The Language Barrier

Sitting in a unnamed downtown Mexican restaurant, staring at a diet Pepsi, a thought came to me about the importance of communication in the food service industry. Let me start out by saying that I don't believe that the government should be involved in forcing people to speak one language or another. Instead, I believe, economic forces will decide the language that people speak in the public square. When you purchase a meal, you put trust in the person who is taking your order and the people making your food. Things can go wrong without a common language if you ask for your food to be prepared a certain way. We've all had that awkward experience trying to explain to a server what you want and they leave before you're fully confident that they understood you. You have this feeling like you're in for an awful meal and you're going to either ask the server to take the food back or just deal with it and eat it. That's how I felt as I sipped the diet Pepsi knowing that I ordered a regular Pepsi. The waitress spoke very little English and when I ordered the daily special she gave me a puzzled look. I asked her if it came with chips and salsa she didn't nod or say no, she just walked away. Next, a server, I think it was a busboy, brought me a glass of water. I told him that I thought the daily special came with a soda. He said "Pepsi," that may have been one of the few words he knew that we both understood. I nodded and said yes. He left and came back with the diet. If it wasn't for the language barrier I might have found this insulting. One thing I learned in many years waiting tables, if you forget someone's drink order and you want to take a 50/50 chance, always bring out the regular. Handing someone a diet is like saying you need a diet. Not wanting to hassle this poor busboy again I just settled with the diet and waited for the meal. This must be how it is for almost every English speaking customer in this place. That's got to be terrible for getting return business. My suggestion to this restaurant and others is to hire bilingual servers. The waiter or waitress is the spokesperson for your restaurant to the customer. A downtown Salem restaurant, even a Mexican restaurant, has a large amount of English speaking customers such as myself. If these customers suffer the same food anxieties that I had as I waited for my tacos I can tell you they're less likely to come back. Another thing to do, is to have numbers for each item on the menu. Many ethnic restaurants like Japanese and Thai have a number next to each entree when the names are difficult to pronounce. Oregon has a large Hispanic population and there are places that I've eaten where I know that the majority of customers speak Spanish. I do expect when I go into these places that I should adapt and use as much of my limited Spanish as I know. So, the chips and salsa arrived at my table without problem and so did the tacos. When the bill came, I did notice that it was written in either short hand or chicken scratch. I wondered how a person who reads English or Spanish could figure out what it said.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Language barriers can be tough along with thick accents. I usually just find myself nodding.

Cool pic in the banner btw.

EazyMoney said...

I went to a place out on the coast for lunch one day. I ordered a budweiser in a bottle and got one fine no problem. So I ordered a second one when the food arrived as I had drank most of the first on while waiting on the food.

So the waitress come back with a bud light. ACK! Of course the waitress took off before I noticed, so had to wait a while before I could signal her. So she takes the budlight back, and disappears for like 5 minutes, then comes back with a bud select. Double ACK!! I'd have preferred the lite, but wanted just a regular ole Bud, they'd brought out one the first time. How hard could it be? I felt like a dork for sending back two beers, but I also hate it when I have a large meal in front of me and nothing to wash it down with as well.

Oh by the way this lady was Caucasian and spoke English just fine.

Anonymous said...

Why not mention the restaurant?

As you say, let the market decide. However, if the food is good enough and cheap enough for the downtown lunch crowd, the market will be forgiving.

That being aid, perhaps the lack of English is associated with the authenticity and tastiness of the food.

I like your site, good job. However, how about going to some of the fancier/pricier restaurants (J. James, Caruso's, Davinci's, Marton's, Macedonia, etc.) in town instead of the cheap ones??

Forget Dunkin Donuts and other familiar chains.

Check out the Dessert Diva in West Salem.

K & N said...

I've done the nodding myself, only to wonder what in the world I just ordered when the dish arrives . . .

Salem Man said...

I didn't name the restaurant because I think there are many restaurants in Salem that have this same situation.

DancingMooney said...

I totally agree with the number system on a menu. I hate when I want to order something and am afraid I may or may not get what i've asked for... blah!

Anonymous said...

A number system is great, but even that can fail! Heck, we've got that system at McDonald's, Burger King and other fast food places and no matter how many times you go through there, you're bound to be saying, "No, I ordered a number 2....not a number 6!"

I think it would be more of an expense for a place (especially if they're a Mom and Pop family-run joint) but clearly marked PICTURES with a pronunciation guide for authentically named cuisine would be best all around.