through a back door. I imagined she went somewhere and cried or went straight home. Who knows how that experience affected her life?

I was so distraught after seeing this happen. I couldn’t believe that people could be so cruel, just because someone had a little difficulty understanding the language. If the counter person was having trouble understanding because of her language difficulties, the customer could have spoken slower or wrote down what he wanted. Instead, he automatically felt he was better than the worker and used his false sense of superiority to abuse the woman.

In reality, she may be fluent in more languages than the man at the counter and may even have an advanced degree from her country; but has to take an entry level job because she is still learning English. Maybe she fled her country due to violence or poverty. Maybe she works two jobs and studies English every day, so she can provide a better life for her child. Without the ‘magic’ translation glasses we never know what struggles someone may be going through (without asking).

What if everyone had these ‘magic’ translation glasses? Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had empathy or sympathy for others? Whether it’s how we look, how we speak or what we say. There would no language or other barriers between us. We would never judge others or be judged. It seems it would be a kinder world in which to live.