Henry Higgins would have his hands full

EARLY ON A late-winter morning, a businessman waiting to board a flight at Boston's Logan Airport pulls out a cellphone and calls his secretary with an unusual request.

"Susan, it's Bill," he begins, in a voice loud enough for other passengers to hear. "Could you please call [a large international bank] in New York and ask them to stop sending those recorded voice-mail updates?" He explains that he can't understand the heavily accented English of the woman who records the messages.

Bill has plenty of company these days as the workplace becomes more diverse.

With growing numbers of foreign-born employees adding to the linguistic mix in service jobs - from fast-food workers and taxi drivers to store clerks, telemarketers, and customer-service representatives - Americans are finding more occasions when they must say, "Sorry, could you repeat that, please?"

Not so many years ago, employees with limited or heavily accented English were often confined to jobs that required little communication with customers - as busboys, for example, pouring water and clearing tables.

Today, in many restaurants, a capable immigrant is rightly hired as a waiter, not a busboy. Yet as he recites the day's specials, honing his English skills, customers must sometimes listen hard.

Linguistic frustration can be a two-way street. A Sri Lankan friend of mine who has lived in the United States for 30 years works as an airline reservation agent. Educated and articulate, he speaks in a rich voice, and his accented English is clear. Even so, callers sometimes say curtly, "Can I talk to someone who speaks better English?" The comment always stings. "It's pretty insulting," he says.

In a melting-pot culture, there's little excuse for that kind of prejudice and unwillingness to listen to someone from another country.

When language barriers test my patience, I sometimes mentally trade places with the worker I'm straining to understand. I try to imagine myself needing to earn a living in another country - Germany, say - and having to talk to customers and co-workers in my halting German. A boss would probably send me home the first day. (How do you say "You're fired" in German?) It's a humbling exercise.

Accents add rich texture to the fabric of language. How boring it would be if we all spoke exactly the same way. My Saturday morning rounds in the suburbs are enriched by exchanges with a Greek tailor, a Russian shoemaker, an Indian bank teller, a Brazilian waiter at a cafe, and a Vietnamese man at the cleaners.

Still, language remains a contentious issue. Even at prestigious universities, students sometimes complain that they can't understand foreign-born teaching assistants. That language gap can have serious consequences if their inability to grasp the subject lowers their grade and their overall grade point average. Similar problems have made headlines when patients and foreign-born doctors or pharmacists have misunderstood each other, leading to errors in treatment.

There are no simple solutions. Yet how can newcomers master English if they have no systematic way to learn? In many areas, waiting lists for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are long because of a shortage of teachers. Accent-reduction courses are also hard to find.

Henry Higgins, where are you? As the country's rich mix of languages grows, there's far more at stake here than simply teaching Eliza Doolittle how to say "the rain in Spain" in true upper-class fashion. In any language, "No comprendo" can be a frustrating, costly phrase, mitigated only by generous amounts of patience and goodwill on all sides.

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