A view from the other side
My grandmother immigrated to America in 1957. She only spoke German and Hungarian, and didnt have many skills. So she became a cleaner.
While her friends and family spoke German, she felt compelled to learn English to better understand her employers and interact in society. As embarrassing as it was, each night she would ask my 10-year-old father what phrases meant and how to respond to questions she was asked. It was very important for her to become as American as she could, so she wouldnt feel uncomfortable in her own home town.
Until last year, I had never felt like I was a minority. I speak English. I am white. Everywhere I go, even overseas, I can find someone who speaks my language. But one day, when I worked on a cleaning crew, I learned the uneasiness that my grandmother wanted to avoid.
I was introduced to a bilingual supervisor and my all Spanish-speaking co-workers. I was told what to do and shown how to do it in English and then sent on my way. All of my co-workers chatted with one another as we cleaned a large arena. I just kept to myself and cleaned, not understanding what they said.
When I was cleaning the wrong thing, they couldnt explain the problem to me. I could only blankly stare at them as they tried to talk to me. Finally someone took my mop from me, took my arm and guided me to the right area.
All niceties of communication were lost and I felt very alone among these people. I couldnt apologize for my mistake. I couldnt thank them for helping or explain that Im not as difficult to work with as I might have seemed. I just quietly returned to my tasks.
The bilingual supervisor periodically checked on me, since I was a guest and not a regular worker. But I doubt if he would have done the same if I was just an ordinary employee.
Im sharing these stories so, as you read our cover story about the challenges an expanding immigrant work force presents, youll better understand how equally frustrating it can be for the workers.
And, once youve translated the necessary manuals and labels, you might want to consider how to attempt to connect with immigrants on your staff who may feel much more isolated than you realize.